Sax on the Streets
Chapter 24:
Ghent, Belgium

Fading Fast

© Dan Gordon, 2003

Welcome to Northern Europe again—it was pouring when we arrived in Belgium. I’m not sure how we ended up in Belgium again; we had no particular destination when we left Barcelona except to get somewhere near Amsterdam. Northern France was too far south of it to assure easy hitchhiking, Germany was too far east. Neither Belgium nor Holland looked too attractive for our final week of busking, but I had a friend in Ghent, so we decided on Belgium after all. Somehow it was ill fate that we would wind up in Europe’s worst country for busking just when we were emerging from the throes of our busking slump.

Under normal circumstances, we would have eagerly met the challenge of busking Belgium again to prove that our original analysis of its street-musician scenario was wrong. At this point, however, our situation was far too precarious to live up to such a challenge. A few bad pitches and we might plummet into the depths of the busking abyss again. The lousy weather that greeted us didn’t brighten our outlook any. Suddenly our morale was as low as it had been before our boost in Barcelona.

But good news! In the intervening year since our last visit to Belgium, the government had minted a new 50-franc coin (˜$1.25). Bad news—in three days of busking, we hardly earned any of them. The slump continued.

Carla, another friend from workcamps past, proved to be a gracious host despite our general grumpiness. She took an interest in our busking because she had recently taken up the bongos. Her dream was to one day play well enough to be a street musician. After seeing how down Gary and I were on busking, it’s a wonder she didn’t abandon the idea altogether.

In an effort to find desirable busking that would raise our tired spirits, Carla took us to a different town in Belgium each day. First we tried the nearby city of Brugge. Here was a locale that looked promising. The city sported classic Belgian architecture of ornate, gold-trimmed stone façades surrounding numerous cobblestone plazas. The weather was clear and warm, lots of tourists. Result? Piddling. We moved our pitch after a first feeble attempt. We thought maybe our location was at fault. The second pitch proved worse still.

Was it the way we dressed? Those Belgian coins? Did we smell bad? We couldn’t figure it out. We shouldn’t have even tried to. Every time we had a poor pitch we tried to analyze the situation. All we ended up doing was hypothesizing about any number of different possibilities without reaching any conclusions. More often than not, we only frustrated ourselves further.

The next day we tried Brussels. Same story. We sank deeper into the abyss. When a busker falls into such a rut, it’s hard to climb out. He starts to play with the idea that it’s going to be beat, and when he thinks that way, it turns out that way. The pessimism is visible in his face and in his playing. That message telegraphs itself instantly.

This slump had dragged on for so long that it began to change my perspective. I felt like I didn’t add to the ambiance of a place by playing, but created a disturbance. Like I overstepped that fine line of social acceptability and became a beggar rather than an entertainer. Like busking was work instead of pleasure. My poor spirits then spilled over to other activities and made me grumpy even when I wasn’t busking. Both Gary and I were irritable, argumentative, short-tempered. He got annoyed when I asked questions; I’d snap right back at him for getting angry. That’s the time when we should have sat back and laughed at the absurdity of it all. But while wrapped up in the situation, that wasn’t so easy.

The lull in busking dividends was not all that had Gary and me down. We had reached the saturation point in our travels, that point at which we became numb to everything and could absorb no more. The street musician blues we experienced were a part of that phenomenon, not apart from it. We were tired of being on the road, tired of the music, tired of each other. All of these signals shouted out to us that it was time to stop. Our timing was off by about one week. We still had to make it through those last few days.

At Carla’s recommendation, we busked the following day at the morning market in Ghent. We went through the motions of playing for an hour and a half. The response wasn’t bad—no complaints, no requests to move. The rate of earnings was about half of what we would normally expect for Northern Europe, but par for the course in Belgium. We returned to Carla’s place even-tempered at best, which was far more cheerful than our prevalent mood of the previous few days.

“Carla, maybe you can tell us something,” I said as we got back to her house. “From a native’s perspective, maybe you know why busking is so bad in Belgium.”

She giggled and peered at us through the strands of bedraggled blonde hair that hung over her face. “I can’t speak for all of Belgium, but as for Ghent, you got here too late. Just last week we celebrated the annual Ghent festival. For a whole week people danced and drank and had a good time. You would have done really well here then. Now everyone is recovering from it. They’re all hung over.”

“That’s how I feel,” I muttered.

“Just our luck,” Gary grumbled. “So that explains Ghent. What about everywhere else in the country? I’m convinced it’s those coins. We thought things would be different from last year once we found out about this 50-franc coin. Where are they all?”

“They’re new,” Carla replied. “Not too many people use them yet.”

“Great,” he mumbled. “Too early for the big coins and too late for the town fair. We can’t do anything right any more.”

Carla paused for a moment. “I never actually thought about it before, but our coins are worth less than other countries. Does the value really matter so much, though? Just think, if every person in Ghent gave you one franc, one franc—that’s worth almost nothing [2¢]—you’d have 100,000 francs at the end of the day!” Obviously Carla hadn’t busked yet. Gary and I felt as if we had busked too much. Once again, we tried to analyze the situation and only got frustrated. We would not try to come up with reasons any more. But we had now busked in four Belgian cities in our two summers, in all regions of the country, at all times of day, in pedestrian zones, in markets, in plazas, everything. We had failed every time. Our conclusion: Avoid busking in Belgium.

Prospects did not look much better for killer Amsterdam, but we had to push on. It would have been cruel to subject Carla to any more of our whining and demoralizing spirits. Only a few days to go. Almost there.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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