Livorno and Pisa are both beautiful, ancient cities rich with astonishingly ornate architecture. Since Pisa was our highest priority, we didn’t explore much of Livorno except for the area around the bus station where we got off the shuttle to wait for another bus to Pisa.

The ride through the Italian countryside was delightful, dotted with houses, farms, and waterways. And Pisa has a charm of its own. Our bus pulled into a large parking area with a multitude of other buses. There was no clearly marked path, but it was easy enough to follow the stream of people intent on one destination. The church, baptistery, and leaning bell tower gleam white on the vibrant green grass of the Field of Miracles. Although people were everywhere, there was still a sense of awe and quiet that I can’t describe.

All three buildings are masterpieces of multi-colored marble, ornate design, in solemn adoration to God. The tower is the smallest, but most popular of them because of its reputation and history. The work had barely begun when the builders realized the tower was already tilting in the soft soil; no amount of engineering could correct it. Now people come from around the world to take pictures of each other “holding up” or “pushing back” the unruly tower that has defied all efforts to be made straight.

Kelly and I marveled at the beauty of this square, unable to resist taking pictures from every angle. The gelato was overpriced, but delicious, and we toured booth after booth of products celebrating the crooked tower on t-shirts, mugs, key chains etc. What is it about imperfection that intrigues us so?

The anomaly of a building that has defied all efforts to be straightened has a different attraction than that of people with the same bent.

We learned early on that wherever cruise ships land, hoards of salespeople hover ready to show their wares. We could count on a variety of “Louis Vuitton”purses at every stop pushed in our faces by grinning salesmen, as if they had something original and unique. Beggars place themselves strategically wherever there is traffic. We were warned not to give them money and to refuse with a gruffness that seems rude to westerners. Soon we understood why.

In Livorno a woman holding a baby was followed by three lovely, bedraggled, dark haired girls. They circled to beg from the same congregation the entire hour we waited for our bus. One woman finally succumbed and gave them some change. We were jolted from compassion when instead of saying thank you and moving on, the mother and children pressed her for more with increasing intensity. We moved from compassion, to annoyance, to anger.

Kelly and I were even more shocked on our trek to the field of miracles. We heard screaming and shouting behind us. We turned to see a man fighting a ragged group of teens that had appeared from nowhere to surround his wife. They pawed at her, moaning and grunting; fearing for her safety, her husband pushed them roughly until they backed off.

The day was a mixture of awe, delight, annoyance, and fear – conflicting emotions over crooked things. Of course, it’s not crooked to want to make a living or feed your family, but when that desire oversteps the boundary between what is legally, morally, and socially acceptable, it has become warped. I fought constant battles in my heart and mind about how I could give to the needy in these countries without being in danger of being pick pocketed or mobbed. Even though Kelly and I give to organizations that meet needs around the world, it saddened me that fear and distrust prevented us from helping those that seemed to need help.

What’s the answer to all this? I don’t think there’s a blanket response. The Bible tells us to be wise around those with evil intentions, but to show mercy and compassion to those truly in need. As with all of life, we have to take things one step at a time, looking to Jesus in each instance for direction and wisdom so He can make the crooked things straight.