My friend and I are sitting in a cafe in Sicily enjoying the warmth and the coffee on a particularly and unusually (for Sicily) cold day. I see her look up. She says , in a low voice , “Here comes a vendor.” Before I could ask her to elaborate, I look up and right beside be is a full-figured woman, her hair beautifully wrapped and her arms laden with cheap plastic bracelets and various other trinkets that she, along with many other “Vu Cumpra” , sell on the beaches and on the streets of nearly every Italian town and city in which refugees have made their home. In fact, I have met up with this woman, who has never told me her name, many, many times in the past. The routine is nearly always the same, her approach unfailingly cheerful and high-spirited. It goes something like this:
“Where are you from?” “What is your name?” Then: “I would like to give you a gift!”
Before I know it, as in the past, she has placed a bracelet on my wrist, tossed a trinket into my lap, or otherwise has placed one of her wares so near me and with such seemingly good intentions that to deny her the pleasure of bestowing the “gift” would seem crass, a gross social faux pas, at the very least, mean. At first I mildly protest, and then am ashamed of myself. She has given me a charm called a “cornicello”—in this case, it is a small bunch of “cornicelli”, which is an amulet said to ward off the evil eye and fashioned after a red pepper which it is often and understandably mistaken for. She insists. I lean over to grab the wallet from my bag to look for change. I find a 2 Euro coin which I give her. She winks at me, smiles widely. She seems to recognize my companion, who , in fact, says she came in contact with her a few days ago. The woman, a Senegalese refugee , does not attempt to give her a gift. Just me, since she has not seen me in a while. Once the coin is in her hands, she leaves as gracefully as she entered, wishing us wishes for a good New Year. “Auguri!” she calls softly. “Buon Anno!” her voice trails as her eyes dart around the crowded cafe, looking for another opportunity.
As annoying as these interactions are, I understand them and I hate the story behind them. It is not the first time I have been “gifted” an item from her. In fact, I have a growing collection of these trinkets in a box at home. I say “growing” because I will never not accept what I am offered. Really, what does it cost me? The Senegalese are an extremely enterprising immigrant population in Italy—and are said to be the most hard working and, as a result, the most successful. I admire them for so very many reasons. And while their appearance while eating dinner or deep in conversation over coffee while with a friend, can be jarring—they often seem to come out of nowhere, they are trying to make a living. This is not the work that they would like to do, most of whom are educated people. It is not easy to ingratiate yourself to people who you know will not want what you sell, who have no need for the cheap trinkets, poorly made ( and illegal ) knockoffs, but until something better comes along, IF , in fact, something better comes along, this is what they do.
So when they ask “Vu Cumpra?” (roughly, “you buy?”), go ahead and buy.