Sax on the Streets
Chapter 2:
San Sebastián, Spain

© Dan Gordon, 2002
Our overnight train headed for San Sebastián, the Basque city on the Atlantic coast near the western edge of the Spanish Pyrenees. Ah, the romance of the European train! Every ride is an adventure. You always seem to meet someone interesting. This time it was two American backpackers trying to get to San Sebastián on an expired railpass. (They did.) Sociability comes easily on European trains; their small compartments with facing seats invite idle banter with fellow passengers. You offer each other food, exchange travel tips, maybe addresses. Once you’ve learned the social graces of the European train, you can progress to the higher art form of finding a seat on one during the crowded summer season. The experienced traveler knows never to board the train near the platform’s entrance from the main concourse. A walk to one of the extremes of the train will offer consistently emptier compartments. The last car on either end, however, is filled with semi-experienced travelers who think they’ve beaten the system. The truly experienced traveler, aware of this phenomenon, boards the second-to-last car. Here he will find the sparsest population density of any train.

Gary and I found seats all right, but got off the train in San Sebastián the next morning not very well rested, as is usually the case with overnight trains. Before we could put our busking to its first true test, we had to find a place to stay. We headed for the local youth hostel, our usual procedure in a city where we didn’t know anybody.

Youth hostels are a great place to stay because they’re cheap, reasonably clean, and full of people from all over the world. For someone who is traveling alone and wants to meet people, pick up a travel companion, or trade travel pointers, you can’t beat youth hostels. After a while, though, they can get tiring. The lack of privacy becomes annoying, as does answering the same old questions over and over again: Where you from? How long you been traveling? Where you going next? Where’ve you been so far? The questions are like a ritual you go through to start up a conversation. It gets to the point where you ask the questions but don’t listen to the answers any more. Hostels can also be a drag because they kick you out at 9:00 every morning. But worst of all is that no matter how many people you have in your room, one of them always snores all night long.

A 25-minute walk brought us to the youth hostel in San Sebastián. Not a bad place as far as youth hostels go, but pretty far from the center of town. After dumping our packs off and paying for the night, we were fresh out of pesetas and eager to start busking to augment our diminished funds. Our goal was to make it through the day without visiting a bank.

The first issue facing us was where to set up and play (or to “pitch” as it is called in busker jargon). Without really knowing what we were doing, we picked out a courtyard in the old quarter of town. It seemed like a decent spot to us; with cobblestones underfoot and Spanish arches on all sides, it was certainly a poetic setting for playing, even if hardly any people were around to hear us. We took out the saxophones, set up the music stand, clipped the music to it, laid down the collection hat, and threw a few coins in.

This is it, I thought. The real thing. Even in those modest surroundings, I was nervous about busking for real. Will people like our stuff? Or will they complain about the racket? Who knows, they may even throw tomatoes. Or they might gather around and watch in awe like the kids in Barcelona had.

I raised my saxophone to give a cue for the downbeat. I glanced over at Gary, took a breath, thought for an instant about the significance of my next action, then lowered the saxophone with a decisive gesture.

To anyone who heard that first performance, we probably sounded spirited but cautious. Gary and I were excited, but at the same time felt strange about playing in unfamiliar surroundings, not knowing what kind of response to expect, not even sure how we’d sound. As we played on, the butterflies faded. It became evident that our duets wouldn’t cause an uproar among local residents, and the music, while not extremely polished, felt secure enough to provide an entertaining show.

The first person to pay attention to us was an old man out for a walk around the courtyard. He meandered over to us and listened for a while. We continued to play, conscious of his presence, but not so much so that it was distracting. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He dug into his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and stepped up to the hat. With a flick of the wrist, he sent the coins floating through the air in a long, graceful arc. They spun a few times as they flew, landing with a jingle as they met the concrete below the bottom of the hat. There the coins lay, testimony to our first efforts as real buskers.

“This is very nice music,” the old man said in Spanish.

“We’re glad you like it,” I responded in kind.

“But don’t waste your time playing here. There are better places in town to play than this.” It must have been apparent that we were novices and needed some help.

“Oh? Can you recommend any?”

“Go back up this alley over here and play anywhere in that area with all the small streets,” he said, pointing toward the center of the old quarter. “That’s where the musicians usually play, and they seem to do well.”

Advice from the natives—you can’t beat that. We packed up, walked the few blocks to the center of the old quarter, and relocated ourselves at the intersection of two narrow streets. Setting up for the second time, I felt a little more relaxed knowing we weren’t going to get laughed right off the street. But I still had reason to feel uncomfortable. The moment Gary and I pulled the little saxophones out of their gig bags, people started staring at us as if we were some kind of freaks in a circus sideshow. Being watched as we did something as routine as set up to play made me feel oddly self-conscious, somehow vulnerable. Even when we began to play again, I felt scrutinized in a way that I never felt while performing in a formal setting. On the concert stage, the musician knows that people sitting in the audience are at least moderately interested in listening to him. Even if they don’t like what they hear, a respected protocol guides their behavior. On the street, those kinds of rules are far less defined. The busker never knows exactly how the public is going to respond, particularly as a foreigner, where he doesn’t know any of the social norms.

Actually, being a foreign busker can have its advantages. A certain adventuresome mentality overcomes even the most straight-laced people when they travel, allowing them to do things they would normally never consider. Suddenly they are willing to take risks, stretch a few rules. It was easier for Gary and me to unpack our saxophones and play for a bunch of strangers on a street in Spain than it would be at home. That extra bit of traveler’s adrenaline made the difference.

Being pumped up was no panacea, though; I still had some concerns as we got under way in San Sebastián. There was no guarantee that this second performance would be as unproblematic as the first, and I could sense every pair of those eyes staring right through me. I was keenly aware of how our busking could be perceived as intrusive. It all made me feel uneasy, almost ludicrous. When you stop to think about it, it is a little bit ludicrous—playing an instrument on a foreign street corner and asking anyone who happens to walk by to give you money for it.

Yet as our act proceeded, Telemann and his duets took control. The playful music echoed slightly off the stone buildings along the narrow streets, the freakish stares turned into appreciative smiles, and I could put my guard down. Occasional passers-by stopped, listened, and dropped coins into the hat. We didn’t bother the locals at all; most people seemed interested in our music. Strollers came up and chatted with us, asked us about our peculiar instruments, and complimented our playing.

After about forty minutes, we stopped for a break. Again, I felt those eyes staring at us as we folded up the stand, stuffed the instruments into their gig bags, and reached for the hat. While I had begun to feel reasonably comfortable playing, I still felt ill-at-ease as people watched us go through the nuts and bolts of disassembling our act. Gary was amused at my inhibitions. He went through the entire busking process with a calm, business-as-usual demeanor. For him, the onlooking crowd on the street was no different than any other audience he’d ever performed for. If they wanted to watch him put together and take apart his instrument, that was fine. He didn’t understand why it disturbed me. The same eyes bore down on both of us but penetrated only me.

Our divergent reactions mattered little once we packed up. As soon as we collected our last piece of equipment and slung the saxophones over our shoulders, the attention disappeared. We walked away, dissolving into the masses, suddenly not a spectacle any more. In an instant, we were out of the public eye and part of the public.

As mere mortals on the street, we had to once again pay attention to our earthly needs. We were hungry. Our busking session had earned us enough money for breakfast, so we popped into the nearest café, ordered some food, and dumped the contents of the hat out to tally our profits.

Gary stared the pile of change scattered all over the table. “That’s a lot of coins.”

“I’ll count up the 100- and 200-peseta coins, and you count up all the little stuff.”

We sifted through the pile. “I’ve got 1350 pesetas,” I said. “How about you?”

“I have about 500 here with all this little stuff. Let’s see, that’s a little less than 2000 pesetas all together, which is what? About eight bucks apiece? Not bad.”

Breakfast tasted that much better knowing the hat paid for it.

With some food in our stomachs and money in our pockets, we took some time to look around the city. That gave me my first opportunity to observe the mysterious language of Basque spoken in San Sebastián. The Basque region of Spain, along with the regions Catalonia and Galicia, have their own languages apart from Castilian Spanish. Catalan and Gallego are related to Castilian Spanish, but Basque is not even remotely similar to it, nor to any other European tongue. No one knows exactly where Basque comes from, but it is believed to be one of the oldest languages in the world.

My students back in Barcelona had told me crazy stories about this language, so I was eager to hear it spoken. I saw a lot of it, on signs and billboards and so forth, and it did look as totally alien as I had been told, with letter combinations like nothing I’d ever seen. Hearing it actually being spoken, however, was a different matter. I followed natives around in the street, walked into back bars, and cocked an ear to those talking around me, but never actually heard anyone conversing in it. Basque almost disappeared during the Franco regime, when, in an attempt to unify the country, Franco prohibited the use of any language but Castilian Spanish. Catalan and Gallego survived by being spoken in the private sector, but Basque almost vanished. There is now a whole generation of Basques who grew up under Franco that hardly speak the language at all. Its use is now growing again, but even in San Sebastián, where the language is most widely spoken, I didn’t hear much of it.

I had become fascinated by languages during my time teaching English in Barcelona. As we traveled, I listened intently to the sounds of the all different languages. Each one has its own tone, its own rhythm, its own cadence; really, its own music. Since music was often on my mind, I looked for it even in such unexpected guises. I enjoyed that kind of music easily as much as any passer-by enjoyed ours.

After taking the time to absorb some of the sights and sounds of San Sebastián, Gary and I were ready to make more music of our own. We pitched that afternoon in the same spot we had that morning, and I felt considerably less self-conscious about it. Sure, there were stares, but they didn’t bother me so much any more. The more people we attracted while setting up, the more there’d be to hear us play. Once the music started, pesetas began to fly, as if the sound of the music activated an electromagnet in the bottom of the hat that attracted coins from all nearby pedestrians.

A cheery young fellow soon came along and struck up a conversation with us in English. “You guys sound great!” he said, tossing a few coins in the hat. “Have you been playing together for a long time?”

“Kind of. We’ve played duets together for years, but we just started playing on the streets,” I said. “Why, do we look uncomfortable?”

“No, no, you look fine. It’s just that I see people playing on the street all the time and I never get the chance to talk to any of them. What’s it like? Can you actually make a lot of money doing this?”

“We’re not sure yet if it’s going to cover all our costs,” Gary replied, “but it’s certainly going to pay for our lunch. That’s why we’re playing right now—we didn’t have enough money for a decent meal twenty minutes ago.”

The guy smiled and shook his head. “Nice life.”

“Say, maybe you can help us,” I said. “Do you live in San Sebastián?”

“No, I’m American, but my father is Basque and my girlfriend lives here, so I visit a lot.”

“Then you must know what goes on around here,” I said. “Do you think this music is going to bother anybody? We’re not sure how people are going to react to this street musician stuff, and we don’t want to make any enemies right at the beginning.”

“Nah, not the stuff you’re playing,” the fellow said. “Maybe those other types with electric guitars and amplifiers and whatnot get on people’s nerves, but not this. If somebody doesn’t want to listen to it, they can just turn it on elevator mode, you know what I mean?”

Elevator mode? Maybe. Gary and I weren’t aware of it when we began, but we chose a type of music that worked well on the streets. Twentieth-century music isn’t accessible to the everyday pedestrian; Romantic music is too involved for casual outdoor entertainment. Jazz belongs in a combo setting with a rhythm section and sounds hokey with just two saxophones. There are enough hokey jazz saxophonists on the streets already anyway. Rock music is too loud and consequently too often offensive, and folk musicians on the street are a dime a dozen. Baroque music proved just right. Not too long, not too short— each duet lasted 3 or 4 minutes—and not genuinely offensive to anyone. Like the guy said, you could always “turn it on elevator mode.” It made good background music, too.

Our brief pitch accumulated enough money for lunch, with some cash left over. Gary and I ate our meal, then strolled around the beach front in what was now considerable mid-afternoon heat.

“Boy, it’s hot, isn’t it, Gary?”

“Sure is. I could really go for an ice cream.” “Me too,” I said. “You have any change left from all those coins we just changed over into bills? I have only a few pesetas.”

“Hold on, let me check.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out his loose change. “Nope. Only 38 pesetas left, and I don’t feel like breaking a bill just to buy ice cream. Please! No more change!”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. But it is hot…”


Our eyes met a few seconds later. A coy grin appeared on both of our faces.

“You want to?” I suggested.

“Why not?” Gary replied with a shrug and a chuckle.

We stopped right in our tracks, pulled the music and stand out of the daypack we carried around, put together the saxophones that were ever-present on our shoulders, threw down the hat, and started serving up Telemann. Fifteen minutes later, we had plenty of change for ice cream.

Normally, our skimpy travel budgets never allowed for such niceties as ice cream, but now we could have them whenever we wanted. That was the beauty of busking—we could play at any time, for as long or as short as we liked. Who else has work conditions like that? Only buskers and millionaires. But even a millionaire doesn’t enjoy the immediacy that a busker does. No waiting for paychecks, no taxes, no delays. Just play, and walk away with money you didn’t have when you started. For two guys accustomed to pinching pennies and trying to get by at absolute minimum cost everywhere, even the modest amount of money we made busking was like stumbling upon a gold mine. Our newly-found means of income completely changed our perception of prices. Gary and I no longer judged prices in the local currency, but instead by the amount of time it took to earn it. Want an ice cream? That costs about five minutes. A night at the youth hostel? About half an hour. An extra pitcher of sangría to go with dinner? Fifteen minutes. Somehow it was all too easy.

To add to our revelations, San Sebastián offered all kinds of fun for two healthy young men out to have a good time. The long, wide, crescent beach crawled with topless female sunbathers as far as the eye could see. It’s a pity that custom never caught on in the United States; in Europe it made for a whole different kind of sightseeing. We’d catch a glimpse of a robust young lady walking down the street with a beach towel, and almost before we could put our active imaginations to work, she’d be on the beach exposing herself. That was too easy, too.

In the evening, the old quarter of town filled up with people and ambiente, and we couldn’t resist another open-air concert. I felt as comfortable as ever playing this time, with no reservations about our duets being intrusive. Gary was as loose as usual, and our ease translated to confidence as we played. The duets lost that hesitant quality present in our earlier efforts. The sounds of our music mixed in naturally with the aroma of fresh fish cooking in nearby restaurants, the feel of the salty spice in the cool ocean breeze, and the intangible electricity of the good-natured carousers in the streets.

The festive spirit of the evening grew with the appearance of that same American guy who had heard us that morning. “You guys at it again?” he asked. “You must be hungry!”

“You got that right,” Gary said, peeking down at the hat filling up with coins. “Play a little, eat a little—that’s the way it goes. In fact, it looks like we have enough change in there now for another meal. Care to join us? On the hat.”

“Why, that’s mighty kind of you.”

“Our pleasure,” I said. “Consider this not so much an invitation from the two of us as one from all these generous people here on the street!”

Off we went to a nearby restaurant and ordered a hearty meal. Our new-found friend felt funny about having us pay for him, so he didn’t eat much. He didn’t understand that to Gary and me, all of this was found money.

Afterwards, we were ready to call it a day—and not a bad first day at all. But we were exhausted. All the activity, along with the overnight train from the previous night that we hadn’t fully recovered from, left us pretty well spent. Back to the youth hostel for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning we still weren’t all too fresh, as true to youth hostel form, someone in our room snored loud and long all through the night. “Why do we put up with these youth hostels?” Gary asked blearily as we rushed to beat the morning eviction.

“They’re cheap.”

“So? Let’s just play an extra half hour today.”

“Oh yeah,” I grinned, petting my saxophone. “Let’s get ourselves a decent place to stay in the center of town. Why deal with all these little inconveniences when we’re loaded?”

We hauled our packs to the center of town, found a nice pensión, and were set for the day. Now all we had to do was walk out the door and we were right in the middle of the old town, ready to pitch. As we walked out the door later that morning, the proprietor noticed our gig bags and asked, “Are those musical instruments you have in there?”

“Yes,” I replied. “We’ve been playing on the street here and doing pretty well. We’re going out to play now. We should be back in a couple of hours with about 2000 pesetas apiece.”

“Hmph,” she grunted with a smirk. “And some of us have to work for a living.”

We kept mostly to the old town to play, where I now felt entirely at home. As we played in the afternoon, a pair of ladies came out onto the balconies of their fourth-story apartments to see where the music was coming from. We only noticed them because they applauded after every piece. We bowed in acknowledgement. Soon they both disappeared into their apartments and reappeared moments later waving their arms to let us know they had some money for the hat. Rather than interrupt the piece in progress, we played on. Another onlooker saw what was going on, so he took the honors of collecting. He picked up the hat, trotted down the street with it, and stood there holding it out for the ladies above. They each threw a 500-peseta note ($4) clipped in a clothes pin. The guy with our hat staggered around on the ground as he tried to catch the flying bills. When he had gathered up the money, he came back and placed the hat right back in front of us as we continued playing.

Not even for a moment did Gary or I think that guy would run off with the hat. No one ever tried to take any of the money sitting there, even though while we played we were essentially helpless to prevent it. Thieves, beggars, and hoodlums passed us by without an assault. Dozens of people were probably pickpocketed in pedestrian zones every time we played. But the hat lay there, untouched, evidence of a strange respect that people have for street musicians.

Half an hour later, we had accumulated a good amount of money when a policeman came by. “Are you aware that playing in the street is not allowed here?” he asked in Spanish.

“Uh, no sir.” I replied. “The tourist office told us there was no problem at all playing here.” In fact they had; when we first arrived, we asked at the tourist information office for advice on where to play. They told us the old quarter was fine.

“I’m sorry,” the cop said, “but you can’t play in this part of town. If the tourist office says you can play, then go play in front of their door. But not here. Otherwise I’ll have to take your money away.”

I translated for Gary, then turned again to the policeman. “Okay, officer, we certainly don’t want to make any trouble.” It might have been just an idle threat, but we didn’t want to risk losing our money. We started to pack up.

Meanwhile, the two ladies, still up there listening, hissed and jeered at the policeman. “Why don’t you leave the poor guys alone?!” they yelled from their safe refuge on the balcony. “They’re not doing harm to anyone! Finally someone with real talent comes into this neighborhood, and you go and stop them. Don’t you lousy cops have anything better to do? Go enforce some real laws! Can’t you find anyone robbing a bank in town?”

Then the other bystanders joined in. “Yeah! Did anyone complain? We like the music. Did you ever think of asking us? Give them a break, will you? Rotten cops!”

Gary and I weren’t about to join in, as much as we would have liked to. But it was encouraging to have such support behind us. We slowly packed up and grinned smugly while the heckling continued. As we left, I turned to the old ladies on the balcony and shrugged my shoulders as if to say there was nothing I could do about it. They applauded us one more time. We bowed, threw them a kiss, and walked away amid the merry jeers.

Police can be a real hassle for street musicians. They occasionally enforce the regulations some cities have against street performing. The safest way to avoid such conflicts is to ask a policeman for permission before playing. Gary and I rarely did. That may seem like risky business, but busking logic suggests otherwise: If you ask a cop for permission and the answer is no, you have no chance of making any money at all. If you don’t ask, it may well be illegal, but first a policeman has to spot you, and by that time you’ll probably have made enough to get by for the day. Even if a cop sees you and tells you to stop, you can always go to the other side of town to an area that’s off the cop’s beat, or wait a few hours until his shift is over. If no policeman spots you, you can busk in blissful ignorance for hours or even days. Often, policemen see you and don’t bother doing anything unless someone complains. I believe that most ordinances against busking exist only so that cops can have some documentation behind them if they want you to stop. Even if you are caught without a permit, I kind of doubt you’d get thrown in jail for playing music on the street! I can just imagine a scene in the jail cell:

“What’re ya in for?”

“Mother raping.” “Father stabbing.”

“Telemann duets.”

The possibility is always there. One never knows how hard-nosed a cop will be. The ultimate relief for a busker is to watch a cop pass him by without saying anything. Then the busker knows for sure that he is safe—at least for the time being.

This time we got off easy. We did have to wait a few hours to busk again, but by nighttime, we had played a couple more times and the money had really added up. Since we were going to leave Spain the next day, however, all of that money would suddenly be useless. We could have changed any leftover peseta bills into French francs when we got to France, but that way we’d lose money in the exchange. It’s all the leftover coins, not the bills, that pose the real problem. Few banks accept coins when exchanging foreign currency, so a busker has a big problem if he accumulates a hatful of change just before he hops on a train that crosses a border. If it’s a weekend or after banking hours, he’s stuck. The busker is better off spending everything he has before he leaves a country, even though it necessitates arriving in the next country totally broke.

That left Gary and me in the highly unfamiliar situation of having to get rid of a lot of money fast. The logical thing to do was treat ourselves to a fancy dinner. What a feast that was! We found a small Basque restaurant on a back street in town and glutted ourselves on clams in red sauce, squid in its own ink, and pitcher after pitcher of sangría. Dangerous stuff, that sangría. All the fruit juice and sugar mixed in made us forget about how much alcohol it contained, and after a few glasses we were really happy. As we sat in blissful delirium over the sumptuous spread of food that we could suddenly afford, Gary repeated the comment he’d heard a few days earlier: “‘Enjoy this meal, because once we hit the road you may not have another one like it for a long time.’” Did I ever eat those words!

Living it up in San Sebastián seemed a suitable way to end my long and eventful time in Spain. I’d been there for two years, and it took all that time to begin to really understand the place. To even speak of Spain as an entire country insults some of the peoples who live there; regional loyalties run so high that many natives insist Spain as a whole does not exist. The semi-autonomous territories that comprise the country have more often worked against each other than together. These regional conflicts have gone on for centuries.

Modern Spain is just as complex as its past. A civil war in 1936 followed by a generation of dictatorship under Francisco Franco isolated Spain from the rest of the continent. Spain has since taken major steps toward becoming more integrated into Europe. Its memberships in the European Economic Community and NATO, along with its selection to host the 1992 Olympics and Universal Exposition demonstrate the rapid growth of the country.

All of this has an effect on the character of Spain’s people. A Spaniard, a product of his country’s complex past and convoluted present, is a humble, honest character who has no delusions of grandeur about what he or his country is. The French are famous for their haughtiness; the British are said to be elitist. The Spanish reveal their mentality in the way they answer difficult questions. Rather than fake their way through an answer, they commonly respond, “¿Yo qué sé?” meaning literally, “What do I know?” or more figuratively, “I’m not so smart, go ask someone else.”

The yo qué sé mentality manifests itself in many ways. Why isn’t Spain more integrated into European life? Yo qué sé. Why is unemployment so high in your country? Yo qué sé. Why don’t Spanish trains ever arrive on time? Yo qué sé. It’s easy to see why things take a long time to get done. Spaniards yo qué sé everything to death.

But if you can get beyond that frustration, the yo qué sé mentality has its benefits. People who don’t worry about all their problems end up happy, relaxed, and able to really enjoy life. Your train’s late? So what, you’ll still get there. Show up a little late to work? Don’t worry about it. Thanks to the common cold, it is said, every Spaniard has a week of vacation in winter. The average blood pressure in Spain must be half of what it is in the USA, and the life expectancy of Spanish people would easily be five years longer than Americans if 75% of the population didn’t smoke like chimneys.

I was accustomed to the Spanish way of thinking after all my time there; in fact I had adopted some of the mentality myself. It was all new to Gary, though, and he still hadn’t gotten used to it by the time we left. As we boarded our first train across the border in France, he stated, much to my chagrin, “It feels good to be back in civilization again.” So much for stereotypes: Our first train in France promptly left two hours late.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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All material copyright 2002 by WebMerchants and Dan Gordon.
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