Often to make sense of an experience I will contrast it with something similar, something I know. This is human nature, I suppose. I, personally, do this on both a conscious and subconscious level. And yet, when doing ethnography, I know how important it is to just observe a situation as it is. And I do that too. But there is one thing that I still find incredibly interesting. And that is how many Sicilians that I have both observed and encountered treat panhandlers, beggars or whatever one calls someone who is asking for something they need or want with utter respect and patience. I cannot say the same for those of us on the streets of Philadelphia. (I aim here not to be offensive and intend no offence when using these terms.) In a society that I have come to know as somewhat “tolerant” of those on the “outside” but lacking any kind of “integration” (though I have desperately looked for it) I am awestruck by the way in which they treat “beggars”: with the most quiet patience and respect I have ever seen.
Of particular and fascination to me are the “rose sellers”—the men, usually of South Asian origin, who patiently and with great dignity, clutch bouquets of roses of various colors offering them, for a price, to those who seem approachable and to those who don’t. They enter churches, restaurants, galleries, caffe’s and everywhere people gather. These men are gentle and quiet. And while I have never personally seen anyone actually buy a rose, I am certain they do. Most like tourists on romantic vacations, or maybe young lovers or just the young—caught up in the moment and in need of something beautiful.
I recently had dinner with a good friend and her daughter in a popular and busy restaurant in Sicily. We were seated in a small room where we were basically all bumped up against one another. The food was delicious, the mood was festive, the noise level high, the atmosphere rather raucous. A young child in the corner was having a meltdown the likes of which I have never seen as her parents and extended family ignored her. The long table next to us had about 8 twenty something’s drinking and having a good time. My entrée had been forgotten but my friend assured me with a gentle pat on my hand that “it would come.” In the midst of what felt like utter chaos, in walks a rose seller. He enters the small room that we were in with the child screaming, waiters with huge trays hoisted right above our heads and the loud laughter of the twenty something’s , smiling, gently proffering his roses.
This scenario would not, could not happen in, say, Philadelphia. People do not tolerate peddlers or beggars in places where they are paying for a service. They barely tolerate them on the street. And yet, these impeccably dressed Italians did not show a single twinge of irritation or anger. Believe me, I looked. The scene, for just a few brief moments was nothing short of utterly bizarre—a weird sort of circus. But of course, I was the only one who thought that it was.
While the scene was strange and wondrous and the roses fresh and beautiful in their simplicity, the story behind the rose sellers is not a pretty one. These men and others like them are victims of human trafficking and probably earn very little of what they actually make and of course, that is not the worst of it, but that is a story for another post.
When I expressed surprise to my friend Lucia at the patience with which everyone treats the ubiquitous sellers, all from different countries, who approach with a smile and without fear, it was her turn to be surprised. She looked at me as if she couldn’t believe my statement. Quite simply, picking up her espresso and taking a sip she shrugged lightly and said, “They are trying to make a living, so what is the problem?” Indeed.
It is something I thing about every day.