Feb 19, 2008

Civilized?

Surrounded by palm trees, dressed in light summer clothes, sporting dark sun glasses in the glaring and hot sunlight of Spain, we were totally enjoying the experience of being tourists. We didn't know a word Spanish, hardly knew where in the city we were, simply looking for the next store with cheap leather goods and moving single-mindedly towards it.

We almost tripped over the legless man on his homemade skateboard, propelling himself forward with his hands, a cup with money in it where his lap should have been.

"Spain is so uncivilized!" said one Norwegian in my group, offended at the sight of a beggar.[1]

In America I had seen physically handicapped people begging. Not often, but I had seen them. I have never seen them beg in Norway. I had never seen anyone beg in Norway. There was a good reason for it: Until 2006, begging was illegal here.

Now, I have given money to the city's "loose birds", as we say in Norwegian. The sort that huddle together on cold days, have nicotine-stained fingers, lots of gray hair and deep lines in their faces, and a constant need for alcohol. Sometimes I'll see one weaving along the sidewalk towards me, and sometimes I am able to have a bill ready to put in his hand. His eyes meet mine, and I get a clear and audible "thank you". I don't mind these guys. They have been around in this city longer than I have, and some may even have fought for this country's freedom.

I have also been known to give money to young drug addicts with just enough focus in their eyes to convince me they may actually use the cash to feed the dog they have with them.

The new crop of beggars, however, has managed to creep me out.

This past year, I - and many others in Bergen - have seen an increase in people holding out empty coffee cups of the kind that sit in a stack next to the ubiquitous self-service coffee machine now found in every newsstand and grocery store. This new crowd are younger men, less Norwegian-looking, and do not look you in the eye. They sit on their knees, knees resting on a plastic bag, arm resting on a knee, holding out a cardboard cup, eyes to the ground, face passive. They do not look dirty or sick or stoned, but they also do not look friendly or familiar. And so I find their presence disconcerting.

Since the beggars do nothing to disturb or disrupt, the police have had no reason to bother with them - until now. Now the city council has asked that the police find out exactly why so many beggars from primarily former east-block nations (and new EU-members) are currently kneeling on our sidewalks. The theories are many: They are organized criminals; they are slaves to organized criminals; they are decent but poor people who are supplementing their welfare checks from home.

I too want to know who they are, the silent ones who are now a part of my city. I want to know whether or not to give them some money, or to continue hurrying past them, grateful that they do not make eye contact.

[1] After joining the EU in 1986, Spain became a "civilized country" and the EU's fifth largest economy. Tourists no longer see Spain's handicapped begging - or cheap leather goods for sale.

2 comments:

Michele said...

Hi Keera Ann. This is a late comment to your interesting post. People in Sandefjord are starting to talk about the increasing number of local beggers such as you describe. And you describe them very well---here, too, they sit quite still, cup held out, eyes down. And it is disconcerting. I'm interested to see what officials in Bergen find out about who they are and what is their situation. Thanks for this post.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Hi, Michele! I understand that the new situation with beggars is affecting all of Norway. When I've discussed the matter with Norwegians here, they too have the same conflicted feelings about the beggars.