Sax on the Streets
Chapter 22:
Zermatt, Switzerland


© Dan Gordon, 2003

On a whim, we took off for Switzerland. We considered going to Italy for a day or two, just to earn a few of Europe’s most beautiful coin, the two-tone 500-lira piece, and spend it on some real Italian gelato, but the trains proved too time-consuming. Instead, we chose Zermatt, Switzerland, to behold the mighty Matterhorn.

Half a day of trains brought us to the closest town, and from there we had to take a private rail line into Zermatt. That ride is as torturous as it is beautiful, the appearance of the legendary Matterhorn impending from the moment the ride begins. For over an hour the peak remains hidden, while immaculate panoramas of snow-capped mountains, babbling brooks, open meadows, and little villages tantalize the senses.

Just as the train arrives, the peak comes into view. It is a monster up there; its two flat perpendicular sides visible from the village make it look like a pyramid high atop the mountain range. The top of the pyramid is skewed slightly to one side, as if the ominous peak were cocking its head, looking down over Zermatt and defiantly chuckling, “Go ahead, try me out. I dare you.” The rugged and ambitious have accepted that challenge; the less lucky among them have paid for it. A cemetery in the center of the village overflows with tombstones of climbers who “died on the Matterhorn,” “perished in mountain accident,” “expired in alpine expedition.” I will stand back and admire the wonder from a distance.

Zermatt itself is a small village set in a valley at the foot of the range from where the Matterhorn protrudes. The town caters exclusively to tourists, but tastefully so. The absence of any motorized vehicles or other extraneous pollutants preserves the charm of the Swiss village. Horse-drawn carriages and electric buggies clop and putter around, or everyone walks. Indeed, Zermatt attracts those sound of foot; to walk around the village is nothing when miles and miles of mountain trails beckon beyond.

Our late arrival left no time for busking until the following day. After a morning hike on some mountain trails, Gary and I picked up our saxophones and headed down to the main street in town. We found a small plaza along the street and sat down on a stoop beside it to look over the potential pitch. Outward elements looked promising: lots of tourists, no other buskers to compete against, and Swiss coins, in those huge denominations, were sure to add up fast. But if everything was so rosy, why weren’t any other buskers taking advantage of it? Gary and I were wary of disturbing the carefully preserved peace of Zermatt.

“What do you think, Gary, should we go for it?” I asked.

“We don’t have much choice. We need the money.”

Still hesitant, we sat and watched a while longer.

“You want to ask the cops about regulations?”

“Nah,” Gary said. “They’ll probably tell us we can’t play. Then we’re screwed.”

A man with a briefcase and wicker bag walked up and sat down a few feet from my side. I looked over at the things he carried. Decals from cities all over Europe covered the briefcase. Inside his bag lay a folded green plaid fabric. I glanced at the man. He wore shorts and a T-shirt, with heavy black shoes and wool socks.

I leaned over to Gary and whispered, “I think this guy next to me is a bagpipe player. He must be getting ready to busk here. If we’re gonna play, we better do it now. If he starts, we’ll have to go clear to the other side of town.”

Gary looked over at the man and his bags, then looked back at me. He nodded.

We gathered our gear and walked a few dozen feet to the center of the plaza. As we set up, two policemen came by, stopped, and watched. Gary and I saw them there, but said nothing. They parted without a word.

“Looks like we’re okay,” Gary said.

I sighed with relief and smiled as I twisted the mouthpiece onto my saxophone. Before we began to play, I looked over to where the man with the bags sat. He was gone.

The tourists responded well to our playing efforts. The saxophones themselves did not. Low air pressure at the high altitude affected the response of our instruments. The reeds closed up against the mouthpiece and wouldn’t let air flow by. I switched reeds three or four times before I found one that worked. This was our most extreme case, but the environment often influenced our performance. The busker must be prepared to deal with all kinds of changing elements as he moves from place to place. Besides altitude changes, heat and cold may affect his act. Fluctuations in temperature change an instrument’s pitch. In cold weather, water condenses on an instrument and drips all over. Extreme heat dries out reeds and makes an instrument unresponsive. In rainy weather, when busking is possible at all, moisture and humidity play a role. No musical instrument plays well when it is soaking wet.

Since Gary and I played almost identical saxophones, all these elements affected the two instruments in the same way. Even though the “feel” of the instruments constantly changed, they always changed similarly and therefore continued to play well together. Buskers who play unlike instruments will have problems when their instruments respond to the environment in opposite ways.

Exposure to the elements also does a busker’s instrument considerable harm. As our trip progressed, I discovered a new problem almost every time I pulled out my saxophone. A pad ripped, a cork fell off, keys stuck, or parts got knocked out of alignment. Over the course of time, the instrument takes a beating (not to mention the musician who plays it). Any busker ready to set out on a long journey should have a working knowledge of instrument repair, along with a few tools to do the repairs when problems arise. My repair kit consisted of a couple of screwdrivers, a few scraps of cork, and a tube of rubber cement. I often wished I had brought more; with equipment like that, every repair was a real lick-and-stick job.

Busking with a saxophone made this problem worse. All of the woodwinds— saxophones, flutes, clarinets, oboes, and bassoons—are temperamental instruments. With the fine adjustments required of all their moving parts, one bump or jolt and the instrument can be badly damaged. Brass instruments like trumpet, trombone, French horn, and tuba have fewer mechanisms and can therefore take a little more of a beating. Their problem is they’re heavy to carry around. String instruments have almost no moving parts at all, but they’re all made of wood and are therefore even more delicate than the woodwinds. Plenty of buskers travel with guitars, but those instruments are only worth a couple of hundred dollars and usually get wrecked along the way. Percussion instruments like drums and bongos aren’t adversely affected by being beat on. Without the capacity for melody, however, they don’t hold an audience’s attention for long.

All things considered, Gary and I had chosen well with the little saxophones. We learned to deal with most of their inherent problems as we went. Once we had negotiated the high altitude in Zermatt, busking proceeded smoothly. That is, until another pair of policemen came along. These two were different from the two who had come by as we set up, and they did not move on after watching us for a few minutes. They told us we couldn’t play in Zermatt.

“What do you mean we can’t play?” Gary asked. “Two other policemen came by an hour ago and didn’t say anything about stopping.”

“I cannot speak for what the other officers did, but I am telling you that playing in Zermatt without a permit is not allowed,” one officer said. He spoke in English, but not very well.

“We’re sorry,” I said politely, trying to mitigate the conflict by being courteous. “Please tell us how we can get a permit and we’ll be happy to do it.”

To acquire the necessary papers, he told us, we had to go to this office, then write a letter to that agency, get approval form from this committee, show it to that manager, blah, blah, blah. We got the point: They didn’t want anyone busking in Zermatt.

“We’re awfully sorry,” I apologized again. “We didn’t know it was so complicated. In that case, we’ll stop. We’ll be sure to get a permit before we play again.”

“You cannot leave,” the officer said. “You must come with us to the police station.”

Such were the disadvantages of busking without asking about regulations first.

The two policemen escorted us to the station. One walked ahead of us and the other behind, to be able to catch us if we decided to make a break for it. “You think they’ll make us pay a fine?” I whispered to Gary.

“I don’t know, but whatever happens, we have no money. Got it? The only money we have is what’s in the hat.”

Inside the station, one of the policemen led us into an office. He asked for our passports. I handed mine over. He slipped it in his shirt pocket. Gary had left his at our lodging. The policeman paged through several manuals in an attempt to find the proper procedures for this offense. He stepped out the door for a moment to discuss it with his colleagues. “I’m not paying any fine,” Gary said while the cop was gone.

The policeman returned and closed the door behind him. “The fine for making a disturbance on the street without a permit is fifty francs [$35].”

“We shouldn’t have to pay,” Gary said. “How can you demand a fine when two other policemen let us play? If there was some rule against it, they should have told us then. This is inconsistent law enforcement. And how do we even know you’re telling us the truth?”

“It’s written right here in the manual,” the officer said, pointing to some paragraph in German. We couldn’t make out any of it, of course, but we did see “50SF” printed in there. “You are supposed to pay fifty francs per person, but I will allow you to pay fifty francs all together.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have even that much, officer,” I lied. “All we have is what’s in our hat.”

“You have no other money than that?”

“No sir, we earn our money as we go.”

“You must have fifty francs in there.”

“I doubt it,” I said, pulling the hat out of my daypack and spilling the coins all over the desk. Here was one example of how we would have benefitted from emptying the hat frequently as we played. Now we had to show the officer all the money we had accumulated in over an hour’s worth of busking. The coins totaled about 50 francs.

“You’re not going to take all our money, are you? If you do, we won’t be able to eat,” I said.

“You should have thought about that before you broke the rules. You must pay the fine,” he insisted, more forcibly than before.

“You don’t seem to realize that we’ll have no money left if you take this. A policeman is not supposed to leave people on the street with no money,” I pleaded, playing to the cop’s sense of justice.

“Can’t you bill us and have us pay at a later date?” Gary suggested.

The policeman wasn’t that dumb. “No. Foreigners must pay fines immediately. There is no alternative.”

At this point I realized this cop wasn’t going to back down easily. He wanted that fine. Gary and I were sure he was going to pocket the money as soon as we left, so we weren’t going to let him have it that easily. If we made enough of a fuss over it, he might consider the battle not worth his while.

“How do we know that what you’re telling us is true policy?” Gary said. “I demand a call to the American Embassy so that we can be informed of our rights.”

The cop muttered something under his breath. He pulled a telephone book off the shelf, looked up the number, and called. When he spoke on the phone, his voice suddenly lost the domineering tone it had with us. He chatted amiably with the person on the other end, then handed us the phone.

A woman on the line told us she understood the situation. She was actually amused by the whole thing, but scolded us for playing without looking into the regulations first. Gary reiterated our argument about the inconsistencies among the policemen. Then I explained that if the officer took our money, we would be left with nothing. The woman chuckled good-naturedly about our predicament and said, “I’m afraid the embassy can’t be of any assistance to you in paying the fine, but let me talk to the policeman again. I’ll be diplomatic with him and maybe he’ll let you go.”

I handed the phone back to the officer. Again he spoke cordially. “Ja, ja,” he repeated several times with a smile. The woman was making a good argument for us. Leave it to an embassy employee to be diplomatic.

The policeman hung up. His smile disappeared, as did his polite tone of voice. “Fifty francs.”


“Pay the fifty francs or you don’t get your passport back.”

“Didn’t that woman explain anything to you?” we argued. “If you’re going to insist that we pay, we insist on another phone call to the embassy.”

“You can call as much as you like, but you have to pay for it.”

“How can we pay for it?” we hollered. “You’re threatening to take away all our money!”

By now the cop was annoyed that this little incident wasted so much of his time. “Either you pay the fine, or I will take it from you,” he said. He walked over to the desk with the coins scattered on it and began scooping them up.

“Hey! You can’t do that! It’s not your money!” Gary shouted. He ran over to the table and snatched at the coins himself.

The cop shoved Gary away. “I’m warning you,” the officer barked, “don’t give me any more trouble.” He turned to gather up more coins.

“I told you that’s not your money!” Gary yelled, scrambling again to scrape up all the remaining coins he could.

This time the cop grabbed Gary and wrestled him against the wall. A scuffle followed. Gary ended up in a half nelson. The cop dragged him across the room and threw him in a jail cell. The officer threw five deadbolts across the door.

Gary was in jail. For playing Telemann duets on the street!

I sat, head in hands, broken out in a cold sweat, in disbelief of what had just happened. The cop stormed back into the office. He slammed a few books on his desk. “I’m not fooling around. Pay the fine or your friend will spend the night in jail.”

I continued to sit there, motionless.

The cop counted up our money. It totaled 55SF. “I will take only forty francs from you,” he said. “And I recommend that you leave Zermatt soon.”

He handed me back my passport and let Gary out of jail. The two of us slunk out of the police station in disgrace. * * *

Back at our lodging, while sulking over the day’s events, we happened to run into the man with the briefcase and bag we had seen earlier. “Hey!” I shouted. “Aren’t you the guy we saw sitting in the plaza in the center of town today?”

He hesitated for a moment. “Right. I thought you two looked familiar,” he replied in a heavy Scottish accent.

“Are those bagpipes in there?” I asked, pointing to his case. “We were trying to figure it out this afternoon.”

“So that’s what you were doing. I remember two blokes looking over me bags,” he said. “You guessed right, they’re bagpipes.”

“Did you busk in town today?” I asked, eager to see if he had met with a similar fate.

“I tried to do, but the police stopped me.”


“And what?” he asked, somewhat perplexed.

“No more hassles? My buddy here got thrown in jail today for the same thing!”

“Oh, bad news! Yeah, those Swiss police are tough. Made you pay a fine, did they?”

“Forty francs.”

“That’s not too bad.”

“But getting thrown in jail is no fun, believe me,” Gary said.

“Your first conflict with the police?” the man asked.

“Our first major one. We’ve had hassles before, but have never been fined, or thrown in jail, for chrissake,” Gary grumbled.

“I gather you’ve had your share of problems with the cops, too.” I said.

“Too many to even remember. You’ve just got to look at it as part of the profession.”

“Sounds like you’ve been busking for a while,” we said.

“Not as much as I used to do. I did it full time for four years some time back, but I’ve only busked summers for the last twelve.”

“Twelve years! My god, I didn’t know anybody did it for that long!”

“There are still a few of us about,” he smiled.

Gary and I realized that this guy probably had all kinds of stories to tell, so we settled in for some real busker talk. He introduced himself as Callum, from Scotland.

“Of course, a bagpiper from Scotland,” I said. “That’s authentic.”

“I play it up as much as I can. I wear the whole costume with the kilt and all. People here on the continent really go for it.”

“I’ll be totally honest with you,” I said. “We hate bagpipes. Those things make too much noise! That’s why we pitched today right after we saw you. We knew if you set up, we’d have to go half way across town before we were out of earshot.”

“I can understand how other buskers don’t like me pipes, actually,” Callum chuckled. “As a matter of fact, I was debating with meself just then whether it was worth me while to busk in that spot, but then you two took it, so I left.”

“We were thinking about the same thing,” Gary said. “It wasn’t worth it at all.”

“Come, come, now. You can’t let one incident like that bollix you up so much. Fines and the police are all part of busking. You’ve got to look at any fines you pay as busker tax.”

Gary looked up at Callum and cracked a small grin for the first time since we left the police station. “Busker tax…I guess you’re right.”

“Besides, you can’t really consider yourself a busker until you’ve been fined somewhere along the line.”

So Gary and I officially, if reluctantly, joined the ranks of the initiated.

“You’ve just got to have the proper philosophy about it,” Callum continued. “And you’ve got to know how to deal with the police. Here in Switzerland, the police are funny. They’ve got this idea that they’re defending the perfect society. I do most of me busking in Switzerland, so I’ve learned how people here think. The Swiss believe their country is perfect. It’s clean, beautiful, got a high standard of living, a strong currency, there’s almost no unemployment—it is bloody close to perfect, actually. Since the police maintain order in this perfect country, the people believe that the police are perfect, too. The cops are aware of this image and consciously play that role. They’ll never do anything nasty in front of the public. But in private, forget it. They do whatever they want. That was the mistake you made—you went into the station. There’s no justice in there.”

“I’ll say,” Gary interjected. “That cop locked us in his office and we were helpless.”

“See what I mean? You were doomed from the start. But try to tell that to Swiss people and they’ll never believe you. A Swiss policeman being unfair? Can’t be! they’ll say. It’s inconceivable to them. So the secret in Switzerland is never to leave sight of people on the street. You’re safe in front of others. If a cop gives you trouble, do whatever you have to do to stay out of that station: ‘Oh, gee, we’re sorry, officer, we didn’t know it was illegal. What’s that? Me passport? I’ve checked it at the train station. My word, look what time it is! I’ve got a train to catch! Terribly sorry about the inconvenience, sir. I won’t do it again, I assure you. But I really must be off or I’ll miss me train. Cheerio.’” Callum spoke in such a bubbly brogue that I could hardly understand him.

“I get it,” Gary said. “But if the Swiss are so strange, why do you do most of your busking here?”

“I used to have a Swiss girlfriend. I came to Switzerland often and busked while I was here. After I got to know Swiss mentality, I saw how it worked to me advantage. Since Swiss people feel like they live in paradise, they don’t leave the country. So when I come along with me pipes, it’s the most exotic thing they’ve ever seen. It’s like I bring me country to them since they don’t come to me. They go nuts over it.” Callum paused for a moment, then said, “Funny how things work—that old girlfriend was responsible for the best day of busking I’ve ever had. I came down from Scotland to visit the girl, with me pipes as usual. When I got to her place in Bern, I found she had left me for another guy. I was crushed. So there I was in Bern with me pipes, all alone, depressed as anything. The only thing to do was drown me sorrows with me pipes. I stood out on the street and started to play as I had done hundreds of times before. But something strange happened. Maybe everyone noticed the sadness in me eyes or something, but I have never seen a response like it. So many people gathered round that they actually queued up to throw money. After one hour there was over 300 francs in me case!”

“Three hundred francs! That’s over $200!” I cried. “I bet you didn’t stay in a youth hostel that night!”

“Matter of fact, I stayed in the nicest hotel in Bern. A helluva good way to forget about me girlfriend, it was,” Callum said with a smirk. “But I don’t like to tell that story too often. People react to it the wrong way. You two understand because you’ve busked. But you mention an hourly rate to just anybody and they start multiplying the figure by eight hours, by five days. Then they get all crackers when they see what it comes to. They don’t understand how it really works.”

“I know what you mean,” Gary said. “I can’t imagine how some of the buskers we meet actually survive full time.”

“Play an awful lot. And a lot of them tell me that having a bottler makes a big difference.”

“A bottler?”

“One of those fellows who goes about shaking a collection box in people’s faces. It’s called ‘bottler’ because originally they used bottles with a slotted cap on them. That way the bottler couldn’t take money out after someone dropped their coins in the slot. Supposedly a skilled bottler can make you a lot of money. A good one sneaks up behind the people in the crowd and catches them by surprise. People have a hard time turning a bottler away when he’s standing right there. A lot of buskers I know swear by them, but they never worked out for me. I always found the earnings I had to split barely covered the extra amount he brought in, even if he was a good one. And it’s hard to find a good bottler these days. It’s a dying art.”

“We haven’t tried a bottler. Never liked the idea.” I said. “But it’s not easy to get by just on drops when everyone else uses coercion tactics. And those regulars who stay in the same town all the time make competition even stiffer.”

“I agree. It’s not just bottling that’s a dying art, but real busking as well,” Callum continued. “What, after all, is the true definition of a busker? For me, it’s a person who packs up his act into a portable quantity and takes that act on the road. Defined that way, there aren’t many left. Back in the late ’70’s, when I busked full time, there were quite a few real buskers. We had certain spots in each city where we’d meet, catch up on each other’s lives, and exchange busking stories. A real camaraderie developed among us all. We were like a family. One bloke I knew busked for fifteen years, then committed suicide. Couldn’t handle the changes in the profession. I felt like I had lost a brother.”

I had never realized that some people took busking so seriously. “And we thought we had problems with a 40-franc fine and five minutes in jail!”

“Now you’re putting things in proper perspective. Incidents with the police build character,” Callum said. “One time I had a nasty experience with the bobbies in Copenhagen. I was piping away like mad in the middle of the pedestrian zone and had attracted great big crowds of people. All of a sudden the police came by and told me I was making too much racket. The people standing round were furious. They all threw a fit and tried to keep the cops from stopping me. All you’ve got to do is get the people behind you, see? Actually, it didn’t help much there. The cops came right up, picked me up as I played, and threw me in their van. All the people stood about screaming, ‘Nazis! Nazis!’ Almost incited a riot, for goodness sake.”

“What happened to you?”

“Spent the night in jail, I did. But in the morning I paid a fine and they let me go. All they want is your money.”

Gary and I shook our heads and laughed. “You have been around. I guess you know the best places to play everywhere, too,” Gary said. “We’re thinking of going to Geneva next. Where should we play?”

“Geneva doesn’t have any one area conducive to real busking. A lot of buskers do patios there, but—”

“‘Doing patios’?” I interrupted.

“That’s when you walk round the tables in front of a café and busk for the people sitting there. Like a gypsy violinist, you know? There’s a good spot for doing patios in Geneva, right as you come out of the railway station. Every time I busk Geneva there’s the same bloke doing patios. You’ll probably see him when you go. He plays the harmonica, always dresses completely in white, and greases his hair back. The only thing he plays is Oh, Susanna. I swear that’s all he knows. He plays a couple of minutes, goes round and bottles all the tables, then plays again. He’s been doing the same thing for years. If you don’t want to do patios, though, the best pitch in Geneva is by the tram lines. It’s a wee bit noisy there, but there’s no place better in town. You go out from the station, pass the chap doing patios, and walk about two kilometers from there. Once you get over the bridge you’ll see it. There will probably be a few other buskers about.”

“We’ll say hello to them for you,” I joked.

Indeed, Callum seemed to know every busker in every town, every fact, every trick of the trade. We talked for three more hours that night. Our discussions covered busker issues both great and small. I will never forget that evening, for while Gary and I could never compare to Callum and his twelve years of busking experience, I realized that in only a couple of summers we had really come to understand what busking was all about. Those long discourses with Callum on that fateful evening in Zermatt were the true inspiration for this book. * * *

Circumstances with the police did not allow us to stay any longer in Zermatt. We skipped town the following morning for Geneva, the closest city with an American consulate. Gary still hadn’t quite gotten over the jail incident and was intent on filing a formal complaint about it. Representatives at the consulate told us all we could do was write a letter and allow it to move through the appropriate channels. Gary gave up the idea as a hopeless endeavor sure to get lost in the quagmire of international bureaucracy.

Instead, we went to the station to pick up a train schedule. The whole mess with the police and the consulate left us with a bad taste in our mouths, and we felt like getting out of Switzerland as soon as possible. We sat down on some benches outside the station to study the schedule.

Suddenly, we heard faint strains of music behind us. We listened more carefully. Could it be, I wondered? I turned around slowly. In the distance stood a man, dressed completely in white, with greased-back hair, playing Oh, Susanna on the harmonica. “Callum, you are unbelievable!”

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
Click here for next chapter.
All material copyright 2003 by WebMerchants and Dan Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Dan Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 320-6989