I was lucky enough to spend a month of my summer this year travelling in Europe and before we left, among my family’s monotonous reminders of ‘don’t forget to eat, drink and keep yourself safe!’ (apparently human survival instinct doesn’t exist in European cities) were persistent reminders of the child street gangs and pick pockets on the metro. Fortunately we fell victim to neither of these, we did however have a run in with a seemingly charming bracelet peddler from Senegal. I wanted to share this incident as thinking about it now, it’s hard to match the incident’s seeming triviality with the utmost dismay and embarrassment we felt at the time.
Milan wasn’t the most exciting of cities, culture-wise; it’s the industrial capital of Italy full of tower block offices and fancy designer shops. We struggled to find things to do. If we hadn’t been so stingy with our budget this would have been less of an issue however as it was, we visited the Cathedral – Duomo Di Milano (free) and window-shopped a bit (also free). We then ate gelato (not free). If you don’t know, Gelato is Italy’s version of ice cream. As we sat there – an ice cream eating, pasty looking (minus my burnt scalp), English speaking couple we were easy prey for any street seller.
Our predator was a man selling ‘bracelets’ (‘string’ would be more accurate). I naively thought a pleasant ‘no thank you’ would be enough for this string-yielding man to disappear, this was not the case. Our cue to remove ourselves from the bench and quickly walk away was his ‘Hello! I’m your friend from Senegal!’ And yet I fell into his trap and read ‘friend’ as the cue to start telling him all about where we were from, our trip etc. I realised I had been a little too open with my friendliness when he sat down next to us, reached for my wrist and starting saying ‘a bracelet? It will compliment your eyes’ or some similar ball! Here, I stopped sharing my life story and he instantaneously read my unease. He looked insulted when we suggested it was money he was after insisted he was our ‘friend’. Next thing I knew he had practically grabbed my wrist and with some sleight of hand a knot was tied!
We legged it. Our ‘friend’ had turned into a most definite ‘fiend!’ Gone were the niceties, he whipped out his wallet and as he followed us at pace down the street he rubbed his fingers together in that crude gesture for cash. Panicking at his aggression, I hurriedly dropped a one euro coin into his wallet. We walked hurriedly away, hoping that he would stop following us. And just to add injury, I caught the eye of a local sat across the street, a smug grin plastered all over his face. He had clearly witnessed the whole fiasco.
Our distress eventually subsided once we were in Rome, fully recovered. We felt invincible, bouncing along ignoring, laughing and on occasion almost shouting at the men shoving tacky, fake roses in our faces. We’d created an elevated image of ourselves thinking that after two weeks in Europe and, having been victim of their tricks, we were now street seller savvy! As we sat on the Spanish Steps, smug grins now plastered on our faces, we repeatedly watched the same scene, a delighted child’s face as they were handed a rose, their excited skips over to their parents showing them the gift they’d been given and then their dismay when they realised the rose seller was following, angling for payment by rubbing their thumb and forefingers together in that familiar gesture. Of course no money was ever exchanged and roses were repeatedly plucked out of the child’s grasp. Our cruel amusement was tarnished when watching the rose seller more closely. His hope when a rose was taken, desperation when pushing for payment and then dejection and sometimes anger as they were forced to walk away empty handed and move on to their next victim. Although we laughed, this sad and monotonous scene was the street vendor’s reality of their livelihood forced to deceive young and, now not so naïve, student travellers.
Written by Laura Peatey.