In Florence they are called vu cumpra or ambulante: mostly men, predominantly from west Africa, who follow the crowds, scrabbling for a living by selling cheap goods to tourists. The term vu cumpra is a neologism, a play on the Italian phrase vuoi compra --- do you want to buy? Although commonly employed in Italy, many people consider the term racist, so for the purpose of this discussion, I will adopt the less-charged ambulante, which is short for venditore ambulante, a walking salesman.
These unlicensed merchants spend their days trying to earn a share of the tourist euro. They cater to visitors, and if you are a long term resident in the city, it is unlikely they will have anything you require. In fact, while the ambulanti do have their own specialties, a short stroll down a representative street (such as the Borgo San Lorenzo, which links the Basilica di San Lorenzo and the Piazza del Duomo) will quickly exhaust the possibilities on offer to the discerning customer.
Selfie-sticks are popular in this narcissistic age, and the ambulanti carry three alternatives. The first is the standard selfie-stick, a model that extends three feet and has a trigger mechanism to snap the photo. Small plastic tripods are also available, which allow you to place your camera/phone further from your face. This will introduce more background into the frame and foster the illusion that you have a friend who took the photo. Finally, there is the deluxe model, a selfie-stick with folding tripod legs on one end. A multi-functional implement, it can be deployed as either a selfie-stick or a standalone tripod.
Six steps from the selfie-stick vendor, another ambulante sells posters: Renaissance knock-offs ranging from Leonardo's Mona Lisa to bucolic scenes of Tuscany. These prints have been spread in a long line on the cobbles of the Borgo, creating a bottleneck as opposing streams of pedestrians attempt to pass without stepping on the art.
Near the impromptu art gallery, an ambulante has unfurled a small tarp on the stones and is busily arranging small wooden blocks that have been carved into alphabetic characters. These can be linked together to form words, names, or sentences --- assuming you buy enough characters. Across from him, a man from the Balkans is tossing a blob of the ever popular "goo." This is a jelly-like substance that appears initially to be one of the less common varieties of space alien. Throw it down hard against a plastic-covered piece of cardboard, and it splats out into a deformed puddle. A moment later, magic: the goo slowly flows back together, reverting to its original alien guise. The vendor picks up the goo, and throws it down hard again: splat, regather, pick up, repeat. The cycle continues, ad nauseam, as he waits for a demanding child, hanging from the hand of a distracted parent, to drift into range.
The ambulanti are continually watching: for customers, naturally, but also for the Polizia. The constabulary, who stroll in pairs through the streets, occupy the center of a transparent, moving bubble. Moments before they come into sight, the ambulanti begin gathering their wares: in two clean sweeps, the posters are collected and tucked under an arm. The corners of the tarp are drawn together and the artful arrangements of wood block letters collapse into a makeshift bag. The goo man grabs his gelatinous product and hurries out of sight.
And here are the police, walking sedately down the suddenly merchant-free Borgo. As soon as they are out of sight, a silent all clear is sounded, and the ambulanti reemerge. It is against the law for unlicensed vendors to sell on the streets. Obviously the police know the salesmen are working here, but as long as they don't actually see them, they seem content to leave them in peace. I asked an Italian friend why the police don't actively enforce the law: why this strange charade?
"They could, but then the ambulanti might turn to more serious criminal activities."
"You could eliminate the law --- why have a law that no one wants to enforce?"
She shrugged. "Then you would have ambulanti on every corner."
Which you do.
The police took a serious interest in the ambulanti in June 2015, after a tourist and a vendor engaged in an altercation in front of the Accademia. The tourist was injured, and this catalyzed a police crackdown on ambulanti. Suddenly the nonchalant indifference was set aside. Teams of officers would materialize unexpectedly, blocking escape routes and chasing men through the streets. The ambulanti were continually pressured, never allowed a moment to set up and make a sale. After a couple of days, the laissez-fare approach to enforcement was reinstated. The message had been delivered.
Don't mess with tourists.
The ambulanti of Florence are consigned to a thin margin of Italian society, ignored, overlooked, barely tolerated by most. It is difficult to imagine occupying a life in which my best option for employment was selling selfie-sticks to people who were annoyed by my presence. On the other hand, refugees continue to make the perilous voyage to Italy, risking their lives in horrifically overloaded boats to escape their war-ravaged countries. Today the Italian newspapers are reporting that more than 10,000 refugees have lost their lives on the sea over the past two years. I am certain that any of these poor souls would gladly trade their place on a rubber raft for the life of an ambulanti.
There is no answer to these great problems in this short essay. There are, however, moments of grace. I took one of my favorite photos of an ambulante in the middle of a rainstorm. He is selling umbrellas (probably the most successful item in their merchandise), and appears to have just made a sale to a young woman.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he had fumbled and dropped some of his umbrellas. Rather than simply walking past, she stopped, knelt, and gathered the fallen product. I captured them at the moment she was returning them to him. Not a purchase, but a moment of human recognition, a spontaneous act of kindness that fills me with hope.