Sax on the Streets
Chapter 3:
Bordeaux, France

© Dan Gordon, 2002

Now we had to start all over again. Different city, different country, different language. Just when we had figured everything out and were feeling comfortable, we had to go through the whole process again. No one knew we’d had a successful busking debut in San Sebastián; we had to prove ourselves anew in Bordeaux.

Since we’d spent all our money in Spain before we left, our list of concerns now also included being virtually penniless (well, franc-less). Perhaps it was better that way; the immediate need to earn money didn’t allow us to think about all the other unknowns. We got a map, advice, and directions for where to play from a woman at the train station’s information office. The pedestrian zone in town was the place to busk, she told us, so we dragged our packs in the sweltering mid-afternoon heat to our first French pitch.

Pedestrian zones are ideal busking grounds. Almost every city in Europe has one, full of people and ripe for street entertainers of every kind. Best of all is that they are closed to automobile traffic, so there’s no competing with noise from passing cars. Traffic noise drowns out buskers and prevents anyone from paying attention. Pedestrian zones are usually the commercial centers of town, too, so everyone is already in the frame of mind that they’re going to spend money. If people aren’t there for that, they’re probably out for a leisurely stroll, and enjoy having live music in the background.

In cities without a real pedestrian zone, Gary and I looked for the closest thing to one. An old quarter of town, like in San Sebastián, was a good bet; their narrow streets usually prohibited much automobile traffic, and old surroundings were conducive to Telemann. If a busker stays in an old quarter for too long, though, he can begin to disturb the people in the neighborhood. Even if the residents like the music, they are likely to tire of it after hearing it several times. Busking in any place populated by the same people every day will meet the same fate. Parks, with a changing daily population, avoid this problem. But their low concentration of people doesn’t often provide enough of an audience. A marketplace strikes a good balance. The merchants are the same every day, but the shoppers vary. And everyone around there has a lot of change in hand for the hat. Flea markets fill the same criteria as marketplaces, but they’re populated by bargain-hunters who are less inclined to toss money at a busker.

Train stations have many positive busking attributes: plenty of people, very little constant population to disturb, and no car traffic. But in the few times I’ve busked train stations, people were in such a hurry to get where they were going that they didn’t stop to listen. Something about playing in an enclosed space made busking a train station never feel right. An enclosed space always belongs to someone and therefore has a lot of rules that go along with it. The confined volume opposes the free, open quality of a pedestrian zone or marketplace. So in general, train stations were off limits. The only times we’d consider busking one are when we needed a “sound lift.” The resonant acoustics in stations offer a change from the rapidly dissipating sound outdoors. The echoing music flatters street musicians with even minimal talent and boosts the egos of the most travel-weary buskers.

The presence of a pedestrian zone in Bordeaux made deliberations over alternate pitches unnecessary. The promenade was long, wide, full of strollers, and inviting. As we pitched, our precarious financial situation blocked out the gaping stares, the insecurity, and the nerves associated with busking in a new place. We could concern ourselves with little else until we had a few francs in the hat.

Unfortunately, the francs didn’t accumulate very quickly. We played on, laboring in the heat to make the music sound fresh. Gary and I sweated heavily. Our instruments responded sluggishly. Pedestrians noticed our discomfort and donated sparsely to the hat. An hour and a half of duets earned us less than our rate in San Sebastián. With higher prices in France, we worried that we wouldn’t meet our expenses.

“Was it all a fluke in San Sebastián?” Gary asked we counted up our meager earnings.

“I sure hope not,” I replied. “Maybe the French are all purists and don’t like flute music on the saxophone.”

“Whatever it is, it better change soon or we might even have to c-c-c-cash a traveler’s cheque.”

“No! Bite your tongue!” I screamed. “Don’t even think it! I want to go as long as possible without cashing a cheque! This is way too soon!”

“I agree, but at this rate we’re certainly not going to live it up like we did in San Sebastián. What do we have, about ten bucks apiece for dinner and a place to stay tonight?”

“Just about. But I’ve gotten by on less than that. Let’s not sweat it.”

So it was a stand-up dinner at a pizza parlor and another youth hostel for the night. One day, luxury, the next, poverty. Such are the ups and downs of life as a street musician.

Arriving at the youth hostel, we dumped all our change on the attendant’s desk and hoped it would be enough for the night’s bill. As we sorted out the pile of change, I asked the attendant for some advice on busking in Bordeaux. He pointed to the pedestrian zone on a city map and said in an authoritative tone, “You play in this walking area here and you should do fine. I hear afternoon’s the best time.”

“That’s just what we did today and hardly anyone paid attention to us,” I said.

“It was too hot today. Everyone was in bad mood. You go there tomorrow at the same time and you’ll make lots of money—if you’re good, that is. But for now, I need four more francs for your stay tonight,” he said, having tallied up all the money.

“Oh, great,” Gary sighed. “What do we do now, go out on the street and play again?”

“You have no more money?” the attendant asked.

“That’s all of it, I’m afraid,” I answered.

“I’ll tell you what. You say you’re musicians? Take out your instruments and play for the difference.”

“Right here? Now?”

“Yes, yes. But you better make it worth my money!”

Moments later, we had our saxophones together and were ready to blow. “Should we put out the hat, Gary?” I asked.

“In a youth hostel? Come on, Dan, nobody here’s got any money.”

“You never know. What the hell, it can’t hurt.” I pulled the hat out of my backpack, uncrumpled it, and tossed it on the floor. (No spare change to throw in for starters, even!) We began to play. The music resounded every which way off the stone walls in the hostel’s lobby. It seemed like the people roaming around the hostel appreciated our act. Concentrating as I was on the music, I couldn’t see what exactly was going on, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed some people stopping to listen. A few minutes later, our bill was paid, the attendant was delighted, and there was even some money in the hat.

“What do you know,” I chuckled, bending down to look at the hat’s contents. “Wait a minute… Gary, look at this,” I said, counting up the change. “There’s 57 francs in here—that’s over ten dollars!” Where that kind of money came from in a youth hostel full of low-budget travelers I’ll never know. Busking’s full of surprises.

The next thing we knew, a young fellow staying at the hostel approached us. “Your music is magnifique! I’ve never heard anything quite like it,” he said through a gap-toothed grin. He introduced himself as Christophe, a chef in search of work in Bordeaux. He was intrigued by our means of income, and seemed amused when we told him we’d had a bad day on the streets. “Do not worry,” he crooned in his thick French accent. “Ze French people, zey looove ze good music!”

We chatted politely for a few minutes before Christophe suddenly asked, “Do you go to Paris soon? I live there. I also play the saxophone for fun. I like that you should give me some lessons on it. In exchange, you can stay in my apartment.”

I looked over at Gary in disbelief. He was nodding his head ever so slightly.

We turned to Christophe. “Uh, sure, we’d love to go with you,” I said. “When are you going?”

“Tomorrow evening.”

“All right then. Gaie Paris, here we come!”

What had started out as not a real good day ended up pretty darn good after all.

The next day, with more agreeable weather, we followed the youth hostel attendant’s advice and pitched in the pedestrian zone in mid-afternoon. Was he ever right! Our doubts and financial worries of the previous day completely disappeared, as in two and a half hours of playing, our duets had a constant clink, chink accompaniment of coins rattling in the hat. Every second or third person that walked by threw money, and the stream was constant.

I was embarrassed to gather up the huge pile of coins when we finished. Pocketing all that money in front of everyone on the street was somehow tacky, in the same vein as passing around the hat. For that reason, we got into the habit of packing up all our other things before picking up the hat, so that by the time we handled the money we were less conspicuous. Doing so also allowed an extra couple of minutes for anyone who wanted to make a last-minute contribution. We always considered it classier to accept money in the hat while we packed up than to have someone hand us a coin directly. That, too, is an advantage of using a hat instead of an instrument case for collecting—with the case you have to clean up your coins before you put the instrument away.

Such “hat psychology” is something that every street musician thinks about. Should you let people see you gathering up your money? Should you gather it up at regular intervals so that there’s never a lot of money in the hat, or should you leave it down there and collect it all at once at the end? If you leave it all down there, there is the chance that people will think you have enough money already and don’t need theirs. Then again, maybe they’ll think that if you have all that money, you must really deserve it, and give you more. But the contrary might be true too. If you collect your money often, maybe people will feel sorry for you for not having much, and help you out with a generous donation. Or they might think that if your music isn’t worthy of other people’s money, it isn’t worthy of theirs either. The logic goes around in circles; the street musician always second-guesses the public.

We felt most comfortable leaving the hat out there until we were done, only because we considered it in poor taste to handle money while others were watching. All matters of handling and counting money were better left to do in private. As the song man says, “There’ll be time enough for countin’ / When the dealing’s done.”

Now we needed a place to count up the mountain of coins that we had amassed, and we needed it fast—our pockets were so heavy with change that our pants were falling down. We knew we had made a lot of money, but we weren’t aware of just how much it was until we unloaded handful after handful of coins on the cashier’s counter at the local American Express office and watched her pile up the bills.

One 100-franc bill ($17). Plenty of coins left. Giggles.

Two 100-franc bills. Not even half way done. Laughter.

Three 100-franc bills. Still going strong. Guffaws.

Four 100-franc bills. Not done yet. Rolling on the floor in uncontrollable hysteria.

Almost 500 francs we had accumulated on the street, over eighty dollars. We were delirious. It was a full five minutes before we could pick ourselves up off the floor and regain our composure.

Our fortune made, we relaxed on the town. Not too much to see there, really. The central area of Bordeaux is nice enough, with a small shady park surrounded by boutiques at one end of the pedestrian zone. But the rest of the city is a drab gray, with rows of connected stone buildings turned black from years of soot and pollution. If all the buildings were sandblasted, Bordeaux would be a stunning display of ornately sculpted tan stone façades. As it is now, the fine sculpture work goes little noticed beneath the soot, and the lack of trees anywhere but in private gardens hidden from view doesn’t make for anything very appealing to the eye.

While the city itself is nothing beautiful, the women of Bordeaux are uncommonly attractive. Gary and I got sore necks snapping our heads from side to side as one ravishing girl after another walked by. I kept my eyes trained on each passing belle and uttered a provocative “Bon jour, je m’appelle Daniel….” Not one of them paid any attention. Must have been my bad accent.

But sometimes what’s nice for the eyes isn’t all too good for busking. Take your eyes off the music while playing, and forget it—the whole piece is wrecked. You lose your place, you look stupid if you stop, you sound lousy if you continue. It’s not worth the little peek. All ogling must be restricted to non-busking times.

People-watching is, however, an integral part of street entertainment. It’s courteous to make eye contact with those people who contribute to your cause. If you’re too busy playing to actually say thank you, the next best thing is to gesture it with a little eye contact and a nod. That isn’t as effective as conversing with well-wishers during breaks, but it’s certainly a lot less complicated—saying something in the local tongue is a confusing matter when you change languages every week. In San Sebastián we had no problem because I speak Spanish, but suddenly in Bordeaux we were conversationally helpless. I therefore offer this list of thank-yous that we accumulated over our two summers, so that all would-be European street musicians can, if nothing else, politely acknowledge anyone who tosses a few coins:

Thank youPronunciationCountry
Gracias GRAsiassSpain (good enough, even in regions with their own language)
Merci beaucoupmerSEE boKOOFrance, southern Belgium, western Switzerland
Dank udonk ooHolland, northern Belgium
Danke schönDONGkuh shernGermany, central Switzerland, Austria
Mange takMONGeh tockDenmark
Tack så myckettock so MECKetSweden
Tusen takkTOOzen tockNorway

At this early stage, our only means of acknowledgement was to save the mercis for between pieces; the eye-contact option while playing meant sure musical disaster. That left a few donors disgruntled. They’d throw a coin in the middle of a piece, get no response, and get really turned off. Sorry about that. I speak for all street musicians everywhere, who, by virtue of their means of expression cannot personally acknowledge your contribution: We appreciate it, and we would thank each and every one of you if we possibly could.

But the folks in Bordeaux didn’t seem to mind, at least not enough to keep them from throwing all that money. With our earnings, we were set for a while, so we went back to the hostel, found our friend Christophe, and got ready for our evening train to Paris.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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