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Gleaners

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet

One chilly afternoon in Brescia last week, I entered a butcher shop. The butcher was in deep conversation with a woman in her 50s, wearing furs, in no hurry at all while she paid for her purchases. Another man in a light windbreaker waited patiently. I took the time to admire the wares and decide what I wanted to order.

The woman wished the butcher a good day, and the man approached the counter. He spoke in slow Italian, and the butcher seemed to have some trouble understanding exactly what he wanted. I heard the word carne (meat) repeated several times, and many more words that I didn't understand. Then a light bulb went off and the butcher smiled. He raised his finger in the universal gesture meaning "one moment please," went to the back and returned with several slices of meat, tough-looking to me. The man thanked the butcher profusely, tucked the paper package under his arm and left without paying.

Now I might not have registered that last bit, the leaving without paying part, except for an incident a few nights before.

We had gone into a local bakery about half an hour before closing, to eat slices of pizza con le verdure---thick crusted pizza with a little cheese and veggies on top. We stood at the counter on the side to eat, and I saw a short woman walk in. She wore layers of clothing. She approached the counter and mumbled something to the salesclerk. The salesclerk questioned her in return and the woman raised two fingers. "Due," the salesclerk said. She went to a bin in a corner and returned with two rolls wrapped in paper. The woman thanked her, stashed the rolls in her large bag, then ambled out. No payment was asked. None was given.

Perhaps shopkeepers in the U.S., too, give beggars leavings, and I have not been around to witness it. And perhaps what I had seen in Italy was the exception rather than the rule. But in those two instances, it seemed natural to give what was not wanted to someone who needed it right then. No fuss. No big deal. It was just done.

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