The Daily Telegraph - Travel

Peregrinat­ions

A beggar with a budgie – I couldn’t say no

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Anthony Peregrine

As I left the cathedral in Syracuse the other day, I came upon a beggar. This was not unusual. It sometimes seems that beggars are the only regular churchgoer­s left. Less usual was that, in place of the statutory dog or infant in swaddling clothes, she had a budgie. Obviously, I gave her 50 cents. Then I said: “But don’t spend it on bird seed!” I spoke in English and she looked Sicilian, so she didn’t understand, but I immediatel­y felt a fool. Handing over half a euro scarcely entitles one to favour a lady with economic advice.

This did once again, though, raise the question: do we give to beggars when travelling? In place of a policy, I have whimsical reactions. The budgie worked. So did the sign next to a shaggy fellow on the pavement in Nice earlier this year: “At least I don’t break your ears by playing a b----accordion!” Sometimes, in short, I give to people – more usually if they’re women or old or have appealing domestic animals – and sometimes I stride straight by, as if personally affronted. There’s no logic involved.

I know all the arguments against: that one is not so much alleviatin­g as reinforcin­g misery or dependence on drink and dope; that there may be a controllin­g svengali in the background; that some beggars are actually coining it, travelling to their positions by limousine. I’m aware also that one should, rather, give cash to homeless charities – and food to beggars. But I wasn’t in Sicily to effect social policy or walk around with a sackful of fruit. I was visiting classic sites; mendicity was a momentary concern. Experience has anyway taught me that beggars are rarely grateful for a grapefruit.

And, frankly, these “arguments against” sounded like excuses. OK, the cash might go to the svengali or to nourish addictions. But it might not. Neither you nor I know for sure. It’s perhaps a risk worth taking for 50 cents, or even an entire euro. And even the controlled and/or addicted need to get through the day. Lord knows what happens when some poor devil returns to the svengali cashless, but it’s unlikely to be edifying. As I walked away from the woman and her budgie, I also thought, as I often do when I’m thinking at all, that there, but for luck and privilege, squat I.

So that afternoon, in Syracuse and then Catania, I gave 50 cents to almost every beggar I encountere­d, all bar the annoyingly insistent ones. Back at the hotel in the evening, I found I’d given exactly what it cost me for a (large) scotch at the hotel bar. I can probably live with that.

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