Whenever I would talk to someone who had been to Italy, one of the things they would always mention were the gypsies: sneaky people who trick tourists so they can pick-pocket them. In Italy, gypsies are just another part of the culture. Up until this trip, gypsies had always seemed like fantasy characters (Esmerelda from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” always popped into my head) who seemed so far away and so imaginary that they could not possibly be part of reality. I could only imagine what they would look and act like during their daily lives. Coming into this trip, I only knew to watch out for these people and to always be aware of my surroundings and how my bag was positioned. The problem was I could not distinguish who to watch out for.
During one of my first walks down the Ponte Vecchio, I saw my first gypsy. She was an old woman wearing a long cloak, with a cane in one hand and a plastic cup in the other, imploring people on the bridge in a gravely voice (and in Italian) to spare her some change. She kind of reminded me of the “Feed the Birds” lady from Mary Poppins, only she was a little older and a bit leaner, and somewhat more threatening. I had always been told to just walk right past the gypsies and not make eye contact. My uncle, who has traveled around Europe quite extensively, told me I have no good friends living in Italy, and I should be aware of these people, but not react to them. I recently was told by one of my roommates that this same lady hit one of her friends on the back of her legs with the cane and knocked her over.
Yesterday, I had my first close-up encounter with a gypsy. After class, I went to a cafe down the street from my school for a bagel and a cappuccino. After I ordered, I pulled out my wallet to take out my meal ticket. All of a sudden, I heard a loud knock on the window. I looked and I saw an old woman smiling and waving at me like she knew me. I turned away, thinking she was waving at some other person in the cafe. A few seconds later, I heard another loud knock, this time on the window near the door. Again, this woman waved and smiled at me like she had known me for years. She then walked in and came right up to me. Noticing I still had my wallet out, I automatically moved to put it away, especially when I noticed the plastic cup in her hand. I knew right away that she was a gypsy, and she was just trying to get my attention. She was about as tall as I am since she was a little hunched over (and I only stand at about 4’ 9”, so she was pretty tiny). Immediately, in an overly sweet and almost whiny voice, she started imploring me in Italian to lend her some money. She even pointed at a panini in the glass case under the counter as if to say she was going to use the money to buy that. I did not understand what she was saying, but continued to repeat “No,” and shake my head. I knew she would understand this because the word “no” is the same in all the Romantic languages. Her voice started to get more whiny as each of her questions was met with a solid “No.” After a few minutes of this back and forth, she decided to move onto another person in line, tapping them on the shoulder. This person just ignored her, so she moved on. I didn’t see where she went after that, but I was glad she was gone. One of my friends happened to be at the cafe and agreed to stay with me while I ate, especially since I was a little creeped out by the old gypsy woman.
Even though this encounter was minor to a lot of others I have heard about, I feel like I learned from it and know how to keep a cool head and how to react in the future. I know I’ll probably encounter more gypsies during my time here, but I have confidence I will be able to handle myself in those situations and get through them safely. I still do not know exactly who to watch out for, as I am trying not to stereotype who is a gypsy and who is not. However, I have heard enough about their tricks, so I hopefully will not be caught off guard.
If you have any questions about my study abroad experience or about St. Michael’s life, do not hesitate to contact me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Tweet me (LittleLizzie33) or ask me a question on Formspring (lizmurray3). My internet capabilities are a bit limited in my current living situation, but I will try to answer whatever questions you might have as quickly as possible and as well as I can.