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Monthly Archives: October 2012

This weekend the two main streets in downtown Bologna were closed to motor vehicle traffic. Thousands flooded the streets to take a walk, to shop, to eat, to see the street performers who appeared to sing, play, dance, and swindle.

An excellent mime/magician we saw in the morning.

This happens every weekend in Bologna, but since it was the first time for us, Rachel and I were taken in by the novelty of the experience. It seemed as though every person in the city was there, crowding the streets with sound and excitement. I found walking in the street to be a delight—it seemed so wrong to be walking in the middle of what under ordinary circumstances would be the flow of motor traffic. I half expected some crazed driver to appear and begin running down the merry-makers.

On both days of this madness we were fortunate enough to find quiet spots to play, for at least two hours each day. Financially we did about the same as we had on Thursday and Friday, but we enjoyed the novelty of playing for these much larger crowds. At one point during a performance in the Piazza Maggiore, I experienced another moment of dislocation, looking out over one of the biggest crowds we’ve ever played for, swelled with strollers and passer-by stopped in their tracks by our voices. “I’m still not nervous,” I observed, even as I continued to play and sing and watch. “When did this become routine?”

One of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. A full post on this man to come. Just imagine deafening karaoke tracks to the Rolling Stone’s “Angie” blaring out of speakers mounted on the back of a motorcycle, with live distorted guitar playing the melody. Really.

As always, the crowds brought out not just the local buskers, but a full complement of beggars and umbrella men as well, and even a handful of buskers that seemed to combine attributes of all three.

Because we’ve seen such a variety of street performance and scamming alike, and because our sets have been relatively the same since Rachel’s last post, I thought I’d take some time to talk about some of the more interesting things we’ve seen on the streets of Bologna.

First, the umbrella men. As I mentioned two posts ago, “umbrella men” is our own private term for the (mostly) men who seem to swarm every tourist location in Italy, selling various junk items at extreme markups, and sometimes with extreme sales pitches. The majority of the umbrella men in Bologna sell glowing children’s toys out of hand bags. You can see their wares lighting up the night sky near every major Piazza—little L.E.D. helicopters that they launch into the air via rubber band slingshots. The chief strategy of these men is to attract a child’s attention, sometimes going as far as placing an item into an infant’s hands, in the hopes that a parent confronted with a crying child will be too embarrassed to say no to the inflated price proposed by the vendor who has it within his power to end the torment of their sweet little bambino.

Upwards of a dozen of these men prowl our section of the Piazza Maggiore at any busy time, and when we succeed in attracting a crowd, they often crowd around as well, pressing glowing rubber balls or other electronic trinkets into the hands of our younger audience members. On Saturday one of these men was so aggressive that he had driven away portions of our crowd on multiple occasions. I had had enough. The next time he approached we were in the middle of a delicate, gentle song called “Whirlpool.” He was making a bee-line for a boy of three or four on the back of his father’s bicycle, who was listening to us with rapt attention. I walked straight towards him while continuing to sing and play, and turned my body away from him, stepping completely between him and his intended target. He seemed to get the picture—he kept to the edges of our crowd for the rest of our set.

More of “Angie.” The lead guitar player is on the right, while his friend dances suggestively on the left. This was taking place directly outside the library.

I’m writing this in the Piazza Maggiore, in my little yellow notebook. It’s a quiet afternoon, too early and too Wednesday to be playing, and I see the aggressive umbrella man in question right now, sitting across from me under the statue. He seems to be taking the day off—he doesn’t have his bag with him today, doesn’t seem to be doing anything other than passing the time.

Our Italian friends Fabio and Nicole told us that these men are called “vucompra,” which is phonetically, “Do you want to buy,” in poor Italian. Sometimes it seems as though you can tell the locals apart from the tourists, in that the locals don’t pay the men any attention at all, unless one of them is pressing some overpriced junk into the hands of their tots.

In Bologna we’ve seen two men that seem to be running another kind of scheme that involves stacks of children’s books, and a long, “help a guy out” kind of pitch. These men, who are incredibly effective in dispersing our crowds, take advantage of the Italian inclination to help—they repeat “Scusi, scusi, scusi” until their target has given them their attention, and then they launch into their pitch, while pressing one of the books into the hands of the listener. A similar tactic is used by sellers of cheap bracelets and other jewelry, although we saw many more of these men in Firenze than Bologna.

One of these men is so aggressive in his pitch that… I can’t believe this, but he just pitched me as I was writing this sentence. Blank-eyed, insistent voice, holding the books out to me, never mind the fact that I’m sitting against the wall of a church writing in a notebook. Holy Moly. I didn’t even see him coming.

Simultaneously, inside the library, a demonstration of the clavichord. No joke, this was happening at literally the same time as the madness outside. I love Bologna.

Anyway, I’ve seen people shake their heads angrily at him, shoo him away, shove his book back at him, but mostly what I’ve seen is people looking incredibly embarrassed and awkward by the nature of the appeal, and wanting to get rid of him in any way possible, even if it means parting with a few Euro for a childrens’ book.

I’m interested in these men and their pitches for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the sheer ordinariness of it, how it seems to many of them to be a job like any other job. A lot of the umbrella men seem especially hapless, as if someone has taken half a dozen socially awkward unemployed people and stuck them in the middle of a piazza with a bag of trinkets.

The matter-of-fact mentality seems to apply to many of the beggars we’ve seen as well, about two-thirds of which seem to be Romani, at least in the cities we’ve visited so far. It didn’t take too many encounters in Firenze with gypsy women in flamboyant head scarves, skirts and plaits prostrating themselves theatrically on the sidewalk to become inured to it, especially when we saw the same women casually chatting with each other in a different piazza a few hours later.

The Bologna beggars seem to be much less flamboyant than the Firenze ones, though, having the businesslike attitude I described above.

And then there are those on the edges of these categories, riding the line between performance and aggressive panhandling.

In Seattle, we have many “living statue” buskers, whose performances generally consist of some kind of aesthetically unified or thematic costume. Most stand still and silent until they are tipped, at which point they briefly transform or make a sound to reward the tipper. One of the Pike Place Market statues, a lovely girl in a reddish bronze, is particularly skilled and graceful in her movements, winking and blowing kisses once “freed.”

When we caught this fun quintet on Saturday they were in the midst of a medley of “Miserlou” and “Hava Nagila.”

In Bologna, several people have cut out the performance aspect completely, while preserving the “tipping” and a sketch of an outfit. While I was writing an earlier section of this, a man dressed all in white, including white sunglasses, dress hat and shoes, stalked up to me and lowered his hat in appeal. “Non,” I said, to which he grunted in reply before angrily stomping off. Across the piazza from me two women with their faces covered in white foundation have been loudly arguing for the past hour or so. When their discussion was finished they put on their white wigs and parted ways—one of them left, and the other is now making the rounds in the piazza, walking from person and holding a white paper cup out in front of her.

We’ve also seen musical buskers who have cut down on the troublesome performance aspect and trimmed the act back to its basics, including a duo which consisted of a man wailing away on a recorder while another man stood in the middle of the street, holding out a cup and tapping his foot impatiently. One night we heard what seemed to be an excellent trio—two trumpets and an accordion – from a distance. We didn’t approach, though, when we realized the two trumpet players were playing one-handed—using their free hands to gesture threateningly at their bucket every time someone passed by.

One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by all the variations in these activities is that what we do resembles them in so many ways. It’s not a coincidence that we all show up to the same places—its where the people are. Crowds of people, ready to relax, to socialize, to spend some money.

I think the fortunate difference is, we see ourselves as genuinely providing a service to the people that wish to hear us, and are at most only mildly inconveniencing those that don’t. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I’m so dead set against amplification while busking, as in the modern world, the human voice and acoustic instruments can’t ever be as penetrating and irritating as the the noise of traffic or car horns or ambulances. At least, not without the aid of electricity.

It’s easier to feel this kinship on a Wednesday, playing to an almost-empty street. It can be hard sometimes. In the fifteen months Rachel and I have played together, we’ve been pretty well insulated from that feeling. When it was too cold to play in Seattle, when the tourists went away, we just packed it in, holed up for the winter. But we don’t have as much flexibility these days. We can’t take the consequences of it—falling behind, going back in the red, even ending our trip early.

But Saturday. Oh, Saturday. Thousands packing the streets, walking, eating gelato, smiling, window shopping. Turning their heads when they hear our voices, rising above the noise of the crowd, bouncing across the cobble stone streets and off of the stone walls and into the sky above us.

Let me have the crowds. Let me have their smiles, their flashing eyes, some bit of their attention.

Let me have the weekend forever.

Sean and I spent our last Sunday in Florence acting like actual tourists, eating gelato, strolling around admiring statues, and dining one last time with our friends Marya and Daryle. When Monday morning came, we were free at last. Free from our imprisonment at a hostel with such terrible conditions that the severity of the situation went from bad to hilarious to unbearable throughout the course of the week. Free to search for a city with a more accepting or at least tolerant policy for busking. We packed up our suitcases, eliminated enough of our excess clothing to make space for our camera bag and computers inside one of them, and headed out into the pouring rain, bound for the train station. Next stop, Bologna.

Our initial bag count when we arrived in Italy had been ten; we were now down to eight. While we still felt ridiculously encumbered, we hoped that this consolidation would make train travel a bit less stressful. It was not to be– after a failed attempt at fitting our luggage into the racks above our assigned seats, we retreated to the baggage car, where we spent the remainder of the train ride, standing, and reading Great Expectations out loud.

When we stepped out of the station in Bologna, the rain was still pouring down, but the excitement of a new place with new possibilities gave us the push we needed to lug our 150 plus pounds of luggage the 2.6 kilometers to our hotel. The hotel was huge, and featured 24-hour front desk staff, a breakfast room and a bar and restaurant – our room even had a private bathroom. This place was the antitheses of our previous hostel, which was a wormhole to hell.

By the time we were settled into our new place it was too late play or do much busking research, but it was the perfect time for a leisurely stroll and dinner. We walked around a bit, and after inspecting the menu posted outside and peering in the window a few times, eventually selected a Singaporean restaurant. I had been feeling reluctant, culturally shy, and a little overwhelmed – how on earth were we going to order Singaporean food in Italian when we had left our Italian phrasebook and dictionary at home? But once we were seated in the warmly lit room, I was glad we were there.

We were, as I had suspected, totally incapably of discerning what dishes on the menu might be vegetarian. When the waitress came to take our order, I used one of the important phrases I have memorized, “Siamo vegetariani,” hoping she would help us out. She left and immediately returned with an English version of the menu. This was enlightening, as all of my guesses as to what might be what on the menu turned out to be wrong. We made the best choices we could with this still slightly confusing menu, and ended up with two teeny tiny egg rolls, four teeny tiny wontons, and a small dish of egg noodles with slivers of carrots and zucchini, all of which tasted like they had been plucked from an all you can eat Chinese buffet, and all presented to us on the fanciest of dishes, as if they were the rarest of delicacies. I was starting to understand what Sean meant when he had warned me that this was going to be Italian Singaporean food.

We managed to make our dinner slightly less bland with a sweet and spicy red chilli sauce that we received after a long and confusing conversation in which we eventually communicated “Si, piccante!” “Piccantissimo,” Sean threw in at the end, making our waitress laugh and getting the point across (we hoped) that we wanted our food very spicy. The highlight of the meal was definitely the fried ice cream, a ball of gooey deliciousness, warm and crispy on the outside, cool and sweet on the inside, which we shared for dessert.

Part of the reason we had chosen this place for dinner was that it had looked relatively affordable. We haven’t had many dinners out on this trip (save Marya and Daryle treating us in Florence) so when we do eat out, we try to choose wisely. Upon receiving the bill we realized that we hadn’t done such a good job. Our bill included a cover charge of two euro per person, along with two euro for the bottle of water we had shared. There is no option to order tap water at Italian restaurants. The options are naturale or frizzante (plain or bubbly) and both are served in 750ml glass bottles for two euro or more. We payed our bill, silently cringing that six of the euro were spent on sitting and drinking water, and walked back to the hotel, vowing that we wouldn’t go out to dinner again until our finances were steadily in positive digits, and discussing the concept of the cover charge. For Italians, it seems to be like a bit of real estate – they’re renting the place were they want to spend their evening, and then they spend the whole evening there. The families who were dining when we popped in for our quick bite looked as though they had been there relaxing and enjoying themselves for quite some time before we had arrived, and didn’t show any signs of leaving when we got up to go.

The next afternoon we walked to the center of Bologna. It looked amazing – plenty of covered walkways lining streets filled with shops – just like the area we had played in Brescia, but much, much bigger. We passed a busker with a tuba who had just finished a set, counting his earnings in an alley. We introduced ourselves and asked about busking in the area. “It is okay to play anywhere,” was his friendly reply. “Just rotate to a new spot after one hour, and it is not a problem.” This was music to our ears. We were excited to play, but it seemed too early – while the walkways were many, they were mostly abandoned. We walked around for a while, scoped out a few possible locations, and succeeded in restraining ourselves for a single half hour before we started playing, around 3 p.m. Many of the stores in the area were still closed, on pause, a long lunch break from noon-ish to 3:30 or 4 p.m., but we were so excited to play in a place where busking was legal that we (or to be fair, I) couldn’t wait.

The friendly local buskers, on a different (busier) day.

Sean knows that it will make it harder for him to keep his energy up if we aren’t well received, so he likes to make sure that our set starts well, usually starting with instrumentals, so it’s easier not to take it too personally if we’re ignored. I’m not as sensitive to being ignored, and tend to want to give a spot some time, hoping, sometimes futilely, that things will get better.

As we played to the closed businesses, and were mostly ignored by the few passerby, Sean became increasingly discouraged, and I started to realize that it had been a mistake to force us to start so early. Our spirits were temporarily lifted when a couple of girls who had been listening from an open window above applauded wildly and dropped a little satchel of coins down to us on the street below, but were squashed again when an unhappy-looking woman from a nearby business tried persistently to communicate in Italian that we were doing something wrong. Too early for music? Too close to her business? We had no idea. The final blow came a few minutes later when we peeked into the little satchel, only to find a heaping pile of pennies. These were not good signs. We decided we should take a break before starting another set.

After waiting until the pause was safely over and the streets were full of people, we found another covered walkway to play on, Via Dell Indipendenza, now nearer to the Piazza Maggiore, one of the biggest piazzas in the city. This time we were slightly better received, but it still felt like we were working really hard and barely being acknowledged. It was incredibly loud – cars, motorcycles, and buses roared by constantly, making it hard for us to hear ourselves, and even harder for others to hear us. After a tiring hour of playing, we took a break to find some water, and tried again, further down the Inipendenza, with similar results. It was clear, even if it was only for our own sake, that we needed to find someplace quieter, so we could actually enjoy playing music.

 Neptune and his sea concubines, at the edge of Piazza Maggiore.

We strolled through the Piazza Maggiore, contemplating setting up to play there, but unsure if that was allowed. As we walked, we noticed a cobblestone street leading away from a corner of the piazza, filled with pedestrians, and no cars! This was what we needed. By this time it was pretty late, and there were definitely less people walking about than there had been earlier, but this didn’t seem to be a problem at our new location. The acoustics were great, and people could hear us and see us from far away. Some people stopped to listen to a few songs, others threw coins into our case as they passed by. We ended the night with a performance of “Hallelujah,” a new addition to our set, and were joined by a few college students who sang along on the choruses. As we were packing up, a woman from Mexico and her Italian husband came down from an apartment above where we had been playing. She had opened the window so they could listen to our music during dinner, she said, and did we have a CD for sale? We chatted with them a bit, and she told us that we had found the best street in Bologna for playing music. Whew.

In the four hours that we played that day, we ended up making just enough to cover our food and lodging, but we were still in the negative from before, and man was it exhausting! We hoped that things would improve as the week wore on and we became more familiar with the area.

We had only reserved two nights in our Bologna hotel, trying to learn from our mistake in Florence, where we had prepaid for a week before discovering that we couldn’t busk legally. We wanted to make sure that the city was going to be busk-able before we made a commitment to staying, but with our new found spot, we were ready to give Bologna a chance. Unfortunately, there was a convention taking place at our hotel, which meant that if we wanted to stay in our current room we would have to pay three times the rate we had paid originally. So, we got online and found a new hostel, woke up early the next day, and lugged our suitcases the several kilometers to our new home, which was very far away, but conveniently close to our new favorite busking spot.

By the time we arrived, we were beyond exhausted and couldn’t wait to be liberated from our baggage and be relaxing in our new place. Unfortunately, the office to the hostel was closed. We piled our suitcases and instruments on the sidewalk in front of the building and collapsed. There was a phone number listed above the door, but our phones have been disconnected since we left Seattle. Fearing that we might end up waiting all day if we didn’t find a way to call, I tossed my hat carelessly onto one of the suitcases, smoothed my hair so that I might appear slightly less haggard and more ladylike, and ventured into the barber shop next door to ask the man inside if we might use his phone to call. After he had kindly placed the call for us, we sat back down on the stoop of the building to wait. We looked up to see a man walking towards us on the sidewalk, digging in his pocket and then producing a handful of change. I glanced at my upturned hat and quickly covered it with my hands, as Sean and I both looked away, mortified.

A few minutes later, our new hostel landlord, Ricardo, appeared to rescue us. He brought us in from the street and showed us to our room, which was quite spacious and included access to an adorable little kitchen. I was going to be able to cook! Things were looking up.

The next day was a Wednesday, i.e.still not the best day of the week for busking. But we headed out to try our luck anyway, straight to the pedestrian street we had found the night before. We talked to a poet giving away little scrolls of paper with a “poem of the day” written on them, and he kindly left his post to bring us to a place down the street that he thought was the best spot to play. He was right– it was lovely. We played there for about an hour, and had a much better experience that the night before.

On a much busier day, Whiskey Bliss, with her tap dancing traveling partner, Corey.

During our set we had seen a girl pass by with an accordion on her back. When we went to look for a new location for a second set,  we saw her again, singing “Wagon Wheel,” on the corner where the Piazza meets the street. She smiled enthusiastically at us, definitely wanting to talk. Her name is Whiskey Bliss, and she’s from Seattle. She’s been traveling around Europe with her accordion for a year, she says, has been in Bologna for three weeks, and is just about to head off to Australia. She gave us a few tips about places to play, including confirming what we had heard before; that two of the main streets are closed to cars on Friday and Saturday. The streets are open for performances, she said, and there’s plenty of space for everybody to play.

This generosity is typical of the buskers we’ve encountered in Bologna. They’re everywhere, but we’ve seen very little competition or intimidation. This is a pretty big contrast to our busking experiences in Seattle, which have mostly been at the Pike Place Market, a very competitive environment where newcomers aren’t typically welcomed by old timers, and where the younger or less experienced buskers don’t even try to play certain spots because of the intimidation. But somehow, in Bologna, busking is legal, appreciated, and possible for anyone who wants to play. I don’t know if it’s the culture, or the climate, or the generous heart of the city, but whatever the cause, we’re grateful to have found it.

Our week-long reservation in the shittiest hostel you can imagine has trapped us in Florence, a town where we can’t play without being stopped almost immediately by the polizia. After three days of not playing at all, we were finally in the negative. Not counting our plane tickets, our total expenditure of Euro had finally exceeded our input.

We do have some money in reserve, but that money is earmarked for our return tickets to the States, our wedding next summer, and our move to California, or, Flying Spaghetti Monster forbid, for some kind of emergency. Practical considerations aside, it’s just a very neat and satisfying way to be, only spending what we make, having other people’s enthusiasm or lack of enthusiasm expressed so clearly to us. If they like us, they tell us with coin. We continue to play. If they don’t like us, they don’t, and we don’t.

It’s a game we’ve gotten very good at the past year, spending as little as we could in preparation for our trip, and getting both of our individual finances ready. No encumbrances, no extraneous desires or habits.

It was with all this in mind that we set out on the train for Pisa on Friday morning.

If we were going to avoid disaster, we needed to busk while we were trapped in Firenze—but the town itself was out of the question, unless, like the many street vendors, we played hit-and-run with the police, stopping for a few songs and then retreating at their presence. But this is emotionally exhausting for both of us, and even though it might have worked out alright financially, it wasn’t tenable in the long run. It wouldn’t have been long before we would be recognized before we even started playing, and be told to take a hike—or, more likely, be fined or run out of town.

So that’s why we took the train to Pisa that morning, despite the expense of 24 Euro for the train rides back and forth—our need to be back in the black. We headed out and ran through our normal procedure for playing in a new place. Instruments on our backs, we toured through the city, took in the sites just like another tourist might, with an eye towards all the likely places to play.

When we exited the train station we were deluged by the rain, and by the “umbrella men,” our private name for the vendors who seem to flock the tourist areas of Italy, peddling (or in some cases, pushing) various junk goods wherever masses of tourists have gathered. We’ve learned to be observant of where these men gather, as it can function as a general indication of where our trade might be tolerated as well.

The other day I had compared Rachel and me to the little birds that gather in the stone piazzas to pick at the crumbs dropped by the lunching tourists. The comparison may be more apt for these men, who cover the stone streets and squares, handbags full of jewelry or “fine art” prints or knockoff designer bags or little glowing helicopters that they launch into the night sky in the hope of attracting attention from passerby, or children of passerby.

Because it had been raining this morning, these men seemed to have all renounced their jobs as salesmen of little Roman letter train sets or glowing rubber balls, and been transformed as if by magic into umbrella salesmen. They came at us from every angle, every few feet from the train platform, undeterred by our own pink umbrella which I waved at them like a cross.

Outside the station we saw a congregation of three or four of the men, discussing something while their unsold umbrellas hung at their sides. “Umbrella man conference,” I said to Rachel. “”Men, I think there are just too many of us.””

Pisa was beautiful. It seemed to be a small town that had successfully exploited its main attraction without destroying the livability of the city itself. We had a delicious cappuccino at a little cafe on the main drag of the city before heading off to the tourist area, Pisa’s famous “leaning tower,” and nearby cathedral and dome. Part of me was marveling at the sites, at the imposing structures and cold surfaces of the building materials, and part of me was planning, analyzing, strategizing. Looking for clues as to what might or might not be acceptable.

It was clear there would be no point in actually playingnear the tower and cathedral. For one thing, the police presence in the area was much heavier than anywhere else we had seen. Even the umbrella men stayed outside, standing just beyond the open gates that presumably marked the edge of the official historical area. For another thing, all of these tourists would be passing through the main drag on their way back to the train, and would presumably have a little more time for music and relaxation. And really, who wants to compete with the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Not us.

So, our touristing done, we headed back to the main drag and parked ourselves in the most likely spot, just outside the cafe where we had enjoyed the cappuccino just a few hours before. After twenty minutes of insecure hemming and hawing, we launched into a timid instrumental set, to some surprised local attention but very little reaction from the few passer-by. It seemed it was just too early. Part of our audience was made up of police officers who nodded politely from their cars. So were we in the clear? We were optimistic. Towards the end of our set a stony-faced construction worker came out and set a bright orange sign onto the ground directly next to us, sand-bagged it in place, and then walked off. We stopped to look up the words on the sign in our Italian dictionary, to make sure this wasn’t some kind of notice to us. No, something about parking or driving. The man came back nearby to have a cigarette, and I used all fifteen of my Italian words to tell him a joke about the sign being about us. He laughed, either at my joke or my Italian.

Now, finally, we were having the problem I had actually expected on our trip—playing places that might not be profitable enough for us to continue. In almost an hour of playing, we had made almost the exact same amount we had made in four minutes of playing on the Ponte Veccio a few nights before. At that rate, we would have to play for another hour just to cover our train rides, or another five hours to cover our hostel and food.

After a brief conversation with a man from Georgia (the country, not the state, he explained to me) we walked by the river and decompressed a bit. We were on the verge of another now-familiar problem that had been completely unanticipated to us during our planning—a lack of public drinking water and bathrooms. Brescia had prepared us for the idea that Italian cities were covered with lovely grimacing stone heads vomiting potable water in perpetuity, and public restrooms at every tourist attraction—alas, this seemed to not be the case. Unfortunately for Rachel’s bladder, we found it extremely difficult to persuade ourselves to part with a fifth (!) of our earnings to pick up a bottle of water and use a restroom. We wandered around for a while longer, taking in the lovely city, and after an hour or so, decided to head back to the main drag for one more go.

This time we were stopped in just a few minutes by two officers on foot. “Your music is very beautiful,” the first officer said to Rachel. “Unfortunately, you must move here—in this place is not permitted.” What followed were directions in mostly Italian of where we could play, a few blocks down from where we were currently located, in a place that seemed virtually identical to us. But no matter—we were just relieved to have permisso, at long last.

We made the most of our permisso, and of the expanding crowd, a melange of locals on promenade and tourists from all parts of the globe. After another two hours and a single CD sale, we headed back to the train, weary but satisfied.

Our year of busking in the States has trained us to estimate our take with uncanny accuracy, but our unfamiliarity with the Euro has made our estimation approximate at best. So until we actually counted our take, we had no idea what kind of day we had had at all.

We had done well—not counting our first hour, and adjusted for the amount of playing, we had done virtually the same as Brescia, virtually the same that we do in Seattle.

Saturday we came back, and again we did well. Again we avoided the umbrella men. Again we smiled and sang and shook hands and exchanged stories and felt a little more welcome in a town that was once unfamiliar to us, a town that now feels, in some small way, close and familiar.

After a very long and much needed night of sleep, we couldn’t wait to play. But duty called– we set out to explore Firenze, as we had decided before hand that we should always take the first day in a new place to get to know the city. It takes a while to get the feel for the busk-ability of a new location, and we wanted to take in enough to be able to wisely choose the best place to play.

That morning our first destination was Ponte Veccio, a covered bridge adorned with jewelry shops and crowded with vendors and tourists. Our friend Giacamo had reported seeing a classical guitarist busk here on a recent visit to Firenze. On our walk there, we were continuously surprised by the lack of musicians. There were tourists everywhere, and so many beautiful piazzas and picturesque bridges. Where were all the buskers? It was quite mysterious. We arrived at Ponte Veccio, sure that someone would be playing there. Nope. No one. Through our time of busking, something has happened to our brains– whenever we see a crowd of people strolling along, taking in the sights, we feel an overwhelming urge to take out our instruments immediately and perform for them. Why weren’t there buskers everywhere? Didn’t all of the local musicians see what an amazing opportunity they were missing out on?

Across the bridge, we found a cafe and ordered “Due cappuccino,” the most delicious, frothy, perfect cappuccino I have ever had, which we enjoyed standing at the cafe counter (the prices listed on the menu are only good if you stand– there’s an extra “cover charge” for a table). Feeling sufficiently caffeinated, we picked up a baguette, plums, and a hunk of cheese from a little market, and carried our breakfast to a nearby piazza, passing several “artists” and print sellers along the way, but still, not a single musician. As we ate, tiny birds hopped beside us, daring to come very close to eat the crumbs that fell from our baguette. “We’re just like those little birds,” said Sean, “picking up the crumbs left behind.” This pleased me, as I strongly preferred being likened to a bird than Sean’s previous analogy of our relationship to the world, which described us as bottom feeders – the fish that suck the algae off of aquarium walls. Sean spoke to a man who was painting nearby. “La musica?” he asked, motioning to the surrounding area. “No, no.” the man replied. Very strange indeed.

On our walk back to the hotel, we came across a classical guitarist playing in the Piazza Repubblica, the same piazza where we had met a gypsy jazz trio the night before. Just as the trio had informed us, this busker had “authorization” – a weathered permit reading “artiste de strata” displayed in his guitar case. We had heard that some cities in Italy require permits, but were unclear as to how the laws worked, if the permits were really necessary, etc. We continued to debate the best course of action. Should we attempt to apply for a permit, or should we just go for it, play, and see what would happen.?

It took just a hint of good old fashioned peer pressure to give us the push we needed to play. We met up with our friends Marya and Daryle for dinner. Marya was in town to attend clown school, and then the two of them were heading to Paris to do some work for a writing workshop they’re teaching together. They couldn’t believe we hadn’t played yet. “Let’s go get your instruments! We’ll be your plants!” Their enthusiasm was contagious and boosted our confidence. After a quick stop at the hostel to get the fiddle and guitar, we were back on the Ponte Veccio, opening our cases and setting up to play. We had seen the polizia strolling off of the bridge as we strolled on, so we were pretty sure that if what we were about to do was illegal, we would find out soon enough. We started our set with “Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying,” a Belle and Sebastian song that Marya loves, and had a crowd immediately. Figuring we might not have much time left, and wanting to make the most of this amazing experience, we launched right into with “I Shall Be Released.” Just into the second verse we noticed the un-permitted vendors who were illegally selling knock-off purses on the side of the bridge roll their merchandise up in the rugs they were displayed on and pull them off of the street, a sure sign that the police were coming. We kept playing, eying the officers, until we saw one of them wag his finger at us and mouth “No, no.” We only understood some of what the officer said, but got the idea that we did indeed need “permisso,” that the musicians who did have permisso were only authorized to play at certain times and in certain places, and we could go apply in the morning. We weren’t sure where. The crowd that had gathered to listen to our set sighed when we stopped playing to talk to the officers, and gave us a final enthusiastic round of applause as we packed our instruments and headed off to dinner.

 “Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying,” made a little faster through nerves. Sean glances around for the polizia throughout the video.

After a delicious dinner of pizza and gelato (we had made enough money in our one and a half song set to treat Marya and Daryle to dessert!) Daryl used her little bit of Italian to ask a second pair of police officers where exactly we should go in the morning to get our permit. One of the officers wrote down the name of the piazza and the building we needed to find. We had made progress. Even though our first busking attempt was cut short, at least now we had the information we needed. We would wake up early in the morning, find the office, get our permit, and finally be able to play!

But it was not to be. After a long walk, which was made longer by a few missed turns and difficulties asking for directions in Italian, we arrived at our destination, recited our carefully rehearsed request, “Vorremo permisso per artiste de strata,” (we would like permission for street artist), and were informed that the office we required wasn’t open that day. We should come back tomorrow at 3pm. We repeated this information in Italian to make sure there was no miscommunication. There wasn’t. Grrr.

We walked back to the hotel, working out the harmony for a new song, and trying not to feel too disappointed. We still didn’t have the permit, but we had even more specific information. Permisso would soon be ours!

But… it was not to be. After a long wait in what seemed to us the Firenze equivalent of the DMV, we were finally directed to the desk of the woman who was actually in charge of permits. We once again recited our carefully rehearsed request, and were told… no. There are only three spots in the entire city of Firenze that buskers are permitted to play in, and they are all “complete” through the end of December. I tried to ask if there was anywhere else in the city that we could play without permits, and the woman became rather alarmed, seeming to think that I was telling her that I intended to break the law and play without permission. Sean re-phrased my statement and her response made it clear. There is no busking in Florence.

Now we were disappointed. Tired, frustrated and disappointed. My usual Panglossian attitude had been temporarily squashed. I tend to convince myself, and often Sean, that everything is working out for the best, and I had been holding on tight to the idea that all of this hard work would lead to a busking permit and many magical nights on the Ponte Veccio. Now it was clear that was not going to happen.

Florence would like you to be enchanted by the gypsy jazz trio set up haphazardly in the center of the Piazza de Repubblica. Just like Florence would like you to marvel at the numerous copies of Michelangelo’s David littering the city, out of scale, out of place, but readily accessible. It’s becoming clear that we’re not in a city, we’re in an amusement park. A scratch beneath the surface reveals a power structure that controls street performance in such a way that it can hardly be called busking. There is no spontaneity. No magic. No chance for a few musicians traveling through town to stop and share their music with the people gathered there. It’s all planned. Much like the “buskers” that are hired by Disney to play on the streets in front of the theme parks in Orlando, Florence has taken the freedom away from an art that gains its power from that very freedom. We have seen a total of five separate groups of musicians playing on the streets in the entire city of Florence, two with authorization, three without. The gypsy jazz trio seems to have claim to the Piazza de Repubblica every evening, and the classical guitarist has the same location every afternoon. The unauthorized include a clarinetist who roams from place to place to avoid being stopped by the police, a harmonica playing guitarist who set up in an unpopulated piazza one evening, and an accordion player who was likely hired by the restaurant he was playing in front of. The gypsy jazz trio had told us they had been playing there for ten years, and we had heard the same of the classical guitarist. We were starting to see why our friend David had had such a hard time finding a place to busk in Italy. All of the spots were held by the few and fortunate “authorized,” and all other playing was illegal.

“Where is Florence?” Marya had mused the night before. “I keep looking, but I can’t find the city beneath all of the tourism.” Well, Marya, that’s because it’s been covered up by the layers of artifice. People come, looking for something that speaks to their expectations, their idea of a romantic world of history and art, and Florence is more than willing to give them what they think they want. It’s just a shame that the real thing has been killed in the process.

We had been asked by a local pub owner to play an informal gig on our last day in Leno, at a bar called Cosmopolitan. Other than that, we planned on taking the day easy and getting in some relaxation and packing. Twas not to be, though, as at the last minute we added another small performance, at a local Leno Christian Youth Center. They were having a charity breakfast that morning to bring awareness to free trade practices and goods, and they wanted to know if we were up for playing a little bit? Sounded good to us.

But before we could play that morning, we got another last minute invitation, from Renzo, the doctor we met the previous two days. He wanted to know if we would be interested to eat with his family that evening?

So we spent our last day in the area in Leno and then Brescia and then Leno again, three performances of varying levels of informality.

Just a regular morning at the Leno Youth Center.

The Youth Center is a really interesting place, with a snack bar in the front and a large yard in the back for games or gathering. The breakfast was delicious, and like most of the breakfasts we had so far in Italy, consisted mostly of pastry and cafe (cappuccino) and juice. After a while, we pulled out our instruments and played a 25 minute set, aided by Bruno, our friend and impromptu translator/emcee, who helped us pimp our CDs and the gig that evening.

This is one of the best features of being a duo, particularly a duo that’s as loud as we are– we can enter a new situation, and after a little bit of time to size up the location and the environmental noise, we’re ready to go. No mess, no long set-up or sound check, just unpack the instruments and play.

After the gig we rode into Lunch at Renzo’s apartment was a blast as well. It turned out he lives in a villa right off of the street where we had seen him in his car the day before. He introduced us to his wife, his daughter, and his daughter’s friend, and told us that other friends would be arriving soon. The later arrivals included Ugo, an avid record collector who had housed Bob Dylan for a few days on his last trip through the area, and two siblings who were the children of one of Renzo’s friends. It so happened that the last two had spent their last year of high school in a foreign exchange program in Puyallup, a town not too far outside of Seattle. We had a leisurely lunch, and great conversations about recording, favorite albums, and the legality of busking in the area.

It turns out that the busking we had been doing in downtown Brescia was not actually legal, as the new government had passed a law outlawing, not specifically music in public, but solicitations for money for playing. Which went a long way to explaining the other two buskers we had seen, one who seemed to be collecting solicitations in his hat, and the other in a tiny plastic cup perched atop her accordion as she played. It seemed we had just been lucky enough, or friendly enough, or good enough, or possibly even novel enough, not to get hassled.

And why did Renzo and his wife have such a clear idea of the busking laws? It turns out his wife is a well-known local politician, who had been the head of the city council for over a decade.

In the midst of such interesting company we gave an impromptu performance, playing “I Shall Be Released” because of Ugo’s Bob Dylan connection and because of the beautiful acoustics of the kitchen, and following it up with Renzo’s favorites from the CD. (“Back Up and Push”, of course, and “Ashokan Farewell,” and “Whirlpool.”) In between we jammed a little bit with the other guests on some Johnny Cash songs.

At six (or 18:00, Italian time) Renzo drove us back to Leno for our last gig of the night. His car was very interesting to us, as it was the largest car we had ridden in since arriving in Italy. I was impressed with the doors, which hinged from the center as well as the front when they opened. Rachel was more interested in the dual sun roofs—one for the front of the car, one for the back. After a relaxing ride and more great conversation, we arrived, about half an hour before the performance. We took our time setting up and pacing the floor a little bit to get comfortable with the location before we’d have to play. Many of Giacomo and Gwen’s friends were already hanging out, and at a little after seven we launched into our new good-luck charm, “Back Up and Push,” to announce our arrival.

It was one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever played. The acoustics of the room were perfect—we could fill the space without any amplification and without straining too much, and every stomp was like a thunderclap. Unlike the street crowds in Bresca the two previous days, these people wanted their songs loud, and fast, and joined in with clapping, stomping, and drumming on the tables. So, we did our best to give them what they wanted.

A portion of the incredible audience of the Cosmopolitan.

Halfway through our set, I felt a strange feeling, one of profound dislocation. We were in the middle of singing a song—I don’t remember which one, only that it was one Rachel and I have performed a hundred times—and I looked around the room at the faces of the people watching us, and I thought to myself, “I have no fear. No fear at all.” Me, a person who used to have panic attacks in public, who couldn’t eat the day of my water polo games for fear I would vomit from anxiety. I was standing in front of a large crowd, of mostly people with whom I don’t share a common language or even in many ways a common culture, singing and performing and making eye contact, with no barriers or no restrictions at all. And this observation came to me in the middle of this song, in mid-phrase, and it suddenly seemed that I had traveled an incredible distance over the past few weeks, over the past few years.

They were very kind to us, applauding loudly and buying several CDs at the end of our set. We had a long discussion with several local musicians who wanted to know about our busking experiences, and were in the midst of planning a busking tour of their own of the United States. The guitar player of the group, David, was especially helpful in giving us more information about Italian cities we might enjoy busking.

The next morning we set out early for Firenze, all of our bags in tow. How do you pack for a nine month trip? We had gone back and forth about what we really needed several times before leaving Seattle, but it wasn’t until we were on the three trains it took to reach Firenze that it really became clear to me how much we had over-packed. Some of the extras are things we’ll end up using as we go (shampoo, gummy vitamins, first aid supplies, etc), other things will end up traveling with for the duration of the trip, unless we decide to ditch them (winter clothes, summer clothes, too many damn clothes, at least, that’s how it seems right now). Every time I had to lift one of the mammoth suit cases onto a high rack, I thought it just might be the last time I’d manage it.

But manage we did, if just barely. Surprisingly, we were joined on the second train by our new friend David, the guitar player from the night before. He kindly spent his train ride giving us remedial Italian pronunciation lessons, and also played us a song from one of his bands, an up-tempo ska band called Lemon Squeezer, which featured a tight horn section and dog howling from the lead vocalist. Great stuff.

By the time we actually arrived in Firenze, any plans we had other than finding our hostel and collapsing were abandoned due to physical exhaustion. “Damned clothes,” I thought to myself every time I lifted the bags. I found a new thing to curse when we arrived at the door to the hostel, only to find out that the owner wouldn’t be back until 8 PM. We would have to occupy ourselves for the next five hours.

We dragged our suitcases up the tremendous flight of stairs and, after a quick check for valuables, dumped them in the hallway outside of the hostel bathrooms. We dragged the rest of our belongings back out into the street and all around the portions of the city nearest to the hostel.

Firenze is no place for visitors with too many bags and too little money. We wandered awhile in search of affordable food, and a place to relax. Instead we found exorbitant prices, hostile local buskers, and stern, intimidating buildings at every turn. By the time it was eight, we were wiped out in every way—physically exhausted, demoralized by this strange, tourist-riddled city.

NEXT: Can we play?

Also–who would take in strays like us? You can find out at the blog of Laura Castelletti, Renzo’s wonderful wife, who wrote about our visit here. Also included–some video of us playing in their lovely kitchen.

http://www.lauracastelletti.it/?p=48174

Energized by the events of the morning, Sean and I headed back to the center of Brescia, ready to play. On previous visits we had seen a few buskers playing under the covered walkways surrounding the shops in the center of the city, so we were pretty sure that this was the place to busk. We walked around the center a bit, tipped a busker who was singing Italian songs into a microphone, karaoke style, accompanied by prerecorded music blaring from his case, and chose a spot just far enough away from him to be out of earshot, in front of a display window of fancy Italian shoes.

Another local Brescia busker, not far from “our” spot.

A little nervous and unsure of what to expect, we started off with a slow instrumental tune, “Ashokan Farewell” which is always a hit in the U.S. Much to our relief, our music was met with smiles, nods, and coins tossed into our case. We played instrumental tunes until we felt more comfortable, and then launched into one of our favorite songs, “Androgynous.” A woman stopped and asked to buy our CD right away! “How much?” she asked in English. “Dieche euro” I replied, excited to use the few Italian words I had prepared. “How much?” she asked again, looking puzzled. “Oh, ten.” I said, realizing that of course she knew I spoke English, seeing it was the language we were currently singing in.

We played for a couple of hours, selling a few more CDs and stopping every once in a while to have a chat with someone who was listening. We stopped mid-song to talk with a doctor from Brescia who said that he had been to Seattle a few times for conferences, and that he thought it was a very beautiful place. He told us that he loved listening to music , and downloads 20 songs a day. He bought our CD and seemed excited to listen to it.

There are police everywhere in Brescia, and while we were pretty sure busking was legal and we wouldn’t get hassled, we were still a little anxious. A few songs into our set, we exchanged an uneasy glance as we noticed a pair of police officers approaching. Our anxiety quickly turned to relief, as they nodded politely and walked on by. They walked by again a bit later, this time smiling and bobbing their heads to the music, and even later we were waved at by police officers from the window of their car as they drove by on the street below. The police in Brescia liked us and didn’t plan on throwing us in jail! We were thrilled. We packed up our instruments and walked back to meet Gwen, tired, happy, and ready for more.

A quick count of our earnings confirmed that this whole busking around Europe idea was a good one – we had made about the same amount that we would make playing at Pike Place Market for the same amount of time – more than enough to pay for food and lodging for the day.

After a fun night out with Gwen and Giacomo’s friends and a Saturday morning of much needed relaxation, we headed back to Brescia for a second day of busking. When we got to the center of the city around noon, it was clear that it was too early to start playing. The streets were mostly abandoned and many of the shops were closed. We’d heard that Italians close up shop to take a lunch/nap break from around noon to 2:30, and then return to the streets for a promenade, an early evening stroll that seems to occur around 4 to 6pm.

Rachel amongst the angelic violin players.

We walked back toward the castle we had visited the day before, found a museum to explore, and spent a few hours looking at art, including a few original Rafaels and some mystifying paintings of figures made entirely of fruit. On our walk back to the center, we were stopped in the street by the honk of passing car. The window rolled down to reveal the doctor we had met the day before! He turned up his car stereo, which was playing track 8 of our CD, an instrumental tune “Back Up and Push.” “Bueno, Bueno! Brava, Brava!” he exclaimed, smiling and giving us an enthusiastic thumbs up. Not a little shocked, we told him that we were on our way to the center of the city for some more busking.

The view from our spot.

Twenty minutes later, set up in front of our new favorite Italian shoe store we had played at the day before, we felt it was only right to start our set with the tune we had just heard coming from the doctor’s car stereo. Seconds into the tune, who should rush by but the doctor, off to a house call nearby. “Back Up and Push!” he cried as he hurried along.

A bit later in our set, a group of high school age girls stopped to listen, talking amongst themselves and giggling, and then asking if they could take a short video. They were doing a project about love, they said, and asked if we would talk briefly about what love meant to us. Shy in front of the camera, and knowing Sean is a ham, I let him loose on the captive audience, and he babbled for a minute or two about his undying devotion to me and every aspect of my adorable, cherished self. Ho hum.

Though our second day was just as fun as the first, we recognized many people from the previous day, and we wondered how long it would take for us to be less interesting to people. Well, we didn’t plan on finding out- one more day in Leno, and it would be off to Firenze. Good-bye Brescia!

At least, that was the plan.

 NEXT: Three gigs in one day

Seattle to Leno.

Rachel and I have been playing together for about fourteen months now. Like many of the best things about our partnership, it started spontaneously—after our second “date”, i.e. all-day gab fest and bicycling extravaganza, we sat in the back yard of Rachel’s house and she taught me eight or nine fiddle tunes over the course of an hour. Two days later, duly educated and armed with another five or six tunes I learned from a recording, we made our debut at the Pike Place Market.

We’re a world away from all that now, a world away from Seattle, staying in the house of our friends Gwen and Giaccomo in Leno, a little town in Northern Italy that features one stop light, a thousand-year-old church, and happens to bear a striking resemblance to Iowa. “This region is the Iowa of Italy” Gwen assured me on our ride from the airport six days ago.

How did we end up here?

Pike Place Market, fall of 2011

The past year has been a blur of activity—you wouldn’t it all if I told you– but the musical portion is a little easier to explain. Rachel and I learned dozens of fiddle tunes from various sources, began to sing together and refine our joint sensibilities and interests. In the winter we incorporated the singing into our sets, and segments of fiddle tunes into these songs, in a desperate attempt to make our sets have some kind of coherence, even if it was a coherence that only we were privy to. We learned more songs, and then more, always testing what was working, what wasn’t working, which songs or tunes were right for which kind of situations or crowds. Since we primarily played at Pike Place up until this summer, our sets were geared to that noisy, competitive environment. As we gradually began busking other venues a little less fast-paced, we added ballads and instrumental waltzes, learned to stretch out or shorten the tunes on the fly if need be. We recorded two albums. We wrote songs together for the first time, saw the first outlines of our collaboration. And, this summer, we played. We played and we played and we played, sometimes as much as four and a half hours in a single day.

As the summer ended, all of this playing gave way to moving, to preparation for our trip, to the release of our album, to the release of my first book, to a flurry of last-minute gigs and goodbyes. But this week, at long last, we arrived in Italy, worn, jet-lagged, but hungry to play after so many weeks of relative inactivity.

Though we arrived in Leno on Sunday night, Wednesday was the first day it was even remotely reasonable for us to attempt to play. We took the train from nearby Breschia to Verona and played tourist for the day, taking in the sights and trying out our meager Italian. In the center of the tourist activity we saw plenty of buskers of varying quality, but no musicians, which, combined with the large police presence, we found a little alarming.

Clearly the best buskers in Verona, these two men had an amazing levitation act that was inexplicable, and went on for hours.

Though we had our instruments with us, we had decided ahead of time to not play unless a clear opportunity presented itself. Rachel especially was concerned with having our first experience be a pleasant one, and any way you cut it, this didn’t look pleasant. Lots of tourists on one hand, but lots of annoying buskers packed in too-small little courts at the intersection of the main thoroughfares. We had a fractured Italian conversation with a “fake baby” busker (if you’ve never seen one, consider yourself fortunate) where he seemed to indicate that the police would definitely stop us if we played in the interior streets, but they might let us play a little bit outside. One more conversation with an English-speaking busker and we were convinced—musical performance in Verona wasn’t going to happen, unless we wanted to be stopped by police immediately. It was probably for the best–we dragged ourselves back to the bus station and fought jet lag for the rest of the day.

On previous days wandering Brescia we had seen at least one busker, and heard another from farther away, both in the city center during the hours before dinner. Although we never saw a crowd there that seemed large enough to justify playing, we knew it was at least legally above-board, so it seemed like a good place to start. So yesterday we rode to Brescia with Gwen in the morning, instruments in tow, and decided to play tourist for the first part of the day, and find a good spot to play for the second.

We hiked through the city in the general direction of one of Brescia’s only tourist destinations, a castle set on a hill on the edge of the city. After a lot of walking and some semi-Italian street interactions, we found the entrance to the (locked) rear of the castle.

Rachel “scales the castle wall”. Or something.

Sean does, er, what exactly? Atop the castle wall.

While hiking up this side of the hill we had been listening to a trumpeter in the distance—on the way back down we found him. He was an Italian man in his late sixties or early seventies, with short gray hair and intense, interested eyes. We talked with him in our fractured Italian for ten or fifteen minutes, something we would only be capable of when talking to someone so patient and careful a listener. My two years of high school Latin supplied a few bonus Italian words to Rachel’s vocabulary, but the semi-related languages caused some confusion too, such as when we told the man we would be staying in Florence for “fourteen Gods.”

We played a little bit with him, told him about ourselves and our trip, learned that he lives with his family in Brescia and goes back to the house in the afternoon to take naps. At least, this is what Rachel got out of the last part of the conversation, and I tend to trust her, since she’s actually studying Italian, and isn’t just relying upon facial expression and a mental soup of approximately 200 words of Spanish and Latin.

Anyway, we followed his instructions and headed down the side of the hill and across the street in the hopes of actually getting to see the castle. As we were heading up a new set of stairs on the other side of the street, my mental musings on walking in a rich world of history and the relative shallowness of the American historical experience were interrupted by the strains of “Barbara Ann” in the distance.

And there below us appeared as if by magic a tremendous crowd of happy, fist-pumping, banner-waving teenagers, led by police with batons, rifles and riot shields. “Barbara Ann” blasted from tremendous speakers from the back of a truck at the front of the proceedings, and huge portions of the crowd sang along, yelled with joy, and waved to the spectating Summer Januaries, high above them on the ancient set of stairs. As they passed below us into the tunnel, a tremendous roar of joy and celebration came from the crowd, and “Barbara Ann” was replaced by the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” (You might think you don’t know this song, but you will be wrong. It has been in the brain of every American since its creation in 1965, and threatens to hatch at any moment, without warning, like an insidious and unreliable musical cicada.)

After this spectacle had passed, we made our way around the hill to the castle. In the yard of the castle we were approached by yet another musician, of approximately same age of the first, but this time German/Italian, and a guitarist. He gestured at us wildly, wishing to communicate something to me that sounded like “Jahrelon.” He repeated this over and over again, gestured at my hair, and mimed air guitar. It wasn’t until he started singing the melody to “Imagine” that I realized he was saying “John Lennon.”

The language barrier broken, he proceeded to share with us at great length his enthusiasm for the aforementioned singer, the singer’s former band, and “Elveese.” This man loved Elvis. Loved Elvis. He had taught himself guitar by ear, he informed us before launching into a dozen-odd songs in rapid succession, each time priming our expectations by repeating the name of the song (“Whiter Shade of Pale”, for example) and then playing the melody alone on his out of tune guitar, occasionally following this up with the chords to the song, occasionally in the same key as the melody. When we made polite gestures of retreat, he would attempt to keep our attention by more songs, or by pulling out his perfectly-preserved Elvis fan magazines circa 1969 or 1970 (!). “Elveese Kung Fu Maestro,” he explained, holding out a two-page photo article featuring Elvis in dark sunglasses and a karate gi, sparring with several other men. This was rapidly followed up by his instrumental rendition of “Love Me Tender,” to which he did not appreciate my addition of some singing.

Not a punchline.

Needless to say, the castle itself, while an intimidating and moving aesthetic experience, couldn’t compare to this man’s improvisational pop performance art. When we left the castle, we saw him at the bottom, having cornered another tourist. We said a hurried “ciao!” and sped by him, on our way to play.

NEXT: Busking Brescia. We (finally) play!