Within days of arriving in Gijon, I realized I needed to buy a change purse. In Tacoma, I was a debit card girl, never carrying cash. The small markets we shop in here in Gijon prefer cash and always seem to give us change in coins instead of paper bills.
Of course the change still feels as phony as Monopoly money to me because I’m not used to using Euros yet. It’s not difficult to pick out the silver and gold 1 and 2 Euro coins but the smaller brass and copper colored denominations all look the same to me, especially when my glasses are fogged up because of my mask. Consequently, I tend to use up the larger ones, rather than struggling to see what the other coins are while the line behind me grows longer. As a result, my new little coin purse is bursting at the seams when I leave the market.
Conveniently, there are usually one or two less-fortunate folks seated near the market that appreciate a few coins in the empty food containers at their feet. In Tacoma, the people asking for money usually appeared on a street corner with a cardboard sign, looking disheveled and leaning on a shopping basket filled with all of their belongings. Maybe as a result of socialized medicine or perhaps the availability of better programs for the marginalized members of the community, the down-and-out in Gijon appear far less scruffy. My judging mind never whispers, “drug-addict, steer clear!” when I see a quiet, clean-looking person with a small begging bowl.
In fact, one man who sits outside a small grocery store called Alimerka, wears a suit and sits on a small stool that he brings with him every day. The shoppers know him and greet him warmly, dropping a few coins in his little bowl either before or after grabbing their groceries. He is also popular with the Gijon dogs who have figured out he has dog biscuits in his pocket and drag their owners towards him when they get close to the store. He gives them their treats, and rubs behind their ears while the owners drop a few coins. I don’t know his story but he seems to be appreciated more than a Wal-Mart greeter, this self-appointed Alimerka concierge.
Another, who could be in her seventies and is one of the few women besides me with silver hair in this town, is always dressed in a simple black dress with a white sweater and standing in front of a ladies clothing store on Calle Corrida, a main walking thoroughfare closed to cars but filled with shoppers hurrying from one place to another. She repeats a plaintive mantra in a very sing song way that sticks in my mind even blocks away, “Una ayudina por favor.” (A little help please)
In Gijon, it is common for people to use diminutives of words so ayuda, or help, becomes ayudina. Pregunta, or question, becomes preguntina. “Perdona, una preguntina…” is a polite way of begging forgiveness of a stranger for the intrusion of asking just a “little” question. Guapa, a casual way to say beautiful, becomes, “Guapina” and is often used by the market vendors to greet their favorite customers, young and old alike.
Maybe because the beggar woman is a senior citizen or maybe because her black dress makes me think she’s a widow struggling to survive, or maybe because I can’t get her pleading mantra out of my head, I always share a few coins with her when I pass. She pauses her song for a moment to thank me, “Gracias, Guapina,” and then immediately returns to, “Una ayudina porfavor.” By contrast there are a few young men who mumble, “Ayudame,” (Help me) as I walk by and I’m rarely motivated to stop, feeling rather uncomfortable with their more impolite demands.
A young woman sits cross-legged in front of a storefront just a few blocks away from the silver haired woman. She always appears to be doing her homework, using a yellow highlighter to mark important passages in her book. While I rarely see anyone using signs here, she leans a cardboard sign against her backpack that says simply, “Situacion Precaria.” (Precarious Situation) I find I can’t walk away from that. She’s about the age of my own kids and my mind races with all of the scenarios that could have led to her precarious situation. She always gets a handful of my coins but it never feels like enough. My desire to scoop her up and rescue her wrestles with my more skeptical perspective as I slowly walk away. Maybe in time, I’ll find out more about her. Maybe another day I’ll have the courage to ask, “una preguntina.”
I pass these people so often, I think of them as my neighbors. Sesame Street’s theme song, “These are the people in my neighborhood…” comes to mind. I find myself looking for them in their regular spots, a ritual exchange of a few coins for a nod of gratitude or what used to be “Que tenga un buen dia,” (Have a good day) which has now evolved into “Hasta luego!” (See you later)
One young man, I have only seen once, but will never forget. He wore a T-shirt that read in big, bold English letters, “Inspire Someone.” I wondered if he knew what he was wearing or had become a street philosopher unwittingly. He stood near an empty fast-food container that had a few coins in it, talking on a cell phone. I’d like to think he wore the shirt that day to to encourage himself to visualize a life where he could help someone else instead of waiting for small coins to drop into a Styrofoam container so he could buy lunch. Maybe in fact, he was asking me to step up my game instead of quickly walking by with my head down, mind swirling with conflicting opinions. Admittedly, it took me some time that day to decide to help him and when I went back to look for him, he was gone.
As it turns out, though, he did inspire me. Since that day, I’ve eagerly helped the other people in my neighborhood by sharing my loose change. And since a few coins can buy a fresh loaf of bread, a bit of cheese or a piece of fruit here, I feel like I’m doing my part. Sometimes, divine inspiration appears in unexpected places.