Sax on the Streets
Chapter 12:
Paris, Bonn, Aarhus, Copenhagen, Stockholm

Familiar Terrain

© Dan Gordon, 2003

From Paris our travels followed the same path as the previous summer up until Sweden, that is, through Bonn, Århus, Copenhagen, and Stockholm (no stop in Dinant this time—our emotions wouldn’t have been able to handle it). Returning to old busking grounds was a new experience for us. The principal difficulty of street-musicianing, figuring out the best pitches in town, no longer posed a problem. Knowing the terrain made busking easier in many ways, but also created expectations about each place that were sometimes left unfulfilled.

In Paris, for instance, we expected to crank in the money up on our favorite bridge every evening and hoped, in the back of our minds, that the same bespectacled man would approach us again and say, “Welcome back to Paris, my friends! It’s a pleasure to hear you again. Shall we have more champagne and cheese with my wife at my place?” But alas, it was too windy up on the Pont Saint Louis, so we couldn’t play there out of fear that the music might blow into the Seine. No Pont Saint Louis, no bespectacled man, no champagne.

Without the staple pitch that had carried us through our previous visit, we practically had to start all over again in figuring out the city’s busking infrastructure. Fortunately, we had the help of my sister Michele, who was living and working in Paris as an au pair, taking care of two children and cleaning house for a Parisian family. Her familiarity with the city relieved us of the stress of reorientation, and her presence added new dimensions to our busking.

The normally mild-mannered Michele turned into quasi-undercover agent as Gary and I played. She posed as an innocent bystander while studying who took an interest in our music, which pieces attracted the most attention, and how long people listened. Her intelligence reports documented consistent data: Tourists constituted the bulk of our audience; fast and energetic selections aroused more interest than slow ones; and most bystanders stood around for no more than three or four selections.

Michele also served as an accomplice in covert coin-accumulation tactics. We planted her in the crowd with a handful of coins and had her come up at strategic intervals to drop money in the hat. This remedied the “pluralistic ignorance” phenomenon that occurred with onlooking crowds. No one wanted to be the first to donate to the hat; a universal desire to remain anonymous prompted everyone to stand around and wait for someone else to take the initiative. When Michele stepped up and made a contribution, the hat invariably jingled from others who followed.

Even with the benefit of Michele’s reconnaissance work, we did not venture near the Pompidou Center to busk. That was simply not our terrain. We did pass by there to have a look at all the activity, though, and sure enough, our old friend with the garbage can lids was still at it, banging away and bellowing at the top of his lungs as noisily as ever. Some things never change.

If it weren’t for the early season, our return to Paris might have been a smashing success. But no amount of assistance from Michele could stop the rain that all too often doused us. Nor could any amount of busking experience create the tourists that weren’t due until later in the summer. Gary and I had returned to Paris with high hopes and ended up leaving a little bit low.

Regrettably, we couldn’t get a hold of Christophe in our few days in town. We phoned him several times but never got through. We really wanted to see him again. He was, after all, largely responsible for our first busking successes in Paris.

Soon we were off to Bonn, where Corinna and her family gave us as warm a reception as they had on our previous visit. This time around, Gary and I had a strange mix of feelings as we went to busk. We approached the sprawling pedestrian zone in Bonn with reserve; our mediocre showing of the first summer lingered in our minds. We didn’t want to get our hopes high again only to have them crash down upon us. Despite our guarded outlook, however, we felt a certain sense of reassurance as we played in the familiar surroundings. The insecure feelings that normally accompanied a change of cities were absent.

Results turned out to be far more profitable than the year before. Logically speaking, that shouldn’t have been so, because it was only early June, still pre-tourist season. The last time, we had visited during high tourist season in mid-July. But this time we were savvy to the adjustments needed for successful busking in Northern Europe.

The combination of our financial successes and our seasoned perspective altered our perception of Bonn’s busking qualities. After the first summer, we thought the pedestrian zone was too large and consequently too sparsely populated. This time, we found the layout of the city to be convenient for busking. The daily open market in the center of the large pedestrian area offered fresh fruits, fish, and produce. When we got tired of playing, we strolled over to the market and bought items for lunch from among the stalls, on the hat. After eating, we picked another spot nearby and pitched again.

But more rain continued to hamper us. Thus far, it had rained some time during the day every day since our arrival in Amsterdam a week earlier. And what lay ahead but Denmark. Could we even hope for good weather there? We should have known better than to choose Northern Europe for pre-summer busking. If one has an open agenda, it is wise to go south early in the season, where the weather is sunny. Northern Europe offers quality busking in the height of summer, when the weather is at its best, and when southern European countries are too hot to busk anyway. We had done it backwards. We became victims of Northern Europe’s spring showers, and would probably end up in the South of the continent at the height of summer’s heat.

On to Århus, where we arrived to Jytte’s welcome after a whole day on the train from Bonn. Our first chance to play was the following day, a Sunday. As we hunted around an almost deserted city in search of a pitch, we realized that we had made a grave, grave error. We left ourselves in a new country on a Sunday after spending all day Saturday on a train. That was prime pedestrian zone busking time wasted in transit. Now we needed money on a Sunday, a slow day anywhere. Buskers are well-advised to travel on a Sunday if at all possible; avoid at all costs spending Saturdays on a train.

Gary and I could not find a pitch in all of Århus with enough people to make playing worthwhile. The gray skies and intermittent rain didn’t help. That left us having gone two days without any income at all. We were really scraping bottom.

Miraculously, the weather cleared the next day, and we crammed as much busking as we could into our first full day of sun since we had begun. Good weather in Denmark? Can’t be! So far, just about everything we figured for our second time around turned out to be wrong. In this case, we were glad to be mistaken. Århus’ only sunny day in weeks brought post-rain cheer to the pedestrian zone, and we capitalized on it. Good thing, too, because as we guessed, the weather turned lousy for the remainder of our stay. We weren’t wrong about that. Not much more busking. So our second stay in Århus was not particularly eventful—no newspaper appearances or bike rides in the countryside, but then again, no trouncings by marching bands either!

Copenhagen followed. There we met Irma, our Finnish friend from the last summer’s post-busking workcamp in Norway. Irma had been enchanted by our music since the first time she heard it, so when she found out we’d be busking again in Europe, she wanted to travel with us. I had reservations about arranging a meeting from such a distance, but Irma’s sisu, Finnish determination, made the rendezvous work. We found her in the train station in Copenhagen with no trouble at all. She still sported a gleaming smile that actually curled up at the ends. Her fresh, natural complexion would have made her perfect for an Ivory soap commercial. Make-up would look foreign on her clear skin. Her square jaw, high cheekbones, straight bangs, ever-present pony tail, and round wire-frame glasses gave her a distinct Finnish look. And that characteristic smile made the whole world sunny. Plans for the three of us were to travel to Irma’s home in Helsinki before she flew to USA to be a camp counselor for the summer.

Irma’s cheerful outlook brightened our bad-weather busking blues. Once again, Gary and I found that the presence of a third person tempered our mood swings. Otherwise, we lapsed into the vulnerable condition in which our emotional state followed the vicissitudes of the weather and our latest busking. This malady had already afflicted us in Amsterdam; we hated the place simply because we couldn’t earn money there. We saw the wretched disease festering in us, but could not heal ourselves of it. If it weren’t for Irma, Gary and I would have been on an emotional roller coaster with all the ups and downs in Danish weather.

Even with Irma around, we weren’t exactly on an even keel. One day we couldn’t manage to find a pitch without somebody complaining. After moving five times and accumulating almost no money in the process, we gave up. Another day, as soon as we set up, somebody came by and threw a 100-kroner bill into the hat ($16). I almost swallowed my mouthpiece.

Occasional sunshine permitted occasional busking success in the long pedestrian zone. Irma insisted that we use our earnings to enjoy the city and take our minds off playing. She had never been to Copenhagen, and wanted to do more than just watch Gary and me earn money in the pedestrian zone. Of the tourist attractions around the city, the parks provided the most appealing sightseeing—not that the grounds were so nice, but because of all the topless Danish sunbathers lying around to gather up some of the only sunshine in weeks. That took our minds off busking, all right. Suddenly Irma wasn’t interested in sightseeing any more. We also treated ourselves to an Isaac Stern violin recital at Tivoli amusement park. He is no street violinist.

We finally got a break in the weather in Stockholm. In our couple of days there we had clear, sunny skies. Good riddance! Any more rain and we would have drowned. We kept mostly to the Gamla Stan to play, in spite of its regulations that prohibited busking except during afternoon hours. We never did end up playing in the Gamla Stan during the “legal” times; there were too many buskers pitching then to make it worthwhile. People occasionally asked us to move, in which case we politely obliged and played dumb about the regulations.

Such is an example of how Gary and I could use our transience to our advantage. The previous summer in Stockholm, all the rules and regulations facing us as we arrived flustered us; this time we realized we hardly had to deal with the rules at all. As newcomers to town, we had a plausible excuse if we didn’t know the regulations. The regulars couldn’t claim that. And as transient buskers, our act was fresh material everywhere we went. Nobody in town knew that we played the same music over and over for weeks on end.

We pitched in convenient ignorance during illegal hours in the Gamla Stan and usually got away with it. With all the space around us left by regulars who had to stay away, we attracted plenty of attention and fared far better than our first summer in Stockholm. People threw 10-kroner bills (Sweden has no 10kr coin), which almost never happened the previous summer. We managed to make ends meet in exorbitant Stockholm, the city that had done us in the summer before. For the first time since we’d been back in Europe, things were looking up.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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