Ah, Paris! The Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysées, Notre Dame, the Mona Lisa. The City of Light beckoned.
We based ourselves in Christophe’s studio apartment about ten miles outside Paris. Christophe was busy on the morning after our arrival, so he gave us some advice and left us on our own to brave the city. We were eager to see how we would fare in our first European capital.
After asking in a few tourist offices, we discovered that there were only two legal places to play in the city. One was the metro, but we passed that up because neither of us liked the idea of playing underground. I suppose we could have done well there; the music would have sounded great bouncing around those porcelain passageways, but we felt that playing in the subway was sleazy. We thought our wholesome music was better suited to being played in open space under the sun than in dirty underground corridors below buzzing fluorescent lights. Besides, subway busking can be a dangerous activity for newcomers to town. There is literally an underground network with a lot of “regulars” who resent anyone taking their pitches.
So we went with our only other legal option, which was the large plaza in front of the Georges Pompidou Center. That’s that high-tech “inside-out” building with the framework and escalators on the exterior, making it look like a human “habitrail” or something made out of a giant erector set. Inside are all kinds of libraries, shops, modern art exhibits, and museums, the most technologically advanced of their kind in France and perhaps the world. For anyone visiting France who has become tired of the old and historic, a visit to the Pompidou Center will prove that in addition to its history, France is also on the cutting edge of world technology.
In front of this building sprawls an enormous sloping patio built expressly for street entertainers. A sign at its entrance states the rules and regulations for performing there. Printed in French on one side and in Spanish, English, and German on the other, it reads:
This square is open to the public and provides access to the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou.Thank you for your comprehension.
This open space has been designed for your enjoyment and for that of visitors to the Centre Pompidou. You are requested to help us conserve its character in the following ways:
- keep this area clean: do not litter.
- refrain from playing musical instruments likely to interfere with those of other musicians and performers, or instruments that may disturb residents of nearby buildings. (No amplifiers, no metallic percussion instruments, no drums, and so on.)
- leave the Centre’s access ways unobstructed at all times.
- bear in mind that as provided by the regulations governing public thoroughfares, commercial activities are not allowed on this square, and that entertainment activities are authorized from: 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Our act followed all the rules, so we felt assured we’d have no trouble with the cops this time. The only problem was where to play—the patio was swamped. A mime, a bagpipe player in kilts, several folk guitarists, a juggler in a clown outfit, and a fire-eater laying on a bed of broken glass all performed within a few yards of one another. Rather than fight among them for position, Gary and I pitched on a nearby sidewalk.
Saxophones out, hat on the ground, music clipped to the stand, and we were ready to play. I was a little apprehensive about busking outside the designated area, but once we started to play, the cheery response from those around us bolstered my confidence. Within a couple of minutes there were a few coins, a few comments, and dammit, another cop. Here we go again, I thought to myself.
An incomprehensible buzz of French spilled forth from the policeman’s mouth, but seeing him shake his head was message enough.
“Uh…ici…uh…non? ” Gary managed to spit out, trying to demonstrate in his pidgin French that we were foreigners and couldn’t possibly know the local regulations. “Help me out here, will you, Dan?” he whispered out of the side of his mouth.
More buzz from the policeman, and again we got the idea as he pointed to the patio beyond and nodded his head.
“Ah…là-bas…oui! ” I smiled, thinking how ridiculous we must have looked to this cop. “Bon…we go, uh, là-bas,” I stuttered, gesturing with my hands, pointing to the patio, and nodding to him in agreement. “Merci.”
The policeman went on his way, and we were left having to face all that competition. We picked up our gear and walked down to the bottom of the sloping patio where the bagpipe player we had seen was now packing up. At least we’d have a little bit of room to play.
“Mind if we take your spot?” Gary asked the bagpiper in English as we approached. It’s always safe to address bagpipe players in English.
“Not at all. I’m just leaving,” he replied in his Scottish accent.
“How’s the busking around here?” Gary asked. “Can you make decent money?”
“Not too bad. With me partner here going around collecting from the crowd, we can make a living at it.”
Hmph, I thought. A collection box. Beggar.
“Do you do this all the time?” Gary asked.
“I’ve been here a couple of months now, and I’ll probably stay a while longer,” the piper said. “It’s a jolly good way to live somewhere new without having to go to the trouble of finding a job. All we have to do is find a cheap flat to share with some students and we’re all set.”
“And you make enough money to pay your rent?”
“Usually. Some times are better than others. Summer’s always good—lots of tourists, you know?—and it’s easy to find a cheap place to live because all the student flats open up. A lot depends on your act, though. What do you chaps do?”
“We play baroque duets on soprano saxophones,” Gary answered, offering his saxophone for the fellow to see.
“That’s different. Sure, you ought to do fine.”
Listening to this conversation, I was suddenly struck by the absurdity of it all. There we were, standing in the middle of a virtual carnival with our little saxophones, talking to a bagpipe player in kilts about Parisian busker intrigue. What a life!
“Well, I must be off now,” the bagpiper said. “Good luck to you two. Cheerio!”
What happened to us there on the patio of the Pompidou Center remains a mystery. Every imaginable act was going on, people milled about all over, and coins dropped left and right. The mime a little farther on had easily a hundred people watching. In front of us, a filthy old bum wailed away at the top of his lungs while he beat on a rack of old pots and pans, plastic bottles, and garbage can lids. Not one iota of talent did that guy have, but he still attracted a crowd. Dozens of people gathered around to see what he was wailing about. And we tooted away on our saxophones: nothing. Hardly any reaction at all. People walked right by without even noticing.
“This is beat,” Gary finally conceded after we struggled through about twenty minutes of duets in near anonymity. “I can hardly hear myself playing with this madman over here making such a racket on that pile of junk. And look at the guy—people all around him. That is truly a sad statement about people’s taste. Everybody tells me Europeans are supposed to have a higher cultural appreciation than Americans, and look at this. European tourists walk right past us and gather around that lunatic pounding away on last night’s garbage. Let’s get out of here before I go deaf!”
Our first real disaster. We couldn’t compete with the rest of those street entertainers at the Pompidou Center. Why? My best guess is that we didn’t have the right kind of pitch for the place. The acts that did really well there were more like shows; they had a definite beginning and end, involved the crowd, and were more purely entertaining. Our act, in contrast, was more like background music, as the American in San Sebastián had commented. It was effective for accompanying a leisurely stroll, but not the kind of stuff with real drawing power.
Passers-by responded to this difference everywhere we went. Our duets rarely attracted the kind of crowd that so many other buskers did. I can scarcely remember an occasion when we accumulated more than seven or eight people. But that never bothered us. Those who we did attract were genuinely interested in our music and almost always contributed to the hat after they stopped to listen. I often wonder just how many people in those other enormous crowds actually cough up some money. The percentage can’t be very high. You know how it is—you stand around to see what the attraction is, get your laugh or two, and when it comes time to pay, you walk away. We’ve all done that. So large crowds do not necessarily mean large sums of money.
Our music created an intimacy between us and our small audiences. Gary and I really liked that. Leave all the big crowds for the other guys, like those Inca bands, for instance. What a headache those Inca bands are! There must be one in every city in Europe. Every one of them is the same: six or seven dark-skinned, broad-faced men with long, braided black hair, dressed in ponchos, wide-brimmed black hats and sandals, playing music on two sets of pan pipes or wooden flutes, a ukelele or two, and a giant skin drum. They always have someone walking around the crowd shaking a collection box in bystanders’ faces, and always sell cassettes of their music. Why these groups attract so much attention is beyond me. Maybe it’s just that they are so loud. For other street musicians, they are an absolute nightmare because they drown out all other buskers within a 100-yard radius and they go on playing for hours on end.
If it is true that most of the people in those large crowds walk away without contributing money, I fail to see how those Inca bands survive. They have to divide up their earnings six or seven ways. Gary and I only had to split the earnings in half. The logistics of traveling with so many people and the hassles involved in dragging around all those drums and costumes makes such an act impractical. Would anyone, on the spur of the moment, invite seven people to stay in his apartment for several days, like Christophe did for us? Because we were only two, Gary and I never had trouble finding accommodations, space on trains, or any other such potential problems. Our act was simple, humble, and lovable. We preferred to keep it that way.
There at the Pompidou Center, though, I have to admit that we wished our act attracted more attention. That was a rude awakening. Good thing we had money left over from our successes in Bordeaux to hold us over.
We thought we’d had enough humiliation for one day, so we took a break from the busking for a while. This, after all, was one of the most exciting cities in the world, and we weren’t about to deny ourselves the opportunity to see it just for the sake of making a few more francs.
But what can I possibly say about the sights of Paris that hasn’t been said already? The Eiffel Tower is still magnificent, the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe is still chaotic, and the Mona Lisa is still smiling. Being a tourist is hard work. After only half a day at it, Gary and I arrived back at Christophe’s place more tired than we would have if we had busked all day long.
Christophe greeted us as we returned to his apartment. “Bon soir. How was your day in the city?”
“The city’s real nice, but we gotta find a new place to play,” I said. “The Pompidou Center isn’t our temperament—too much competition.”
“Oh, really,” Christophe said. “So I guess you didn’t make much money.”
“No, not much at all. It wasn’t a pleasant experience,” I replied. “Do you know of any other places we can play?”
“Let’s see, there are always many musicians playing in the metro. You could try that.”
“No, the metro’s not our style either,” Gary said.
“Let me think then. Ah! I know. You can play on the Pont Saint Louis, the bridge between the two islands in the Seine. Yes, that’s a good place. My brother has played there—he plays clarinet, you know. Here, let me show you where it is.” Christophe rustled through some of the papers and boxes that lay around his apartment. He was the pack-rat type who couldn’t throw anything away.
“And there aren’t too many street musicians at this place already?” I asked.
“There weren’t when my brother tried,” Christophe replied as he unfolded a map and spread it out on the floor. “Here it is, right in the middle of the city,” he said, putting his finger on the little bridge that connects the Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint Louis.
“Wow! You can’t get much more central than that,” Gary said. “But you’re sure we can do okay there?“
“Oh, yes, yes. I think it is a good place to play because it is closed off to automobile traffic. You go there in the evening around 7 o’clock, when everyone goes out for an evening walk, and you should make a lot of money, like my brother did.”
“Sounds good to me,” Gary said. “Oh, Christophe, speaking of all this street musician stuff, would you happen to have a little bag or pouch, or something with a drawstring on it for us to put all our loose change in?”
“Drawstring? What is that? I do not know this word in English.”
“A drawstring—that’s a little piece of rope at the top of a bag so you can pull the top closed. You know, like on a laundry bag,” Gary explained.
“Oh yes, now I understand.”
“We need a little pouch with one of those because all of these coins of ours keep spilling out of the hat inside our daypack. It’s driving me nuts.”
“Ha! The little problems you street musicians have!” Christophe laughed. “As a matter of fact, I have just the thing for you.” He walked over to his closet, rummaged through some drawers, and pulled out a purple Seagram’s Crown Royal liquor bottle pouch with a gold drawstring—perfect for our needs. “You’re welcome to have it. I have dozens of them from the restaurant I used to work at.” His pack-rat instincts now worked to our advantage. “I ask for just one small thing in return,” he said as he tossed the pouch across the room at us. “That saxophone lesson you promised me in Bordeaux.”
We dumped all the change from the hat into our new pouch and scrambled to get our saxophones. For the next few hours we poured our enthusiasm all over Christophe and his saxophone. Now that’s special treatment—two teachers for one student! We continued as late as the neighbors would stand it, which was well into the night.
Touristic activities filled the better part of the following day, but our attention centered more on the prospects for busking than on all those monuments and museums. As evening approached, we eagerly descended upon the Pont Saint Louis.
The bridge was all that Christophe had promised. It linked the Ile de la Cité and the Ile Saint Louis with an elegant arch of stone and concrete. A curb and sidewalk along either side straddled the pavement, about as wide as a city street. Metal posts at either end blocked off automobile traffic. Pedestrians filled the void. No more than 100 feet long, the bridge provided a perfect space for one busking act. Just as we arrived, an organ grinder packed up his wares in the middle of the promenade. He saw the saxophones on our shoulders, and realizing our intentions, gave us a bow, a smile, and a sweeping gesture of the arm, as if to say, “It’s all yours. Enjoy.”
And enjoy we did. This was street-musicianing as it was meant to be. People strolled by, sat down on the curb to listen for a few minutes, asked questions, gave comments, and donated generously to the hat. No traffic noise, no competition, no interference from crackpots banging on garbage can lids. The only sounds were the passing of the pedestrians, the murmur of the Seine, and the strains of our music floating through the warm summer evening air.
About half an hour into our heavenly concert, a man approached us, speaking in French. By the tone of his voice it was evident that he was not merely another well-wisher with some extra change to offer. He had something different to say. I thought the end was near.
He continued babbling at us in French, when finally Gary got up the courage to say to him, “Excuse me, sir, but we can’t understand a word you’re saying. Do you speak English?”
“Ah, you speak English!” he exclaimed. “Americans, are you?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“This is an interesting act you guys have. I like it. I’ve seen a lot of acts come and go in this city, but yours is different. I want to make you an offer.”
“What? You mean you’re not going to ask us to stop playing?” I asked.
“No, of course not. Why would I do that?” he said. “Are you going to be in Paris long?”
“A few more days.”
“I make a TV documentary every year on street performers, and this act would really fit into it well. I’d like you to be a part of my production. We tape in October. Are you going to be around then?”
I hesitated for a moment to absorb what he said. “Uh, well, I suppose I could come back for it, but my partner here is going to be back at school in the United States,” I said, thinking to myself that this was too good to be true. But if the guy really wanted us to be on this TV program, he could offer to fly Gary in from the States for it—ridiculous, yes, but stranger things have happened.
The man turned to Gary. “So there’s no chance you’ll be in Paris?”
“School is kind of a binding commitment,” Gary replied, probably thinking the same thing I was, or that this was some kind of con job.
“Hmm, that’s too bad. You guys would have worked really well in our production. Oh well, what can I tell you…if you’re ever in Paris again, keep playing in the streets, and maybe I’ll find you again when we can work things out.”
“Yeah, maybe. Sorry it couldn’t work this time.”
And the man turned around and left. I wonder what would have become of that if we had pursued it further, or at least taken the guy’s card. Sometimes people come up to complain, other times they want to put you on television. You never know what’s next when somebody approaches.
“You think that guy was for real?” I asked Gary as we prepared to play again.
“I doubt it,” he replied with a deadpan expression on his face. Gary doesn’t have as many delusions as I do.
At any rate, the guy hadn’t approached to complain about our playing, so our little concert on the bridge was still intact. We continued for another hour and loved every minute of it. Telemann danced about the bridge all evening long while the pedestrians strode by in rhythm with the music and pitched their change. We played until dusk fell and we could no longer see the music. Our efforts were duly rewarded. The hat was loaded. On the train back to Christophe’s place we counted it up, and once again amid side-splitting laughter (which didn’t amuse the stuffy commuters on the train all too much), we learned that we had racked up $70.
That may seem like a lot of money, especially for two guys with a free place to stay, but even that much money doesn’t last long in Paris in the summer. When you pay the equivalent of two dollars for a cup of coffee at any café within a mile of Notre Dame, money disappears fast. Paris in the summer is ridiculously inflated—but then again, so is the amount of change that people threw at us.
Having found the bridge to be the ideal place to play, we figured we might as well make a habit of it. We made plans to arrive at the Pont Saint Louis around 7pm the following day and left all evening free for another open-air concert. We dedicated the entire early part of the day to relaxing and taking in a few more sights around Paris. A trip up to the top of the Eiffel Tower was certainly in order. We couldn’t very well visit Paris without going to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a rite of passage. We found our way to the tower and got in line with the hundreds of other tourists who felt the same obligation.
“How much is this going to cost us?” Gary asked as we waited.
“Too much, probably,” I said, looking around for a list of prices. “Let’s see, up to the top is…ouch! forty-two francs! Like I said, too much.”
“Forty-two francs! That’s seven dollars! That’s a rip-off!” Gary hollered. “Is it worth it?”
“Well, let’s just say I’m glad we don’t have to pay for it, if you know what I mean. Besides, we gotta get rid of all those centime coins somewhere.”
“Okay, take out the money and let’s count up all that little stuff while we’re on line.”
I pulled the trusty pouch out of my daypack, we each dug a handful of change out, and counted up the smallest available coins. By the time we reached the ticket booth, we had sorted out the 84 francs we needed into about a dozen piles of small change. We pushed them all across the counter at the cashier.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” the ticket clerk asked with disgust.
“That’s the money for our tickets,” Gary replied. “Two, please.”
“No. I no take zis money.”
“Why not?” Gary asked. “It’s 84 francs.”
“No. No centimes. Is too small pieces.”
“Hey, it’s money, isn’t it?” I snapped, ready for an argument.
“No! I no want zis! No!”
“Well, I don’t want it either, lady, but I have to get rid of it somewhere,” I said.
“No here! You use zis in ozer place!”
“What do you mean? Money is money!” I argued. “If you’re not going to take these coins, what’s the use of having them to begin with? Your government goes to a lot of trouble to make these little things. That’s an expensive process, you know. You’re wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned money. They’re perfectly good coins and—”
“No, no, NO!!” she interrupted, getting so excited that she banged on the window between us. If there hadn’t been a window there, I think she would have actually hit me.
“All right, all right,” Gary said, laughing at the whole scene. “It’s not worth the trouble.”
“Is it or is it not money?” I demanded.
“Yeah it is, but she’s a crabby old lady and she’s not gonna accept it. Come on, we’re holding up the line.” He turned to the lady. “Will you at least take some bigger coins?”
“D’accord,” she conceded. “But no centimes!”
We counted out a pile of bigger coins, shoved them in front of the woman, and she begrudgingly gave us our tickets. Poor lady. No wonder she probably hates tourists.
Such are the monetary difficulties that buskers face. Naturally, we want all the coins we can get, but we’d also like to be able to spend them. Sure, I’d be annoyed if I were in that lady’s position, but we street musicians end up with piles and piles of useless coins. What are we supposed to do with them? Nobody wants them. Banks will usually change them into bills, but then you’ve got those same problem with banking hours. Some banks even charge to use those automatic change-counting machines—no thanks. An American Express office will help you out (and someone there always speaks English), but it’s not always right around the corner like it was in Bordeaux. A youth hostel will usually help you out too, or some place like a fast-food restaurant or a penny arcade, which always needs change. But it’s not easy to find places like that all the time. If you have no luck, you just have to carry all that change around with you and dish it out little by little every time you spend money. If worse comes to worst, you can always unload the really piddling stuff on the next street musician. Those piles of small change probably just go around and around in circles among all the buskers in town.
Gary and I weren’t going to let concerns about where we would ultimately get rid of all our change stop us from making plenty more of it, though. Our thoughts focused on the Pont Saint Louis all day long, and we were betting on being able to cash in there again. We made our way back to the bridge that evening, 20 minutes ahead of our planned arrival time of 7 o’clock. We wanted to make sure we had first dibs on the bridge in case any other buskers had ideas about showing up there at the evening strolling hour, too. After all, if someone else were already busking there, we’d be out of luck. But then again, even if there were no buskers, the dark clouds that were looming overhead might scare strollers away.
We turned a corner and the bridge came into view. No buskers. Beautiful! All ours! We ran onto the bridge, placed ourselves right in the middle, and started unpacking. As I clipped the last clothes pin on the stand, a drop of rain landed on the music. I looked up at the sky. The dark clouds were all too close.
This can’t be, I thought. All day long the weather’s nice, and now, just when we have the Pont Saint Louis all to ourselves for our day’s only income, I see drops on the music. It better not start raining now.
Suddenly the sky opened up and it started pouring, as if someone were dumping buckets of water all over the city. We were soaking wet by the time we picked up all our things and ran to a nearby café for cover. We stood, dripping, drenched, and shivering, staring out at our wet dream of a pitch.
Finally, Gary mumbled, “What do we do now?”
“I guess about all we can do is sit down and drown our sorrows in another two-dollar cup of coffee.”
I sighed. “Maybe it’ll let up.”
Twenty minutes later, still pouring.
“I don’t believe it,” Gary grumbled. “We’re actually going to lose money today.”
Another ten minutes went by. Finally the rain subsided. We had ideas of going out on the bridge again to make at least some money. We walked over to have a look.
There already was another busker unpacking his gear, ready to take advantage of the pitch. This guy had the works: a whole set of speakers and amplifiers that he carted around on a dolly, along with a cassette deck and a battery pack to run the unit. We stood and watched as the guy unloaded all this stuff, hooked up wires, and checked sound levels. The whole process took at least ten minutes. Then he took out a clarinet, put it together, cranked up the system, and out came a full orchestral accompaniment to the Mozart clarinet concerto in stereophonic sound. As the introduction got underway, the man looked up and saw us standing there. When he saw the gig bags on our shoulders, he knew why we were there. He looked right in our eyes, shook his finger at us, and laughed out loud, “Ha, ha, ha! Pas ce soir, mes amis! Not tonight, my friends, sorry! Ha, ha, ha!”
Gary was furious. Smoke was about to spew out of his ears. “That is totally low!” he screamed. “If he took the spot we wanted before we got there, fine, but that look in his eye, that laugh…oooh! I wanna take that clarinet and shove it down his throat!!”
“Hey, hey, hey! Take it easy! So the guy’s a jerk—don’t get so worked up over it!”
“But that spiteful grin on his face, that tone in his voice…I could strangle him!!” Such an outburst was rare for Gary, but when he felt strongly about something, he didn’t hide it. Five minutes passed before I could completely calm him down.
Then, just as suddenly as it did the first time, the sky opened up again, and within seconds we were in the midst of another torrential downpour. Again we ran for cover, this time toward the nearby commuter train stop so we could go back to Christophe’s place instead of wasting more money in an overpriced café. We ran like mad, splashing all over, when all of a sudden Gary stopped dead in his tracks and burst out laughing.
“What are you doing!?” I screamed through the raindrops. “Are you out of your mind!? What’s so funny!?”
“That guy—the clarinetist—he’s still out there on the bridge!” He was laughing so hard he could hardly speak. “It’s going to take him at least ten minutes to take that whole system apart, in this pouring rain! Serves him right, the dirty bum! Oh, Dan, let’s go back there and laugh back at him! Please, Dan, please!! I want to laugh right in his face!!”
An overreaction on Gary’s part, perhaps, but this episode brings up a significant street-musician issue. That guy on the bridge may have sounded like a million bucks with his full orchestral accompaniment, but look at all the gear he had to drag around, and all the time it took him to set up and take down. In an emergency situation like that one, the guy is doomed. He could short-circuit his system and have the whole thing blow up in his face. If the quality of an act requires that much cumbersome equipment and that much time to put it together, it’s simply not worth it. Gary and I got caught in the rain and had our whole act packed up and moving within two minutes—not enough time to do harm to anything. Yet the quality of our act didn’t suffer despite its easy mobility.
Of utmost importance to the street musician is a balance among three crucial variables: the quality of the act, the set-up and take-down time, and the bulk of the hardware involved. The objective is to maximize the first component while minimizing the last two. It is a delicate balance indeed. Sacrificing or overindulging in any of these variables creates an imbalance that will result in disaster for the busker sooner or later. Gary and I had as good a balance among these three variables as any act we encountered along the way.
But balance or no balance, if you get stuck in the rain, you’re simply washed out. That left us a full day without any income, and we were starting to find ourselves short on money. The next day we had to play in the morning and afternoon hours to boost our finances. We looked at the Pont Saint Louis, but at that time of day there weren’t many people around, so we passed over that. The Pompidou Center was definitely out, too. We thought we’d try out some other areas of the city and play for a while at each spot in addition to doing some sightseeing.
Our first choice was Les Halles, the commercial district and pedestrian zone near the Pompidou Center. Duets for the better part of an hour put money back in our pockets. Then we went to the Montmartre district on a hill in the north of the city. That’s a recommendable place to play because of the busloads of tourists that invade it. We made most of our money from tourists, especially old tourists. Old lady tourists, better yet. They like to tip buskers because they think it’s an obligation for tourists. Or maybe they do it so they can tell all their friends and neighbors back home about it while showing them all the cute pictures they take of us. Gary and I must be in hundreds of old ladies’ photo albums. They must delight in flaunting those pictures:
“Oh, and Mabel, look at this one—up at that church there in Paris we saw just the nicest young men playing these adorable little saxophones. We even gave them some French money, Mabel.”
“Oh, Harriet, you didn’t!”
“Yes, Mabel, and my husband Melvin even went up and talked with them! Can you imagine, Mabel, they were two American boys paying for their travels by collecting money like that everywhere they went. I’m telling you, Mabel, you meet the most interesting people when you travel!”
“Oh, Harriet, you are such an adventurer!”
Mabel and Melvin weren’t the only ones to notice us at the Sacre Cœur church. Someone came along and asked to interview us for a French magazine. One day a TV offer, the next, a magazine interview. The interview was nothing special—the same old questions: Where are you from? Do you earn a lot of money? Do the police bother you? How do people react to you? and so on. We never found out if an article appeared in any magazine, but it wouldn’t have served us much purpose even if we’d seen it. We wouldn’t have been able to understand the French. It would have made a nifty souvenir, though.
Then in the evening it was back to the Pont Saint Louis, and without any threats of rain or other buskers taking up the space this time, we played in peaceful tranquility again for two full hours. A few of the faces among the strollers on the bridge looked familiar this time. Their smiles and nods of approval at our return made us feel completely welcome. We played better because of it. The fast numbers had a little extra bounce to them; the slow ones were that much more delicate. And the coins in the hat piled higher and higher.
Christophe came to meet us as we finished. He smiled widely at the sound of the duets. He peered into the hat. “My brother would be jealous.”
“We owe all our success to you, Christophe,” we said. “What do you say to dinner, on the hat?”
Gary and I had no greater pleasure than to offer “hat dinners” to our busking collaborators. Christophe was delighted to be the beneficiary, but he wasn’t the only one to gain from it. There is much to be learned about the fine points of dining by taking a Frenchman—a French chef, no less—out to dinner. During the meal, Christophe proceeded to educate us in how to judge and taste fine wine.
“First you must smell the wine,” he began. “The aroma is the first sensation you get, so it is very important.” He swirled the wine around with a gentle motion of the wrist, then held the glass up to his nose, closed his eyes, and inhaled. “Ah yes, this has a fine bouquet. You see, when the wine is spread over the sides of the glass you can smell it better. You can also tell how strong the wine is by seeing how it runs down the glass.” He swirled the wine again. We watched in amazement as it ran down the inside in tiny rivulets. Christophe lifted the glass and inspected the contents. “We hold the wine up to see how the light shines through it,” he explained, adjusting the position until the light hit it just so. “And the final test, of course, is to taste it. You must lift up your tongue and let the wine rest on the bottom of the mouth so that the taste has a chance to spread. Watch.” He took a small sip, tilted his head back, and let the wine bathe his lower palate. He pursed his lips and drew in a long, slow breath. He paused motionless for a moment, then swallowed. “If you breathe in like that, you get all the true vapors of the wine. Try it.”
Gary and I went through the same ritual. We sloshed the wine around, we sniffed it. Smelled okay to us. We watched the rivulets run down. We held it up, looked at it. We took a mouthful, we threw our heads back, we sucked in air as the wine lay in our mouths. Wow! What a rush! Our eyes bulged, and both of us gagged as the swell of vapors overcame us.
“Whew!” I choked, almost spitting up the wine. “That is potent!”
“I never knew wine could taste like that!” Gary yelped.
“Yes,” Christophe declared. “This is fine wine. 1985—a good year.”
“What does all the talk about good and bad years in wine mean, anyway?” Gary asked.
“Oh, that is a complicated question. Wine is very delicate. It requires a special balance of many factors. The weather is the most important. Good wine requires a lot of sun during the months of September and October when the grapes are ripening. But not too much, or the grapes will become too dry and have too much sugar in them. If it rains a lot, the grapes become too, uh, how do you say it, watered?”
“Watery. Yes yes, we understand. Go on, please.”
“Well, if the grapes are too watery, the taste is not strong enough. That’s why one year is better or worse than another. If there is a lot of rain, the grapes become big and full of juice, but it’s not of good quality. If there is less rain, the juice is stronger, but there is less of it, so it costs more. A special kind of land is necessary to grow the grapes, too. A poor soil with a lot of rocks in it is actually better than a rich one, and the sun cannot be too strong. Down around Bordeaux where we met is some of the best wine country in the world. It has just the right combination of soil and climate. It is a miracle of nature,” he beamed.
“And what’s the difference between red and white wines?” I asked.
“The kind of grape. But it also depends on how they are processed. For white wine the grapes are pressed quickly—in only a few minutes. Red wine grapes are pressed over a period of several days. That allows the skins of the grapes to color the juices. It is the skins that give wine its color, you know.”
“Fascinating. And what about rosé wines?”
“Oh, you two are curious!” Christophe laughed. “Rosé wine is made from red wine grapes pressed like white wine. That is, the grapes are pressed quickly so that the skins do not have much time to color the juices. There are not many rosé wines made in France.”
“And what’s it mean when someone says a wine is sweet or dry?”
“That is an indication of the amount of natural sugar in the wine. After it is pressed it is left to, oh, what is the word in English…”
“Yes! That must be it—it is the same as in French. The wine is left to ferment in tanks, where the natural sugar turns into alcohol. Sweet wines have more natural sugar, and dry wines have less,” he said. “But all that is just the technical aspect of it. The true art of wine comes in choosing the proper wine for the proper meal. You want the wine and the food to compliment each other. Red wines go better with stronger foods, like meats and cheeses. For fish and desserts, which are more delicate flavors, you want white wines.”
“I never realized it was so complicated,” Gary said.
“And those are just the basics. It takes a lifetime to really understand it all.”
I finished off my wine with a long inhale and a gulp. Then I turned to the waiter and said, “L’addition, s’il vous plaît? How am I doing, Christophe? I feel like a regular Frenchman!”
“Not bad,” Christophe laughed, “not bad at all.”
The bill for the meal barely dented our finances. Being able to stay with Christophe during the week had kept our expenses down, and even in exorbitant Paris we’d been able to put away 100 francs each per day (except for the day we were rained out). We had been trying to save up a regular daily amount since we entered France so that we could blow it all on the big music publishers in Paris. By our last day we had accumulated a significant amount of money, and blow it all we did. We snatched up just about all the saxophone music we could find from the very shops that, while back home, seemed like a world away. As always, we had to mail it away as soon as we bought it since it was too heavy to carry around. That’s a funny feeling—go into a store, spend a good hundred bucks on music, then go to the post office and drop it all in some box. I always felt as if I were dropping a hundred dollars into the garbage. Who knew if it would ever get to its destination? (It always did.)
Having accomplished our goal with the Parisian publishers shopping spree, we held off on the busking the next morning. But by day’s end we were completely out of money. We had to play one more time to keep us financially solvent for our next city ahead. So it was off to the Pont Saint Louis that evening for one farewell performance.
This time we didn’t have the luck we were depending on. When we arrived at the bridge, the organ grinder who we’d met a few days earlier was there again. This time he wasn’t packing up. He cranked away on that organ with no sign of letting up any time soon. That same amiable grinder suddenly did not look so amiable any more.
“Looks like there’s no Pont Saint Louis for us tonight,” I said.
“Great,” Gary grumbled. “Now what?”
“About all we can do is play off to the side of the bridge, out of earshot of this guy, and make the best of it.”
“We’re not going to be able to make anything over there,” Gary snapped. “Well, it’s too late to find another place to play, so I guess we have to. I don’t want to leave Paris totally broke.”
We walked away from the bridge until we couldn’t hear the organ grinder any more and placed ourselves on the sidewalk. At this distance, we were too far from the bridge to catch the attention of the pedestrian traffic coming off it. We disgustedly unpacked and set up to play. If playing up there on the bridge was busking as it was meant to be, then down off it most certainly was not. What a difference a few dozen yards makes.
Twenty minutes of Telemann left us scattered change in the hat from an occasional passer-by. At this rate it would take a long time to earn enough money to leave Paris in any kind of comfortable financial shape. We swallowed hard and kept playing.
Presently, a smallish, bespectacled, middle-aged man approached and rather matter-of-factly began speaking to us. “Good evening. This may seem a bit odd, but I have a favor to ask of you,” he said in a soft but firm voice, in almost perfect English. “I live just up the street from here, and I’ve heard the two of you playing out on the bridge the last few evenings. You make lovely music. I’m impressed. What I would like to ask you is this: My wife is in a rather bad mood at the moment, and I think this music would cheer her up. Could you possibly come up to my apartment and play for about ten minutes? I’ll give you 100 francs for your trouble.”
Invited to play in someone’s house, right in the middle of Paris! The poor fellow was almost apologetic in his request; I was thrilled just at the thought of it. Of course, I couldn’t let him know that the idea got me so excited—that doesn’t look professional. One has to remain calm, collected, and make it look routine. After all, if we looked like we were only lukewarm on the idea, he might even up his offer.
“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t play, do you, Gary?” I managed to say with a straight face.
“Not really. It’s no problem with me,” Gary replied calmly. He was playing the same game I was. I knew he was just screaming with laughter inside—I could see it in his eyes.
A broad smile came across the man’s face. “So you agree? Oh, very well! Follow me, then. My apartment is not far at all.”
And we thought that playing off to the side of the bridge would be a lousy pitch. Ha!
Minutes later we stood outside the door to the man’s apartment, saxophones in hand, ready to play. He quietly let us in, set us up in the entry, and gave us our cue as he went into the other room to find his wife. The sprightly duets filled the apartment, and above the music we heard peals of laughter.
“C’est merveilleux, ça!” the svelte blonde squealed as she came out to find us. “Tiens! Des petits saxophones! Ils sont adorables!”
They led us into the living room to continue our concert. This was no shabby apartment: polished oak floors, a marble fireplace, tastefully laid-out modern furniture, and a magnificent view of the Seine out the living room bay window. We continued our concert, taking breaks for polite chatter and to enjoy the champagne and cheese they served. Who would have ever thought that two street musicians would end up in a central Parisian penthouse apartment serenading a French woman over champagne and cheese!
The private performance lasted far longer than the proposed ten minutes, so when it was finally over the guy slipped us an extra 100 francs. We only stopped because we had to catch a train back to Christophe’s place. Who knows how long we would have stayed otherwise. The man thanked us over and over for our kindness, shook our hands, and we were off.
A fitting end for our visit to Paris. The following morning we got up early, said our thank-yous and farewells to Christophe, and boarded the train to Belgium.
But before we leave France, mention must be made of Fête de la Musique, the annual street music festival on the 21st of June. No account of busking in France would be complete without it. In this celebration, everyone who can make any kind of sound on any kind of instrument goes out on the streets of the country and makes music. Anything goes on this night; it is a musical free-for-all beyond imagination. Every few steps down the street is another musician, and they go on playing all through the night. The celebration, which is beginning to catch on in other European countries, is the ultimate tribute to street musicians everywhere.
Dan Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630