Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Beggars and Belly Dancers

The sound behind us was the door closing.  The sight before us was our own darkened living room.  The smell around us was a musty two week old odor of inactivity.  The bones inside us felt like chalk, ready to crumble.

The above was a couple of nights ago. Michelle and I had just returned from an "interesting" cruise of the Mediterranean.  Following a 11, 12 or 13 hour drug-through-a-knothole flight from Barcelona (after five or six hours in the air, who's counting?) we both knew somewhere in our misery we had had a great time, but. . . . Since the strongest memories we carried with us at that moment were the most recent, viz, 1) nearly being sucked into the Egyptian revolution and 2) some severe "souvenirs" of flu, we both knew it would take a bit for the good memories to sift up from the carpet of bad memories.

Take begging, for example.  Michelle was all too familiar with the generic American born street beggar/bum type who panhandles quarters to support his smoke and booze habit but she had never before encountered the professional beggar class that are so common in southern Europe.  These, of course, are the Gypsies.  Forget Cher's hit song of Gypsies "wild and free" or Brian Hyland's memorable but equally mooney nonsense about a "lovely woman in motion, eyes as dark as night" dancing sensually around roaring campfires.   No, these Gypsies are ugly street hags, pure and simple.  These individuals haunt tourist stops and hound visitors and natives alike with their persistent appeals for alms.  Apparently, since they continue to beg year in and year out, someone in their family must always be starving or in need of dire medical attention.  In Italy they are known aptly as "mosquitoes."

Second to pilfering, begging is the main occupation of these colorfully dressed pests. One might imagine that after centuries of practice, these "ladies" would have become pretty adept in that line of work. But such is not the case. With a swaddled infant in her arms, a Gypsy when begging will normally assume the most pained and exaggerated expression imaginable--not even close to looking sincere. If one can envision a woman with her foot caught in a bear trap, then one will have a pretty good idea of what a Gypsy's face looks like when begging. I have noticed over the years that with so many languages floating about, a Gypsy will seldom use any understandable tongue when they approach you, but will instead utter some sort of agonized moan or groan when extending her hand for pity and cold hard cash.  The theory is, I suppose, that one groan covers all. 

Years ago I once saw two women in Greece hustling at different times of the day with the same baby. Although infants naturally tug hardest on a mark's heart strings, if no baby is handy almost any child under twelve will do. One time, my son and I stared in disbelief as a Gypsy carried an eight- or nine-year-old child who was almost as big as she. The large, squirming kid was obviously miserable and wanted down in the scorching heat but the woman struggled to hold him and beg at the same time. I have seen other women pounding the pavement in winter, begging in shirt sleeves, while thirty or forty yards behind another is carrying their coats. Apparently a lot of folks fall for such corn, else the Gypsies would have switched to a new scam long ago.

Next trip to Spain, Italy, Greece, or the Balkans, don't worry about hunting up Gypsies for a neat snapshot to show the folks back home--Gypsies will find you quick enough, trust me.

Take belly dancing for another example. Since our captain wisely decided to avoid Egypt, he instead set sail for Istanbul, Turkey, where we docked for two nights.  I have been there before but the fact is, I never enjoyed it more than with Michelle.  Although there had been some rowdy street demos in support of the Egyptian uprising, we had no hassles as we hoofed around the old city, haggling with vendors and sampling the wares.  I have always liked the Turks.  The cities are fun but In the small villages they treat visitors like honored guests.  One night in some now nameless hamlet, the entire town--mayor and police chief included--turned out to fete me with beer and dried artichoke leaves dipped in sheep's yogurt.  This went on until three in the morning.  Odd, but I had never seen a belly-dancer until this most recent visit to Turkey.  The lady in question was something--all the bells and whistles.  She was, of course, beautiful and shapely, serpentine in her movements; in fact, she was as liquid as olive oil, a true human art object.  But more than anything else, she was a wondrous and talented entertainer, interacting with the crowd, spoofing it up.

As we recover from the jet, the lag and the flu, the good memories like the above will squash the bad and we'll be ready to do it all over again.  When we do finally bounce back, we'll post some of the photos and videos on our face book accounts.


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