A common scam that we had been warned about was people walking up to you on the streets of Rome and offering you something seemingly for free. They would give you some spiel about the item — usually a flower — and then pretend that it was free. Seconds later, they would turn around and ask for money for the item. If you didn’t give them money, they would make a big deal about it and claim that you were not paying for something you were buying.
Three days into our trip to Italy, a large man approached me on the street. He was wearing a multi-colored hat similar to the ones you see on the typical Jamaican man. He raised his hand for a high-five while asking where I was from. “Don’t,” I said as I raised a finger to his face. The look on his face went from a big, bright smile to one of disgust. He turned around and kept walking the other way.
Yeah, I felt like a jerk, but it was for a good reason.
Two days earlier, my wife and I took an evening stroll near the Colosseum. As we were looking at some ruins, a Black man approached us. He had a big smile on his face as he shook my hand. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“Mexico,” I said. I half expected him to think that I only spoke Spanish and walk away.
“Oh, my father lives in Mexico City,” he said, keeping his smile. He then looked at my wife. “Where are you from?” he asked her.
“America,” my wife answered.
“Oh, my father lives in California,” he said.
My “spidey sense” began broadcasting.
He started giving us a spiel about how he was from Senegal, a refugee, and he was trying to make a living in Rome. As he gave us this spiel, he put some bracelets on my wrist and then repeated the procedure with my wife. He asked us if we had any children, to which we said no. He then said that the bracelets were good luck charms for having children, and that we could keep them as tokens of his good wishes for us. The bracelets were little bead bracelets around an elastic band, with the beads yellow, red, green and black.
We smiled, thanked him, and started walking away.
Seconds later, he caught up to us again. “My wife is pregnant,” he said. “She’s having a baby and we’re having a party for her. Can you give me something for the baby?” he asked. We looked at each other, then at him.
“No, sorry,” I said. “I don’t have any cash on me,” I explained.
He glared at us and demanded we give him back the bracelets, so we did. He then walked away to look for the next unsuspecting tourist.
I don’t know how much of his story was true. I don’t know if he was a refugee from Africa or an immigrant from Jamaica. I don’t know anything about him, but I did wonder why he did what he did. The way things are in Europe with regards to immigrants, it wouldn’t surprise me if he really had no opportunities for making money other than to sell/scam on the street. We’d see other young Black men on the streets of other cities selling items on the street or, as the man on the third day did, trying to play the same game as the guy on the first day did.
In Venice, young Black men just stood at corners with hats held in front of them. I wanted to know their story, because Venice is not a cheap city to live in or even visit. I wondered how they got there. Where they offered work and then abandoned? Were they on their way deeper into Europe? Did they commute in for the cash and then go back to the mainland at the end of the day? I’ll never know.
After we returned home, my wife was doing the laundry when she noticed that there was something in my pants pocket. She pulled it out:
She looked at me and I smiled. Hey, I wasn’t leaving Rome without a souvenir.
“A fake Jamaican took every last dime with that scam / It was worth it just to learn some sleight of hand.” – Modest Mouse, Float On
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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