The Daily Telegraph - Travel
A beggar with a budgie – I couldn’t say no
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.