After we arrived to Lucca in 2020 and the lockdowns started to be lifted, we began to recognize our “neighbors” on the streets. We live near one of the main entrances to Lucca and on the busiest shopping street of the city. So, we see visitors, tourists, Lucchesi, and our neighbors on a regular basis. Our neighbors include people that live close by, those that work in the businesses, and a variety of interesting characters. Some are well loved characters, such as Mario, who wanders the streets of Lucca singing, greeting the locals, and begging from others.
We also noticed a guy outside our palazzo that kneeled on a pad most evenings while begging. How could he kneel for so long without being in terrible pain??? We call him “Kneeling Guy”. Very creative, eh? He doesn’t really beg, but holds up a sign that says “Un Po di Aiuto” which roughly translates to “Some Help?”. I also noticed that many the locals stopped and chatted with him; he stands up and engages with them in lively conversations, just like many other groups on the streets. He often talked to the shopkeeper across the street. After a while, I greeted him with a friendly “Buono Sera” or “Good Evening”. He seemed like a healthy man in his late 40’s and Jim and I wondered what his story was.
One evening I was sitting on the step waiting for someone to arrive and we acknowledged each other. A person then left the B&B across the street and left the front door open. You don’t do that on our street – too busy! “Kneeling Guy” and I both looked at the door and exchanged puzzled looks. He got up, closed the door and I acknowledged his neighborly action. Our first interaction beyond simple greetings. I never gave him any money and he never asked for any or even seemed to expect it from me.
Over time we chatted briefly. He spoke Italian and was quite difficult for me to understand. For Christmas 2021 I made American-style muffins and gave them to many of our acquaintances. I gave him some muffins and a monetary gift. He was very appreciative and there were many “Buon Natale” greetings exchanged.
Through 2022 we continued to chat. I asked his name at one point but didn’t really understand what he said. I learned that he had a heart condition and was not allowed to work. One day Jim and I were walking down our street for the Italian tradition of an evening stroll called “passegiate”. I was shocked to see him in a different place – he was always right outside our door. Not every evening but several times I week. He saw my shocked looked and explained that it was just too busy at his usual location so he decided to move. Funny how we react when things unexpectedly change in our world.
The week before Christmas I saw him on the street, still in his “new” location. I gave him the gift and again he seemed quite pleased. He even mentioned the muffins that I gave him last year – I was touched that he remembered the gift! We chatted for a few minutes and he mentioned something about getting a new job, but I didn’t fully understand what he said.
For Christmas this year, I didn’t plan to bake but I wanted to give him a gift. I want it to be appropriate and useful, but more like a gift than a handout. I discussed this with my Italian tutor and she suggested socks or a hat, common gifts in Italy. There is a family that has sells socks from a stand on our street; I also consider them neighbors. They helped me select some warm socks and they even put them in a festive red bag with a bow. Perfetto! I included a Christmas card with a monetary gift and now I just need to carry it each evening when we out until I saw him again.
The next evening, we saw him again and he stopped us to chat. Again, he thanked us for the gifts and then shared his good news with us. That day he had succeeded in finalizing a contract for a new job. It sounded like he would be delivering the vehicles and then taking the train back. But that could be wrong… my comprehension with him is pretty low. The contract part is key; in Italy, with a work contract you have many protections and it is assumed to be a long-term position. He said that he would start at four days a week, but that it would increase. He would be starting on January 2nd and would need to buy some new clothes (which I assumed would be purchased with our monetary gift).
He also said that he would be here this evening and the next, but then no more. That is, no more kneeling on the street and he pointed to his sign. And he told us this with such gratefulness but not with a sense of shame either. He said that he hoped in the future to see us on the street but not kneeling, instead he would be walking on the street, greeting those that he knows. And he would greet us. We stood on the street celebrating his news and congratulating him. He remained kneeling, but not for much longer…
When Jim and I moved to Lucca, we set a goal for ourselves to “become part of the community” which includes learning the language, developing friends (both expats and Italians) and eventually to volunteer in the community. But that evening on our street, while celebrating with “Kneeling Guy,” I truly felt like a member of my community and especially my special neighborhood.
And none of my blog posts can be complete without some pretty pictures, so here are a few pictures that I took of my “neighborhood” – within a minute’s walk of our front door.
Epilogue… 22 April 2023
What a wonderful morning! Jim and I met a friend for coffee and breakfast this morning. An older Italian woman came in… one that I see there often. A few weeks ago we started chatting beyond the standard “Buon giorno”. Today we had a good 10 minute chat including exchanging names. Paola is my new Italian friend! As we were leaving, the man formerly known as “Kneeling Guy” steps in. I asked him how he was and he said “Molto bene! Tutto bene” – very well, everything is good. Work is going well and he is enjoying a few days off because of the national holiday on 25 April. His posture has changed. His face has changed. He is a proud man.
This is also the start of our local Festival of Santa Zita that fills up our oval piazza with flower vendors. What a glorious morning!