Since opening my new studio I’ve been working long hours finalizing lots of little details for the shop, writing, promoting, designing, practicing my craft of making jewelry again, and hoping for someone to come in to purchase something so I can pay my rent and other bills. At the same time I’m also doing a lot of this simply for my passion of being creative and to help others without expectation of being paid, like when I give computer lessons to my friends in need while helping them set up their own websites to promote their services so they can also get some more work.
Since living in Italy I’ve lived a very frugal life, in spite of the traveling I’ve done while here. If you follow me on Facebook and think I’m living quite the life while you’re stuck at home with too many bills in a big house with your 2.5 kids going to private school and driving an SUV to go for a long weekend to Barcelona, please realize that those few days I did in July were my only real days off since Christmas when I had family visiting and got to travel with them (and they footed that bill). The reality is that I have a very tight budget, I get paid once a year at my university job that I started last year, and everything else I do to pay bills is because of my freelance work or my travel business which is more seasonal.
I was fortunate last year to have some help from a family member or else I’d be out on the street figuring out how to hustle anything I could do legally to survive and stay afloat while still teaching with a 1.5 hr commute one-way to teach a 2-hr class. Fortunately this year’s contract and schedule starting on Monday will be better, but I still won’t see a paycheck until late January or February.
So when I see able-bodied immigrants (strong young men) who stand outside the supermarkets with a cup begging for money or the poor women begging in the streets while they teach their children how to do the same, I’m a mix of emotions because I strongly feel that if it were me in that situation I’d do whatever I could to work vs. beg.
I’m privileged, I know. I have a choice and if shit got really bad I could go back to the USA. I would never be considered an immigrant by some who would say I’m an ex-pat because of my status. Yet, like them, I came here looking for a different life, although one could argue they were looking for a better life.
Regardless of status, there’s another group of the less-fortunate who live amongst us here in Italy. This other group, usually immigrants, are referred to as gypsies. In America, to be a “gypsy” almost has a romantic quality to it – carefree, nomadic, sort of wild, and adventurous. Here in Italy, to be a gypsy (zingaro/a) has a derogatory connotation. Many here I know of are from Romania, they blend in fairly well unlike the African immigrants selling knock-off handbags on the sidewalk, and the Romanian gypsies are known often as thieves. I’ve seen them shoplifting in the street markets and had my somewhat new iPhone pickpocketed by one when I was still living in Rome. How do I know who it was? Well, I had a custom case on it with my logo and they tracked me down online and attempted to steal my identity so they could break into the phone to unlock it.
Fortunately I’m not completely stupid and was able to not only secure that from happening, but also learn exactly who it was and I reported my findings to the police. They told me not to say anything publicly about his identity so they could do the investigation that never happened. It really pissed me off and I try not to think about it because I work hard to have money to buy nice things for myself to last a really long time. Not to mention I feared for a while that someone could have been watching me where I lived in attempts to gain more info about me. So one could say that my lack of faith in the police here is unfortunately jaded and I certainly don’t have much trust in the gypsies.
So this morning, around 11am, while I’m working at the studio a young gypsy girl came in to sell me a lighter. “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” I insisted I wasn’t going to give her money for the cigarette lighters she was trying to sell to raise a little money. If it were something I wanted and needed AND had plenty of money to give, then sure I might have bought one. I’m sorry for those who are more compassionate than me, but this kind of activity when you’re a shop owner rather than someone walking in the street only teaches her to come back to beg again and again if I were to give her the money. My dog has learned this trick from every restaurant that gives her food here.
I almost had her back out of the door before she noticed some of the shiny jewelry I’ve made in the display case. “Ooh, how much are those?” pointing to the dangling Sterling silver earrings with coral and pearls. “75,” I answered. She reaches into her pocket to pull out some money. For a split second I thought this was just great, she’s got tons of money to spend on jewelry while panhandling cigarette lighters. Then I saw what she offered – a handful of change not even worth 3 euro.
“No, it’s 75 euro, not cents. That’s not enough.” She could barely count it and thrust her hand out to me. I repeated, “These earrings are real Sterling silver. They cost 75 EURO, not cents.”
Undeterred she started looking around better at what is in the studio shop. She saw some other little earrings, not in silver, and are made by my friend who was not there. These she could touch easily when they weren’t locked behind the glass door. “How much are these?”