Since moving to Romania I’ve had some experience with people begging.

I’ve been approached by beggars in Australia too. One guy asked me, “Can I have $3?”

He didn’t look unkempt or dirty. I asked him what he wanted it for. (I later found out why he was begging.)

Something to eat, he said.

I won’t give you any money, I said, but I’ll buy you something to eat. (Some people claim they want money for food, but when you offer to buy them something to eat, refuse and ask for the money. Even though a food outlet is close by.)

So we started walking to the nearest KFC, which is what he said he wanted. Immediately, he upped his request. “Can I have $5?”

He wanted a drink with his meal.

Fair enough.

Then after we ate, he asked me to buy him a pack of cigarettes.

He smoked two packs a day.

He was on a pension (presumably: he was about retirement age, and otherwise it’s doubtful he’d be begging).

The pension was about $200 per week I think, and a pack of cancer sticks cost about $18. ($18*2)*7 = $252.

No wonder he was begging.

Another guy asked me, with a big grin on his face (no doubt thinking I was an easy mark), “Will you buy me a spaghetti meal?”

Really. He specified the kind of food he wanted. In retrospect, especially having seen something like real poverty, I should have told him no and walked away.

Then he kept changing the kind of meal: “Will you buy me a…carbonara? …bolognese?” and so on. He knew his spaghetti meals, I’ll give him that.

In the end, I bought him a hot dog, chips and a coke. He didn’t thank me. But neither did he ask me to buy him cigarettes.

Since moving to Romania, I’ve seen something closer to real poverty.

There are various ways that people use to get money from the people they ask.

Some people just sit on stairs, on the edge a path, and ask for help when people walk by (in winter, I’ve seen people sitting with their feet in a cardboard box).

These are people who are either too old, sick, or perhaps hopeless, to walk about; but many others, including the elderly, do.

Occasionally, people approach and simply demand: “da-mi…” (“give me” + food or clothes or money).

What most people who beg – at least those you see most often – do is stand on street corners and when traffic lights turn red, go to the stationary cars and ask for money.

Usually they go to the most expensive looking cars first, and gradually move down the lanes.

Some people just hold out their hand;

some carry a small picture card of a saint, or cross themselves to show their piety and to encourage that of the people they approach;

some may be in wheelchairs or use crutches – sometimes showing half a leg or legs (one guy had one of the legs of his pants cut off, apparently to show a slightly deformed leg, although I couldn’t see much wrong with it);

some have kids with them (occasionally the kids are young enough to carry);

some carry cardboard signs with handwritten requests;

some try to wash your windows – and if you say no they still ask for money – or sell flowers (technically such activities are illegal, since you’re required to give the purchaser a receipt);

and one guy played the pan flute (the base was broken in the middle).

People also do combinations of the above.

If you say “no” to their request for money, the inevitable follow-up is “un leu! un leu!” (which is equivalent to 30 cents, Australian currency), the lowest value paper money.

Most people I’ve seen begging don’t go to pedestrians waiting at lights – the rationale behind this is because if you’re rich enough to have a car, you’ve probably got enough money to give. A reasonable assumption, especially if you don’t have enough to eat.

The government does provide a pension but it’s dependent on how much you used to earn (calculated by the tax you paid, which is why people who work in the black or grey market won’t get high pensions). The pension can be as low as a couple of hundred lei (about $125) per month, which isn’t enough for food, let alone rent or utilities. So you do get a lot of people begging.

You find all kinds of people begging. Male, female, young, old, educated (one woman spotted instantly I wasn’t Romanian and tried me in French and then English) and less so, some physically whole or not, some by themselves or with children, some neatly and cleanly dressed, others less so.

I’ve read that some people have discovered you can make a good income out of begging. I don’t think that this is the case in Romania: there are so many people begging that, after a while, you can become desensitised. Most people in Romania aren’t well off, and you can’t help everyone. But you do what you can.