|A man of uncertain occupation enjoys a gelato|
The Crap Merchants. During the hours of daylight they attempt to sell you a rubbery ball with eyes and feet which, when dropped, splats itself into a gelatinous puddle before miraculously reconstituting itself. Over the course of twelve months I have seen perhaps two people actually stopping to buy these (and a tired-looking American tourist in a bar, trying - and failing - to replicate the effect for his son). And yet they're everywhere. After dark, the "splatty" things are replaced with a sort of flashing gyrocopter device which can be fired into the air from a catapult before slowly floating back to earth. The Crap Merchants are a pain in the arse. It doesn't matter if you are a middle-aged couple going about your business. You will still get hassled to buy a splatty rubber ball. And yet, strangely, the the minute there's a bout of heavy rain, The Crap Merchants transform into Useful Merchants who will try and sell you umbrellas. Now that's not a bad idea, which leads me to wonder why they don't just try and sell you useful stuff all the time?
Men with Roses. You used to see these guys in the UK. Typically if you're stopped for a drink or a bite to eat, a man with a bunch of roses will approach and try and get you to buy one for your partner. He won't take no for an answer, the idea being that sooner or later you will start to feel like the worst husband in the world for not buying one. Many people crack. I, however, am made of sterner stuff. We were out for a disappointing curry the other week and a Man with a Rose stopped at our table and practically watched us eat. I thought he was going to pull up a chair at one point but, after I'd handed back the tired-looking plant he dropped on my side plate he gave up and wandered off to the next table.
Buskers. A mixed bag. The chap who plays the lute on the Accademia bridge in the evening is worth a euro of anyone's money. At the other extreme there's The Worst Busker in the World, a dapper elderly gentleman who saws away tunelessly at an ancient violin on the Rio Tera Foscarini. He's recently reappeared after the winter break (in fact, we were a bit worried he was gone for good) and seems to have learned a different tune, bringing the number in his repertoire up to two. He's unfailingly polite, though, and in his own strange way he's also worthy of the occasional euro.
And then there are Those Who Don't Really Do Anything. For example, there's a chap who dresses up as Charlie Chaplin and hangs around the environs of the Accademia bridge. And that's it. He doesn't actually do anything apart from dressing up as Charlie Chaplin. Oh yes, he's a master of twirling his cane and standing in a vaguely Chaplinesque way, but that seems to be it. Presumably he must be making some money, but I can't help thinking that it's not what you'd really call an act.
Most cryptic of all, perhaps, is The Petition Against Drugs. If you have been to Venice you have probably encountered them, typically a small group of people who hang around Campiello San Vidal or Campo San Salvador. Initially you're asked if you speak English. If you answer yes, they ask you to sign a "petition against drugs". Now, most people in this situation will probably think that's a reasonable enough request, and will put their name down. At which point, having engaged you in conversation, they'll ask you for a donation, by which time you feel a bit embarrassed to say no and walk on ten euros lighter.
If you stop and think about it, a "petition against drugs" is so vague as to be meaningless, and how much weight is a petition signed almost exclusively by foreigners going to carry? It's the equivalent of those spam emails against drink-driving that circulate around the internet. If it's a scam, you don't want to part with ten euros; and even if it isn't, you'd be bankrupt within a month if you stopped and signed every time.
So what is it? Well, contrary to internet rumour, no, they're not going to pick your pockets while you sign. A Venetian acquaintance, whilst vague on the details, tells me that it is actually legitimate and related to some sort of drug rehab charity, even if their method of dragging you in is rather sharp practice. On the last occasion, hard-headed businessman that he is, he suggested to them that surely it would make practical economic and social sense to legalise all drugs. Since then, he has not been hassled further.
It's almost impossible not to get accosted by them. We've tried switching to Italian before the moment of contact. We've tried not speaking at all. We've repeated "signed, already" in both languages (and, in my case at least, through the medium of mime that I typically use for asking for the bill in restaurants) so many times that one of the girls now gives us a cheery wave and a Ciao. And then, last Sunday, we walked straight past them without even an Excuse Me or a Do you speak English. Never mind the Codice Fiscale, never mind the ID card, never mind the Tessera Sanitaria. We felt, at last, as if we truly belonged here. For we have walked unaccosted past the Petition Against Drugs people.