Friday, February 8, 2008

Roman Beggars and American Panhandlers

One of the downsides of life in Rome is the incredible number of beggars on the streets. Of course panhandlers are all over Baltimore, and every large American city. But somehow here in Rome it's different, and I've been reflecting on why.

It seems to me that in America panhandlers want to present themselves to you as people; in a very American way, they want to make a personal connection, tell you their story (even if it's a made-up story), let you know that they are just temporarily down on their luck and if you'll just give them bus fare they will be transformed into an upstanding fellow-citizens.

Roman beggars, on the other hand, strike me as engaged in an elaborate ritual activity centered around making themselves abject before you (it works even better if one has an obvious physical handicap). Though they want to make eye contact, to hook you, they then quickly duck their heads and launch into a kind of liturgy of begging that is utterly depersonalized, carried out in a sing-song voice that verges on chant. There is no implication that if you give them the loose change in your pocket that their lives will turn around. Rather, they are there like permanent features of the landscape, as if they have been on that particular street corner since the days of the Roman Republic, engaged in their ancient ritual of abjection. You give to them (if you give) in the same way you respond E con il tuo spirito to Il Signore sia con voi.

I'm not exactly sure why, but the Roman form of begging makes me much less inclined to give. I guess it just shows how American I am: the American form of begging works better on me; I like to think I'm making a personal connection by helping out a person in temporary need (even if I suspect that's not really the case).

I realizes that blogging about beggars isn't very frolicsome, but the difference between Roman beggars and American panhandlers gives me something to reflect on this Lent, when we are supposed to engage in almsgiving.


Mike said...


Nice, thought-provoking post. Although I don't have much experience traveling outside the U.S., I think I have a sense of what you are talking about. My own thought is that beggars in other countries seem so foreign from other people within the country. Perhaps this is partly due to the probability that many beggars in Europe are of a distinct ethnic background (such as, for example, Roma (i.e. "gypsy")), whereas in the U.S., most beggars seem to be either white or black, and thus more like people we are accustomed to seeing in our everyday lives.

I am usually caught off guard when approached by a beggar. Whether or not I give money, I feel somehow uneasy and saddened by the realization of the gulf that separates me from the person. Although I have thought about adopting a steadfast policy (for example, avoid handouts, but instead give to an organization that aids the homeless), I still find myself feeling uneasy when confronted with a request for money on the street.


Papa/Dad said...

I believe giving to a known charity is the best way, but that doesn't lessen the discomfort of trying to ignore the person in front of you. Pittsburgh urges people not to give to lessen crime & to avoid supporting drinking & drug problems. Love to 1 & all PapaDad

Anonymous said...

I sense that beggers in Europe are more professional in the task, and as Mike points out appearing as a caste, whereas American beggers are much more amateurish and not seriously committed to it as a lifetime task. Thus, Americans are much more put off to the European begger, recognizing the professionalism in the approach.