Her face was what caught me. She was young, perhaps ten, but somehow she seemed very old; her expression was of hurt and sadness as if she had rarely visited worlds where people smile. It seemed too much a burden for a child to bear, that sadness. She was sitting up against the railing of the pedestrian bridge that leads from the train station to inner Venice.
She was wearing a dirty rose colored cardigan, a torn tee shirt and navy blue pants, one leg of which was tucked under where her right leg ought to have been. A home-made wooden crutch lay along side her and she had a little black cloth spread in front of her for donations.
The bridge was very busy, Venetians on their way to work or home or shopping and a never ending herd of tourists crossing over to fulfill their duties in this famous city of cities. Most of the tourists were enchanted by the view of the Grand Canal, which was indeed stunning. In the rush, I thought she might get stepped on.
I stopped to drop a small bill on her nearly empty cloth, then leaned against the railing opposite her to watch. At first I thought people were even less generous than I had expected them to be, but I was wrong. Perhaps one out of fifty dropped something on her cloth, and when the money begin to pile up, she would whisk it away to a pocket inside her sweater and bait the cloth with three carefully placed coins.
Most people however, either averted their gaze or just plain did not see her as they manipulated their cameras for the first of what would undoubtedly be many photos of charming Venice. The little girl was not quite third-worldly enough to be a photo opportunity.
As she looked hungry, I bought her a chicken sandwich. She looked at it with no particular expression and set it by her crutch. I watched for a while and then noticed a man begging about fifty meters away. I thought they might have some connection.
After a rudimentary conversation with the man, I found out that he was her father. We shared another chicken sandwich I had bought and attempted to communicate. He wrote down his address for me, simply his last name, which I have never been able to decipher, and the word: Albania. I thought it must be strange to have nothing but a country for an address. There must be many such people today. He was a kind and gentle man, and had some problem with his legs so that he had to walk with canes.
I returned to my spot near the little girl. I was determined to coax a smile out of her. I bought and gave her a single long stemmed rose. She thanked me, but didn't smile even when she deeply inhaled the rose's scent. I think she wasn't aware at first that it was real. At one moment I almost thought she might eat it. But after a while she slipped it in along side of her crutch.
I was stymied. I didn't want to give her more money because that was her job, collecting money for her father and herself and their family, wherever they were and whatever had become of them. She was good at that, and she was dutifully engaged in a profession more honorable than many. But money would not make her smile.
Then it came to me. I went to a nearby African vendor and looked over his wares. I selected a modestly priced rose quartz necklace and presented it to her. She couldn't figure out the clasp so the vendor came over and attached it around her neck. She felt it and saw how the color matched her sweater and gave me the most beautiful smile you could imagine. She looked at me as if it was the first really beautiful thing that was ever her own.
The next day I passed by the same place but neither she nor her father were there. Her father had told me her name. It was Adia, which sounds like "to God" in many languages. Such a pretty name.