Jun 8, 2016

Women of Rome

I am always struck by the bold openness and love with which Amanda and Carmen approach the beggars on the street. One of the beggars we see today is a woman sitting on the sidewalk by a wall. Carmen reaches into Amanda’s bag, gets out a sandwich, and the both of them kneel on the ground to offer it to the woman. She is grateful, shakes their hands, but then holds up her plastic cup and then motions to her throat while saying something in Italian; Carmen gets out her pouch and puts in five euro. The girls introduce themselves and ask her for her name: “Lianna”. “From Italy?” “Romania,” she says, just like everyone else we’ve met: the man with dysfunctional limbs who begs on a skateboard, the woman in Trastevere with nine children. All this while I am standing beside Carmen and Amanda, too awkward and timid and afraid to say anything at all, too afraid I won’t understand anything Lianna says or won’t know how to communicate with her. But I have been very inspired by Carmen and Amanda these few days anyhow, and watching the way they interact with the people on the street has changed my perspective on how I can help people back in Singapore. The beggars do need money, but showing love is about so much more.

A group of Italians walk by: “No no no no no!” a woman shouts, wagging her finger at Amanda. From the few Italians I’ve talked to, they generally strongly dislike the Romanians in their land. “They’re either beggars or thieves,” said the woman who helped me speak to the police the day my valuables were stolen. She said the guys who stole my stuff were Romanians, too. My passport, laptop, money, all gone because of a clever trick.

We wait for the group to pass by, keeping our gaze down. “Do you want to pray with her?” Carmen asks Amanda when they leave, and Amanda holds both Lianna’s hands, bows her head in silent prayer. Lianna slowly begins to pray, quietly, with petition and sorrowful sincerity. It feels like a song, a beautiful trance almost, with its trembling crescendos and whispers. At last she says “amen”, and takes our hands, kissing them in turn. Amanda makes the sign of the cross on Lianna’s forehead with her thumb.

Another woman we meet on our way back is sitting by a lamppost. She looks up at each passer-by, raising her cupped right hand half-heartedly, a not-too-pleasant look on her face. “I have one more,” Carmen says, and puts down her bag to retrieve a sandwich wrapped in aluminium foil. She thanks Carmen as the girls kneel before her, raises her cup, asks for money. “I’m sorry, I have none,” Carmen says; the woman graciously smiles and puts her cup down. They ask her for her name. “Eleanor,” she says. We note among ourselves later that it sounds like Helena, mother of Constantine.

While we’re waiting for the tram to go back home, an older lady walks towards an empty seat. She is well-dressed and has obviously taken the effort to look beautiful, as Italian women are accustomed to dressing (note for anyone planning to come to Rome: don’t dress shabbily!), but her slow hobbling gives her age away. Another woman takes her seat, so I get up and offer her mine. A waterfall of words immediately burst forth; in the most energetic-yet-tender grandmotherly way, she basically says something to the effect of “no, don’t get up for me; there’s enough space, here, we can share”. I don’t understand a word but I guess from the way she makes space on the bench and the tinkling tone of her voice, so I squeeze on the bench between her and Amanda and smile. She continues speaking, though, a continuous gushing of friendly words. Her speech is a gentle cascading of jewels, glinting as they fall lightly into a stream, but I don’t have the slightest clue what she’s talking about. I’ve heard that the best thing to do in a situation like that is to smile, so I do, really widely. I don’t know what to say so I laugh. Eventually she comes to something that sounds like a question, and as she looks at me expectantly I am given away: “I’m… sorry… I don’t understand…” “No?” she says. She responds one last time in Italian. Later Carmen tells me that her last sentence was “Even though I cannot speak to you, I understand the language of your laughter.”

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