In this article, I’d like to share with you some of my observations about one all-pervasive aspect of life here in Spain – begging.
Lemming-like, thousands of wannabe Spaniards bid adieu to the grey cliffs of Dover every year and head for a new life in Iberia’s promised lands. Many times as many poor souls never make it past the travel section of their local library; paralysed as they are by the fear of failure. Yet no one need be denied a life of endless sunshine and cheap wine, and even the most ill-starred of life’s failures should not hesitate to take the plunge. For here in Spain there are a wealth of opportunities to scratch a living going begging.
George Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London that “if one looks closely, one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people.” When he left Spain after being wounded in the civil war Orwell understood that beggars are as much a part of Spanish society as bullfighting and the Church.
The Church is everywhere is Spain, and every church door is blessed with a beggar. To secure one of these positions it seems you need only turn up wearing a wretched expression and dirty clothing. The botafumeiro, the giant censer swung over the crowds of pilgrims at the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, was originally installed to combat the pungency of the unwashed multitudes. Today’s church beggars ensure that incense will remain a feature of Spanish church services for years to come.
The actual work involved in being a church beggar is easy. Simply hold out an old paper cup and nod appreciatively when a coin appears. Nodding is kept to a minimum as coins appear as infrequently as the worshipers in an English church come Sunday.
If the religious life holds no appeal, you could do worse than spend your last euro on a beer and a free lesson in another time-honoured begging technique. Pick any tapas bar and within a short time someone will drift by and place a cheap cigarette lighter and a written message on your table. The message would have you believe that the overweight man who put it there is in fact a starving immigrant or that the woman with more gold in her mouth than a conquistador’s knapsack cannot afford to feed her numerous kids.
It was the beggars in Seville who invented the cigarette in the fifteenth century by picking up discarded cigar ends and rolling them into Cigarillos. With a national habit of such long standing it is hardly surprising that the need for a light often outweighs the obvious discrepancy between the message and the beggar’s appearance. You realise how successful the technique is when you see the same people driving cars packed with their numberless children in other parts of the city.
With a decent suntan you might just pass as an immigrant and get away with the cigarette lighter scam, but unless you happen to be of Romany stock you’re unlikely to be mistaken for a gypsy. Without Spanish gypsies there would be no flamenco, no Carmen, a less robust oriental castanet and fan industry, and no hordes of corpulent women thrusting foliage into every tourist’s button hole.
You see, the Spanish enjoy traditions, especially during Semana Santa, the holy week of Easter. Then tradition dictates that the pious wear a sprig of rosemary. During Easter gypsy women across Spain will be found selling the genuine herb to the locals. At other times, when the demand for rosemary has dried up, they simply pull off handfuls of any local shrubbery. They rely on the fact that herbs now come freeze-dried or in little jars and that our ability to identify a particular herb rests solely on our ability to read what’s printed on the label.
Your average tourist, unable to distinguish between a sprig of rosemary and a privet twig, is easy prey. They can often be found near the cathedral clutching a handful of greenery and commenting on the unusual pungency of the rare Spanish herb that only minutes before was acting as a scent marker for any passing dog.
And if you have your own, preferably endearing dog, you might just win your audience’s sympathy vote; an important key to beggarly success. One very old couple’s “act” used to consist of a trumpet held together with black insulating tape and a small dog dressed in a flamenco outfit.
While the old woman stooped under the weight of a small wicker collection plate her husband attempted to extract a note or two from the trumpet. His lungs invariably proved unequal to the task and his staggering attempt to get air was often interpreted as an amateurish flamenco virtually guaranteed to lose him any sympathy his dog may have attracted.
While “playing” he encouraged the dog to “dance” on its hind legs by dangling it by the neck from its lead. Fortunately, age had robbed the old man of the strength needed to hold both the trumpet and the dog aloft for more than a few seconds and gravity always intervened to save the dog from suffocation. Unfortunately, few of those disposed to toss a coin onto the woman’s plate did so, fearful that the sudden increase in weight might cause her to topple over.
If you frown on animal exploitation, you still need never starve in Spain if you happen to have the slightest musical talent. Though every conceivable instrument can be heard in the streets of Spain, the perennial favourite is the piano accordion. Looking like extras from the set of a Roman Polanski film, accordion players can be found in tapas bars, in busy squares, and even playing the Madrid metro. Despite his diminutive frame the average accordion player carries across his chest a huge instrument which would not look out of place in the nave of Westminster Abbey. Nevertheless, a reasonably skilful accordion player, selecting his stage with care, can clear ten euros in as many minutes.
Readers might be interested to know that I have yet to find anyone currently playing the spoons in this country.
Non-musical types can take a lesson from a woman who haunts Seville’s old town and simply relies on her very Englishness to make a comfortable income. “Elizabeth”, as she calls herself, approaches obviously British tourists, and asks, “You’re not English by any chance, are you?”
Once the shared nationality is confirmed Elizabeth acts as though she has just found a cupful of water after three days lost in the desert. She tells of her arrival in the city that very morning and of how the friends she was to meet have been unexpectedly delayed for a day. Though the keys to their flat had been left beneath a predetermined plant pot there is no food in the flat and Elizabeth has lost her purse.
Appearing for all the world like an English gentlewoman, straight from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel, she asks if she might borrow a little money for a tiny bite to eat. She will of course forward the money to her saviour’s address as soon as she returns to England. The average tourist stays in Seville for two or three days and Elizabeth runs little risk of bumping into the same tourist twice. With sympathetic English tourists thick on the ground she will never starve.
If you’re a visitor to Spain expect to meet any or all of the types of people described, and many others. If you’ve done a little research and planning, have put fear and the library behind you, and are now an expat living in Spain, they will be part of your world. So when the Spanish sun’s sparkling on your glass of Rioja it’s worth reflecting, as Orwell did, that “a beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand.”