Wednesday or the Weekend

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.

  1. Ruth said:

    In Greece last summer there was a lead player blowing into a tube with a fake cord attaching it to a fake amp- humming-singing the melody. I guess you work with what you have! Glad things are going well over there!

    • Thanks Ruth! That sounds amazing. We can’t wait for Greece!

  2. I struggle with these same ideas all the time -I’m glad you wrote this.
    While some “performers” ask, amplify, and beg to the point of annoyance, me and my guitar remain non-amplified and non-confrontational. And give Me the weekend forever, as well! :)

    • When I see you, Gary, you’re always giving people a smile and a gentle song. I don’t think you have anything to worry about–you do a great job communicating your sweet heart. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who occasionally has these thoughts… like I said, it’s easier to feel it on some days than others. I’d imagine those days have hit Seattle a few weeks ago!

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