The homeless population in Avignon is strikingly different from the one I observed in Rome. In Rome, the homeless were mostly gypsies, African immigrants, or middle aged to elderly men (assumed drunks with bloated faces, bulbous noses, and scraggly beards). In Rome, each homeless person had what I took to be his or her “post,” the location in which he or she would spend the day, sometimes with a sign explaining the need for money. The gypsies would be crouched with cupped palms; the African immigrants would often sweep a stretch of sidewalk, extending a dish in hopes of compensation for their services; and the Italian men would simply sit, sometimes with a sign asserting that they were Italian and thus the most deserving of money (yikes). We were in Rome from January through March, and then again from July through August. The homeless I saw in the winter months were in the same positions, the same postings when we returned in the late summer.
In Avignon, the homeless population is far more edgy, creative, and frightening. They are often men, with skin tanned to a leathery consistency and coated in tattoos. Their clothes are tattered and tough, though it is difficult to discern whether this is by circumstance or a punk stylistic preference. Often, they exhibit counter-cultural hairstyles, such as mohawks or dreadlocks. This population, unlike its stagnant, Italian counterpart, is ever-shifting. There is a grocery store I frequent, Monoprix, on the Rue de la Republique. Outside this store, there is a homeless post. The occupant of this post changes daily, almost as if it were an especially lucrative position and thus subdivided into time slots. No matter the occupant of this post, he is sure to have a creative twist that attracts my attention. One occupant had a set of sidewalk chalk and spent the hours drawing a colorful, rainbow doodle. Another man sat, he and his begging cap adorned with sprigs of rosemary. (For what purpose? Your guess is as good as mine.) Yesterday the occupant sat behind a small, creepy doll, one that he evidently constructed out of stuffed pantyhose, a sharpie-d on face, and toddlers’ clothing. The occupant himself was either sleeping or otherwise engaged, but this infant/doll wore a perpetual smile (extended to those exiting the grocery store) and held a cup in hopes of spare change. It was the most horrifying yet creative attempt I have seen by a homeless man – he didn’t just create a sign claiming he had a child to feed, he in fact created a child/doll to do the asking for him!
Another observation of a homeless man occurred within a separate grocery store on the Rue de la Republique. This grocery store, Carrefour City, is often a host to the homeless after they collect their daily earnings. The cashiers in this store are always courteous, allowing the men to leave their carts or belongings near the register as they shop. On this particular day, however, an exception took place. A heavily tattooed and odorous man in a khaki vest was badgering one of the stockwomen about something in French. After some back and forth (with a continuous, gentle tone on her end), she snapped and shouted at this man, pointing to the door. He refused to leave, and finally in a French accent slurred the English phrase, “I don’t speak French.” She, of course, did not believe this assertion as he had just spent the past several minutes pestering her in this very language, and she continued shouting at him. I lost my ability to perceive this interaction as I continued shopping, but I soon saw the homeless man in the wine section, swaying and looking at his feet as he clutched three bottles of rosé. Again, I continued my shopping, hoping for the employee’s sake that this man would soon leave. I purchased my items and headed towards the exit, and as I did I saw the homeless man a third time, re-entering the Carrefour. He was no longer holding the three bottles of rosé, clearly he had forgotten something, forgotten his banishment from the store, or perhaps forgotten entirely that he was ever in the store.
The street-dwellers of Avignon are certainly a sight to behold, and the discrepancy between the homeless in Rome versus the homeless here is a clear indication of some fundamental cultural differences. There is a grit, a depth, a collective active mind, and a darkness here. There are layers of complexity, layers that I felt were absent from Rome. Rome is beautiful, but Rome is also incredibly self-aware of its significance, and thus content to rest in some routine. The homeless Italian is satisfied in simply professing that he is Italian; for this reason alone he expects money. There is an obvious inventiveness within Avignon culture, creative qualities that extend even into the minds those who have the least. There is a playful, dark humor. Who else would construct a doll-child to beg for money? Who else would try to outsmart a cashier by claiming he did not speak French, even after he spent the past five minutes speaking French?