‘There is in Venice a beggar (oddly enough, despite all those tourists, you don’t see many, which is why they’re easy to recognise) who begs for alms in all six sestieri. He’s rather chubby and getting on in years; he wears a hat that is a tad too small for him, plays the panpipes – an instrument that betrays his southern origins – and displays to the compassionate gaze of passers-by a pale, plump plastic calf that emerges from a very short white sock. It is the cleanest leg I have ever seen, and I always stop to look at it. I give him a few coins to reward such cleanliness as well as the pleasant sound of his pipes. This eminently recognizable man, however, is quite different depending on whether he’s in San Marco, San Polo, Cannaregio, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro or Castello. In the first of these sestieri, he seems like a fraud or local con man preying on tourists; in the second, his ‘foreign’ terrone aspect seems more pronounced and he looks out of place; in the third he blends in so well that no one even notices that he’s begging for alms with his impeccable leg. It’s the setting that dictates how things appear, and so it isn’t the same seeing a tourist crossing the Rialto Bridge as it is seeing him cross one of the various Ponte delle Tette.’
The essay was first published in the late 1980s, but Venice is still not overpopulated with beggars. There is a growing number of single young African males, who tend to do their begging away from the main tourist centre (presumably to avoid the police), but as for the other, more traditional kind, they tend to be found near churches, and adopt the classical, abject kneeling stance, arm outstretched, a pose intended to arouse the deepest feelings of Christian shame and, hopefully, charity, and one which is shocking to witness in the twenty-first century.
I would argue that, contrary to Marías’ presumption, tourist zones are not good begging zones in general. Ask any indigent about this, or take my word for it. TOURISTS ARE NOT GIVERS. Beggars are far more likely to receive generosity from locals than from tourists in almost any of the tourist centres of Europe. The only exceptions to this rule are performers – and I am not talking about the bog-standard buskers or ‘perroflautas’ as the charming Spanish term has it (which can be translated literally as ‘dog and flute’, i.e. those beggars accompanied almost everywhere by a penny whistle and a mangy hound) – but magicians and jugglers and tightrope-walkers and fire-eaters (if there are any of these last remaining).
Marías’ second point, about setting being all, is worth picking up on. His itinerant beggar, who appears in slightly differing guises in different locations, is one I have met in various cities across Europe. But on reflection, doesn’t this mutability apply not only to beggars, or to tourists (on the Rialto or one of the Ponte delle tette), but to all who fit in between? That is, everyone? We all have the capacity for self-reinvention or re-assembly, of appearing in different guises, speaking in different voices, of being someone else depending on the place and context. Beggars such as the one Marías encountered in Venice, do not have a monopoly on this, they are just more easily noticed than the rest of us.
All of this must have seeped in on at some deep level, as I dream of a post-apocalyptic world, in which each group or family is allocated a space or island of the Venetian lagoon to settle: my group was allocated an islet, or part of a section of Cannaregio, which pleased me. But this pleasure was short-lived. When we landed there, all the alleyways and squares were empty, and we had to choose a house to live in, and once we broke in we had remove the bodies of the owners, who had perished during the disaster. There were no beggars in my dream. After the apocalypse, we will all be beggars.