We arrived in Milan at 8AM. Despite our grogginess, I was intent on making every single minute of our vacation count. And so after leaving our luggage at the front desk of Hotel Berna, my sleepy boyfriend and I found ourselves in the open square in front of Milan’s famous Duomo on a sunny spring morning. Surrounded by pigeons and tourists, we stood looking at the cathedral in our tired state of awe. As I looked around for the best photo spot, two men walked up to us.
“Welcome to Milan,” they said, “where are you visiting from?” As we spoke, I heard a familiarity in their accents. “Are you from Senegal?” I asked. One of the men nodded in surprise: “How did you know?” I excitedly told him about how his accent reminded me of a close friend back in New York, who was also from Senegal. “Do you also speak Wolof and French?” I continued the conversation, happy to show off my limited knowledge of Senegal.
The conversations quickly took a turn as the friendly men tied string bracelets on our wrists. “Is this free?” I asked cautiously, my wary tourist alarms finally going off in my head. “Yes, it’s free, it’s just a friendship bracelet, a welcome to our city,” the men smiled. “This is free, nothing attached, right?” I overheard my boyfriend asking. Before I knew it, the knot on my wrist was tightened – and the man from Senegal smiled, “A few coins, now, just a few coins, for the bracelet.”
The knot in my heart tightened. “You said it was free,” I accused, “I asked you and you said we didn’t have to pay.”
“Oh, but just a few coins,” the man continued to smile, coaxing me to pay for the strings around my wrist that no longer looked so colorful. Betrayed by my new “friend,” I was contemplating how to respond as my boyfriend suddenly appeared and took my wrist. “We’re leaving,” he said firmly, dragging me away with determination I didn’t have the heart to muster myself. I never looked back.
When we talked about it later, my boyfriend told me that he had reluctantly given the other man some coins – before feeling angry about being duped and deciding to save me from the same fate. As for me, I was sad that the brief connection I thought I’d made with the man was marred by his ulterior motive. My eyes were opened to the fragility of the human connection: how easy it was to share conversation, and how easy it was to scar it.