Krakow is challenge for beggars. On the one hand it’s a comparatively wealthy place with lots of even wealthier tourists, but on the other Krakowians are notoriously the tightest citizens of the republic. The inside of the average Krakowian’s wallet receives less hours of sunlight annually than parts of North Wales. There are reputed to be solid gold coins from the reign of Kazimierz Wielki (1310–70) still officially in circulation because no government department has yet figured out how to liberate them from the purses of Krakow citizens.
This abundance of riches and challenges has evolved a glitteringly varied set of behaviors on the part of the beggars of Krakow. Here are four of them:
The martyr is recognizable by his habit of lying nearly prostrate on the pavement, head bowed and arms outstretched in the direction of a bent paper cup meant for the reception of alms. He never speaks and barely moves. The martyr is usually bundled in an extraordinary collection of coats, scarves, paper bags, and bits of string, regardless of the season, and habitually choses a pitch in front of a church. The religious connotation are obvious and these characters nearly always put me in mind of The Life of Brian for no obviously relevant reason.
The martyr in action
Personally I can’t bring myself to go near martyrs let alone give them money. The whole thing just seems so biblical and melodramatic that I prefer to suffer the indignity of stepping over them rather than bending down and popping a few coins in the cup, which I think would make me feel worse—it seems so condescending. Presumably there are some Christian souls who like to see the poor prostrate themselves for cash otherwise I guess they wouldn’t do it.
The bench crew
Bench crews are a seasonal phenomenon in Krakow. Once it’s warm enough to sit outside all day the city’s cadgers and layabouts emerge from god knows where are take up residence on their favorite benches around the planty. The planty, a leafy promenade that extends all the way around Krakow’s old town, is an itinerant’s paradise. A gang of five to six cadgers can camp on one of the 900 benches that line the route and fish from the never-ending circular river of tourists that flows past. Every few minutes one of them will pop up and ask a passerby for a cigarette or a bit of change.
Bench crews are persistent and repetitive. There’s one that lives for six months of the year on my route into the center of town. It’s literally impossible not to pass through their hunting ground if you want to walk directly from my house to the market square. Almost every single day for six months the same guy asked me for a cigarette or change. I knew him so well I could have picked him out of a 10,000-man lineup, but he never once seemed to recognize me. Eventually I cracked and screamed “Every bloody day!” as he approached for the nine thousandth time. He veered away as if it had all been a regrettable faux pas on his part. The next day he asked me for a cigarette. The first time I see that ginger bastard this year I’m leaving the country.
Some beggars are exceptionally good at what they do. They have an act, or a story, or some other highly plausible reason why you should give them money for no services rendered. The best actor beggar I ever saw was in Warsaw, not Krakow. I called her the sobbing granny and I saw her dozens of times around the city center. She was in her late 50s or early 60’s and dressed as a respectable hard working woman down on her luck. It was almost a mime act, apart from the sound of sobbing. Tearful and obviously distraught she would totter uncertainly along a crowded pavement until, about five seconds later, a concerned citizen would stop and offer succor. I’m assuming she lives in a villa in Croatia by now.
Sobbing granny almost certainly made her pile and moved on to other forms of human manipulation such as producing talent shows or banking. Others are too clever for their own good. The elaborate story about needing the train fare to visit a sick brother in Gdansk was struck of the official list of believable tales shortly before Red Ridding Hood.
My brother really isn’t well
The wild card
They don’t have one. It’s any trick at any time with there people. These amateurs of the begging world are frequently to be found ‘coincidentally’ standing outside alcohol shops or milk bars when they hit you for change. “Got any change to spare? In here…? No just happened to be standing here is all, as I was yesterday and the day before when you walked past.”
I always give these people money. Their ineptness and lack of professional guile restores my faith in humanity. On the other hand it could be cleverest scam of them all.