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Thursday, 7 November 2013

Itinerant (Επαίτης)

Last Saturday morning, I came across this array of people in the town.

Once you move past the Agora in the town centre (where all distance measurements start from in Hania), you tend to be surrounded by a variety of people whose purpose to be on the road does not always seem clear. There are beggars, peddlers and traders of all sorts, people who ask you for a cigarette or your spare coins, others who wander in and out of shops telling the same old story, holding perhaps some cigarette lighters, pens and paper napkins for sale, and still others who don't open their mouths to speak to you or anyone else, but they speak instead with their eyes. As an orchestrated group of wandering vagrants, their visibility smacks of crisis, but it pays to remember that they were there before the crisis too; their actions may look crisis-related, but before the crisis, perhaps they were simply regarded as an oddity, whereas now they serve to remind us of how easy it is to fall into the trap of unemployment, hardship, poverty and homelessness.

We don't always look at the man in the dirty clothes sitting on a doorstep with his hands hidden in his hands, a cup set in front of him to catch the passersby's coins, even though we walk right past him, and we sense his presence. He's a common sight but he isn't original. The Charlie Chaplin make-up hides the identity of another beggar, but his purpose is all the same as the man wearing the dirty clothes. Yes, he has talent; but he's not on TV where he should be. He's out of place in a Mediterranean Greek seaside resort town. Personally I wonder what brought out the modestly dressed woman carrying a heavy bag on her shoulder, walking among all the outdoor diners seated on the footpath who are having a drink or eating souvlaki. "She looks just like me," I might say to myself, as I try to imagine her with children to feed, clothe and home (maybe they are waiting for her at home), as I watch her holding up cigarette lighters, pens and paper napkins, which she hopes to exchange for some coins. She is not a beggar; she has something to sell you, something that you think you might need, and she won't just take your money - she'll make you take something for it. 

But it may occur to you that none of these itinerants asks you directly for food; they only ask for money. Are they not hungry? They must be eating something if they are still on their feet. So, what do they eat? The man in the dirty clothes looks as though he only wants a smoke and some alcohol, perhaps to forget that he is hungry; Charlie Chaplin looks like a stick figure - he has to, to fit into his costume - so he doesn't need to eat much in the first place, and the lady selling the cigarette lighters, pens and paper napkins looks well-rounded, indicating that she is well-fed, leading one to believe that if she is indeed a mother, she is probably on a hi-carb food bank diet. Their food needs catered for, they are after something else. None of them need food. 
Beggars have always been a steady part of city life through the ages - the one pictured in the postcard is shown outside St Sophia in Constantinople, about a century ago.

Where do they sleep, these people? The man with the dirty clothes is probably sleeping on the floor in his clothes - that's why they're dirty. Charlie Chaplin seems to fare better - he's got to keep his costume in good nick, and he needs to wash his face, unliek the dirty man whose apparel suits the unwashed look. And the modestly dressed lady - she's clean and tidy, she's got a home to go to. No, it's neither the rent nor the food that my fellow townspeople need. They want to do something else with that money. We may have other priorities, but at least we are not hungry. And if it is a light winter, we will not get too cold.

I don't much go into the town these days, unless I really, really need to. Country life is so much more coveted these days. 

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