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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Sean and I arrived in Rome late Monday evening, checked into our hotel, and headed out into the night. Destination: Fontana di Trevi. We had done some research online about busking in Rome, and found evidence of recent legislation that was more restrictive than in the past, as well as tales of police confiscating instruments, CDs, and tips; but we had also seen posts, photos and videos of people who perform on the streets in Rome with varying levels of success. This left us hopeful about the possibility of being able to play, but also ready to resign fully to being tourists for the week if playing wasn’t possible.

We wended our way through the streets of Rome, which were sparsely populated, except for a very visible police presence – police guarding fountains, entrances to buildings, even police nestled in little kiosks in the corners of the piazzas. We finally came to Fontana di Trevi, an explosion of light, sound an excitement. The steps leading to the fountain were overflowing with all of the usual suspects: tourists eating gelato, posing for photos, and tossing coins over their shoulders into the fountain, and umbrella men selling an assortment of light up toys; but there were also some new characters we hadn’t seen before, including a plethora of photographers, polaroid cameras slung round their necks, ready and eager to take your photo for a fee, and costumed beggars who looked like they’d stepped straight out of Disney.

There were also the flower gifters who insist on “giving” you roses, even though you insist that you don’t want them. They tell you it is a present, just for you, because you are so beautiful, etc. etc. When they persist, even after you’ve said “Non, grazie,” several times, you try a new tactic, completely ignoring them, immersed in the activity of say, taking a photo or a video, and then they take advantage of your body position, placing the roses in the crook of your arm. If they do somehow succeed, despite all of your protestations and attempts to flee, at “gifting” these roses into your possession, they then proceed to follow you around, asking for money. I know this because Sean, much to my embarrassment, decided to play along and accept the flowers on two separate occasions, to the effect of being promptly stalked by the flower gifter until the roses were returned.

You can spend twenty minutes on the Spanish Steps and have this happen a dozen times, from a dozen different people.

After a bit of people watching at Fontana di Trevi, we continued down an adorable pedestrian street, lined with shops and restaurants. If busking was permitted in Rome, this would be the place for it. We walked for some time, noticing all sorts of street vendors and a few silent “statue” buskers, but hearing no music. This scene was all to familiar, and exactly like Florence. Our experiences thus far have led us to create the following equation:

perfect busking area

+ every type of hustle you can possibly imagine

– music

no busking allowed

We did see a man with a guitar slung over his back collect tips from some diners seated outside, presumably for the music he just played, but even though we hung around for awhile, we couldn’t catch any music. It seems that some musicians avoid being nabbed for breaking busking laws by being ambulatory – playing a song, soliciting tips, and then quickly moving on. Unfortunately, this is not a style of playing that would be easy for us.

After a bit more research and consideration, we decided to take the week off from busking and play tourist. We had been busking like mad since the beginning of the trip, we were ready for a break, and Rome, with it’s many attractions, was just the place for some sight seeing.

Happy with our new role as tourist, we spent the week visiting art museums, strolling through ancient ruins, and hanging out with animals at the zoo. We saw Bernini sculptures at Galleria Borghese – figures with flesh and hair and eyes so human and alive that it seemed impossible that they were made of marble. We wandered through the Colosseum and the ruins of the Roman Forum, trying to imagine what the area would have been like two thousand years ago. At the zoo, which was housed in a beautiful and lush park, we spent the afternoon with the animals, mostly the monkeys, sketching them and taking their photos.

It doesn’t take much time exploring Rome to see the many ways the city is inundated with constant hustle. Everyone, in whatever vocation they’d found, is trying to get your attention, win your favor – get your money. From the beggar woman with the baby in her arms, to the restaurant owner who called after us down the sidewalk, “Pizza, pasta, tea for two!” offering anything he could imagine that might entice us to choose his restaurant, to the aged bald man who bounced a ball on his head in the middle of traffic, collecting tips from cars stopped at red lights – the hustle was everywhere.

Later in the week, on the walk back from Snack Bar, our favorite restaurant in Rome, whose virtues include affordable Asian dishes, streetside seating with no cover charge and HOT (temperature, not spicy) food, we turned the corner to walk under a portico lined with shops and restaurants, and found ourselves just a few steps behind a busker/beggar with an erhu hanging from his neck. We followed at a safe distance, observing as he approached diners seated outside, asking for money. His business plan seemed to be to get customers to pre-pay for his music. As he approached the end of the street, an irate pizzeria owner emerged from his restaurant to scold the roaming musician and shoo him away, but quickly changed his tune as we approached, attempting to woo us into dining there by shouting a barrage of dishes and drinks the restaurant had to offer. “Ha, ha” I said to Sean, struck by the drastically different treatment that we received. “Little does he know that we are buskers in cognito!”

After a week of no playing, we were ready for a new home, so we set off on our way to Naples. Our friend Jimmy, who we met in Bologna, had arrived in Naples a few weeks earlier and could confirm that busking was legal, and at least had the possibility of being reasonably profitable. On the train, Sean had a conversation with a balloon man, who gave us all sorts of tips about busking in various regions of Italy, and we learned that it actually might be possible to play in Rome with permission after all. A friend of the balloon man showed us a slip of paper he had just obtained, granting him permission to do his spray paint art at a certain location for a certain number of days. Perhaps with some more research we would be able to play in Rome. But for now we were on our way to see what Naples had in store for us.

One of the few musical buskers we saw in the city.

Walking back from Vatican City, we saw these teenagers, performing on an outdoor stage as part of some type of event. Spending a day with the art treasures of the Vatican makes hearing a Roman rock band playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” even stranger than it might be under normal conditions.

On sunny days, Sean and I like to follow up our morning cappuccini at Cafe Duoma with a walk to the park at the end of Corso Pietro Vanucci for a picnic breakfast. We sit on one of the park’s many benches, eat yogurt, biscuits, and oranges, and read or write, soaking in the sun. A curved terrace encircles the park, offering a 180 degree view of the landscape below. Tourists come here to pose for photos in front of the picturesque Perugian panorama, families stroll with their children in their prams, and lovers embrace on benches.

One morning last weekend, as we strolled from the park toward our hotel, we were stopped in the street by a man in his mid forties, with thick, dark, shoulder length hair, “Frank Zappa facial hair” (Sean’s words) and incredibly expressive eyebrows, which he proceeded to raise dramatically at us throughout our interaction with him, to prove his many important points. He was accompanied by a young and hip couple we remembered as attentive and enthusiastic audience members from our set the day before. Although he hadn’t seen us play, they had evidently told him all about us. He was a street performer too, a classical guitarist from Spain, he told us, and there was another place to play nearby, the favorite of all of the street musician’s in Perugia – he would take us there. Curious as to what this other spot might be like, as we felt we had already found the best spot to play, we followed him and his friends down the street.

As we continued down Corso Pietro Vanucci, our new friend kept us entertained by explaining to us about a large black plastic garbage bag that he held in his hand, declaring at one point that the bag contained “many shits,” which I though was a joke, as he afterward proclaimed that he was actually planning to use it to clean his apartment. I believed him. The young couple who accompanied him listened and laughed with amusement as he alternated between Italian and English, addressing them and us respectively.

We came to the piazza at the end of the street, and thought that this might be our final destination, but he continued to lead us on, through the piazza, and on to a smaller, less populated side street. We started to wonder how far he planned on taking us, and to toy with the idea that, although the man and his friends seemed perfectly sweet and harmless, this might be some kind of strange scam or trick that we couldn’t quite conceive of.

Our doubts were soon quelled, as he stopped under a magnificent stone arch that curved across a bend in the street. He told us that the reason all of the local buskers like to play here is that the acoustics are amazing. He demonstrated with a bit of rough operatic singing. There were two spots to play under the arch, he said, depending on the weather. The best, he declared, is to play under the Virgin (he made the sign of the cross, and dramatically lifted his eyes to the relief sculpture of Maria and Jesus embedded in the wall); but on especially cold and windy days, (this also required pantomime) the best place to play was in a little alcove on the other side of the arch. He continued, as he had intermittently throughout our walk, to assert that busking on Corso Pietro Vannucci was no good – people were in too much of a hurry and didn’t stop to listen. This place, he declared, was perfect.

We thanked him sincerely for showing us the spot, and told him that we would definitely give it a try another time. We could understand why Corso Pietro Vannucci might not be the best place for a classical guitarist, who relied solely on the sound of his acoustic instrument, and would likely do best in this environment that naturally amplified his music rather than soaking up the sound. It also offered the opportunity of catching people away from the glimmer and glamor of the city center, increasing the likelihood that they would be in a mindset to stop and listen.

We chatted under the arch for a bit longer, listening to the man tell stories of his adventures on a visit back to Spain, acting out the parts of the different people involved, complete with character voices, before he abruptly excused himself and fled. As he left, he shouted something that I didn’t quite understand concerning his intentions for the black plastic garbage bag that he still held in his fist, leaving his friends laughing with embarrassment, and Sean and I with incredulity. While Sean is delighted to accept the idea that our new classical guitar playing friend ran around the corner to add to the collection in his black garbage bag, I cling to the hope that he got a sudden domestic urge and rushed home to clean his apartment.

We’ve made it a habit now to travel on Mondays, since, barring special circumstances, they aren’t usually good busking days. Less people are out and about, and those that do show are tired from the weekend, and don’t have the kind of time or energy that they do in the week’s sweet spot—Thursday through Sunday.

So it was this past Monday that we left Bologna and headed for our next destination, Perugia, the capitol of Umbria.

Perugia had been recommended to us on this very blog, by a friend we met in Leno. She also translated the busking laws that she found on Perugia’s website, whichgave us more of a feeling of security than we normally have stepping into a new place.

Perugia is a beautiful city, rich with history and incredible art and architecture, set on a tremendous hill in the heart of Umbria. That last part, the part about “set on a tremendous hill?” Well, we didn’t exactly know that beforehand. So when our train arrived at 4 PM, we foolishly disregarded the instructions from our hostel to take a bus and decided we would walk the 2.4 kilometers to where we were staying.

Well, it’s possible that had we been carrying no stuff whatsoever, we could have accomplished the walk and made it to our hostel intact. But encumbered by our instruments and two heavy suitcases, it was completely hopeless. We eventually ended up back at the train station, almost two hours after we had initially arrived, battered and sore and with one casualty—the extension handle on one of our suitcases had broken off Despite culling a large amount of excess, mainly clothing, before leaving Bologna, it was clear we still had too much, at least, too much to successfully scale Mt. Don’t Want to Take a Bus.

Fortunately, it also happened to be Mt. This is Among The Most Stunning Things I’ve Ever Seen In My Life. Despite arriving in the rain, on a Monday, completely drained of energy and leg strength, it was clear from the first—we were in the right place. Tangled, ancient streets , stretching back to Etruscan times, an incredible view of what seemed to be hundreds of miles in any direction, buildings that seemed to grow like mushrooms on top of winding streets that seemed to be closed to almost all motor vehicles. It was raining, we were exhausted, but it seemed we had found the right place to play.

On Friday, we enjoy the lovely weather and the stunning view.

Not far from the park, we also took in an incredible “fungi festival,” scoping out dozens (hundreds?) of varieties of local mushrooms…

…some of which were rather large.

Unfortunately, we wouldn’t get to test that theory for a few days. The rain and winter conditions of almost freezing weather and icy winds whipped through the streets, continuing all through Tuesday and Wednesday. Had we just arrived too late? Everywhere we saw signs of the previous week’s chocolate festival, an international event that surely had brought huge crowds to the area. Maybe our timing had just been off, and we’d have to settle for just taking a loss for the week, playing tourist as best as we were able, given the freezing weather. But there were signs of hope—we started to see posters for another festival, one that seemed to kick off on All Saint’s Day, which fell on Thursday. And on Wednesday, more hope—vendors began erecting tents all over the main pedestrian street of the city, the spot that we had already earmarked as the most likely place for us to busk, should enough people arrive.

And arrive they did. We played at eleven on Thursday morning, to immediate enthusiastic response. It was overwhelming.. We immediately gathered a sizeable crowd, and maintained a crowd throughout our one hour set. Afterwards, Rachel and I were in a bit of a daze. Sorting through the experience, I told her that there was a special kind of character to that audience, which seemed to mostly be made up of vacationing Italians, and locals as well. “They were waiting for the balloons,” I said. “You know?” We basked in the feeling. “And we were the balloons.”

Early that evening we set up again, not far from the first place we had played, taking advantage of an array of chairs that had been set up by a local restaurant. We weren’t busking to the seated, which were few, but using the bank of chairs to split the street a bit, so we didn’t feel obligated to perform across that vast space. People could lean up against this created partition instead.

Not that they couldn’t hear us from across the street. The main street of Perugia is possibly the most reverberant open-air space we’ve ever played in. It was actually disorienting at first to hear ourselves bouncing back from the buildings across the street. It’s not quite the luxurious reverberance of Bologna.. Some characteristic of the stone and the marble makes the sound thin and brittle , but still lovely. You don’t consider how an acoustic environment shapes a place and its culture and activities until you actually step into a place radically different than your own. But this is a world of continuous stone and marble, a place where you can climb out to the rounded edge of the balcony of the Palazzo dei Priori and see the piazza below and know that your voice could reach every individual of a crowd assembled, if such a crowd were inclined to listen.

Anyway, we managed to play for about fifteen minutes before we heard, in mid-song, some kind of rumble coming down the street. Like approaching thunder. As the rumble closed in on us it became more distinct, and much louder. It wasn’t thunder– it was a drum line.

The drum line, on their repeat performance on Saturday. Yes, the drive-by was repeated as well, both nights almost identical experiences.
The drummers mostly looked like high-school age students, led by two or three adults, and with a makeup no different from any other high school drum line I’ve seen—snares, marching basses, quads, and oversized hand percussion. The sound was literally thunderous—every hit rippled through the space, every bass thud shook my chest and my guitar, which vibrated in my hands with each thud. We watched as the drum line marched past us a few feet and then delivered a ten minute performance not fifteen feet away from us. I tried to protect my hearing as best as I could while not appearing rude by plugging my ear nearest them with what I hoped was a discrete finger.. When they marched further down the street we thought we would soon be in the clear, but they set up on the steps of the church at the piazza at the end of the street and gave another mini-concert there. It was clearly an event, something that everyone seemed to experience as a completely novel and rousing experience. As they left the piazza and we considered resuming our set, I told Rachel, “I think they brought the balloons.”

We managed to play another fifteen minutes or so before the marching band returned from a side street for another performance, before finishing for the evening. We played another half-hour after they left before packing it in and heading back to the hotel.

One of the few other buskers we’ve seen in Perugia, playing what I thought was a hammered dulcimer. He referred to it as a “pianoforte” in Italian, and said it belonged to his grandfather.
It seems that we had lucked into the perfect time to be playing in Perugia. Not only is it a wonderful city full of friendly and generous visitors and locals,, the festival that we’re in the middle of now will continue through Monday. I’m writing this Sunday morning, after playing for almost four hours both Friday and Saturday, to lovely, enthusiastic audiences. Next week we’ll get an opportunity to see Perugia when it’s not in festival mode, but in the meanwhile we’ll just enjoy it as it comes, loving this air of relaxed celebration.
Bring us to the place. We’ll be happy to supply the balloons. Unless, of course, they’ve already been brought by a marching band.
Balcony sandwiches with best view, and the best company, any busker could ask for.

On our favorite corner, in a respite from the rain.

Bologna is my new favorite city on earth. In the two weeks Sean and I have spent here, we’ve been welcomed warmly by buskers and locals alike. Our visit has been the perfect amount of time to make some friends, find our favorite spots to play, and meet many of the locals who stopped to listen or buy CDs (thankfully lightening our load for traveling). We also had time to become familiar with some interesting characters and performers of Bologna.

Our first Saturday in Bologna was sunny and warm. We’d been told that the main streets were closed to cars and buses and opened up for pedestrians and street performers on the weekends, so before playing our first set, Sean and I headed out to see how the city had transformed. Strolling down Via del Indipenzia toward Piazza Maggiore, we marveled at the crowd, stopping to look at, among others, a bronze statue busker who posed making funny disgruntled faces, a one man circus act, and a busker who had gathered a large crowd wearing a puppet costume of a man and a woman dancing on his back, but who, despite his blaring music, apparently wasn’t ready to start the show yet. He repeatedly stood up and reached out from under the woman’s skirt, that should have been hiding him, to make adjustments, making the couple dance sideways on his back each time he stood up, and completely destroying the illusion.

The carnage.

The scene we witnessed upon arriving at the Piazza Maggiore had been described to us ahead of time by some friends, but we couldn’t have imagined it in our wildest dreams. Every Saturday in Bologna, Beppe Maniglia, a man who appears to be in his sixties, drives his Harley Davidson, which is decked out with gigantic speakers, into the Piazza, sets up his gear, and blasts the melody (strictly the melody, no ornamentation, no improvisation, just the melody) to rock songs like “Angie” and “Hotel California” on his electric guitar, accompanied by karaoke tracks, and his tight jeans and a skimpy leather vest, which reveal his bulging arms and chest. On this particular day, he was joined by the Contessa Melania, who gyrated enthusiastically throughout the crowd, waving her arms and shaking her hips as part of some sort of interpretive dance.

Further investigation ( i.e. interrogating everyone we talked to) revealed a wealth of interesting Beppe trivia. For example, when he was younger, Beppe was famous for using the power of his lungs to explode a hot water bottle.

Beppe Maniglia in younger, scarier days.

We also learned has that Beppe has released several albums, has appeared on television shows including “Italy’s Got Talent” and campaigned to run for mayor of Bologna in 2009, promising a revolution, with the bulk of his platform being the support for and encouragement of street art and music. Several locals speculated that he might be a police informant, as no one can figure out why else he would be permitted to monopolize the entire Piazza Maggiore every weekend.

When we first saw the Contessa dancing for the crowd gathered around Beppe we assumed she was his girlfriend, but it seems that although they do have some sort of performance based partnership and a strange sort of chemistry, she is also a separate and unique character of Bologna- a very uninhibited woman who is known for showing up to major events in the city and dancing like crazy.

During the week we also met another American busker, Detroit Jimmy, who has been playing in Athens, Greece for six years, but recently left because of the economic and political turmoil in the area.

We had read about Jimmy and had seen a video of him on the busking project website, which made hanging out with him, trading stories and sharing our favorite busking spots on the streets of Bologna seem more than a little surreal. The busking world seems smaller by the week.

Busker Detroit Jimmy gets some surprise assistance from an admirer..

On our second Saturday we had a great day playing, and afterwards spent the night strolling around and hanging out on the streets of Bologna, with the idea of enjoying the city like the locals might. We came upon Ludovico Valoroso, an Italian man in his mid forties who croons Frank Sinatra tunes into a microphone on the streets, accompanied by karaoke tracks, to the large crowd that gathers to listen and dance. Sean tipped him and requested a song, which he cheerfully sang, even though he said he had already sang it in his first set. We danced along to “Fly Me To the Moon,” happy to be part of the audience for a change.

The best place for cappuccino in Bologna is Bar Scaletto, an adorable cafe just down Via Rizolli from the Piazza Maggiore. We soon became friends with the owner Gianfranco, his sister, his girlfriend, and the other friendly employees, I was delighted when Gianfranco’s sister made a beautiful and ornate sun in my cappuccino the first day we visited. I hadn’t seen any coffee art since we left Seattle, and this was so impressive! The next day, remembering my excitement, she made a bunny rabbit in my cappuccino, and the next day, a groovy smiling sun. A stop at Bar Scaletto became part of our morning ritual.

Since our friends at the bar worked during the times that we busked, they hadn’t been able to see us perform yet; so on our last day in Bologna, which was incredibly cold and rainy, we stopped in for a little farewell performance. We set up just outside of their shop to play a few tunes for them, and they propped open the door and came out to listen.

Towards the end of our mini set we had a first time experience on this trip. In the midst of a fiddle tune that is so lightening fast that neither Sean or I are capable of speech, a man stooped down in front of us, gestured repeatedly at our case while holding up one finger, and mumbled something we couldn’t understand. He began to slowly remove a euro from the case just as the song was ending, before Sean was able to communicate “No!” (some gestures, angrily taking off your guitar and yelling, for instance, appear to be universal). At that point he reluctantly returned the euro and sulked away. I think in his mind it was okay, as he seemed to interpret our non-response to his mumbling as a go ahead.

We said good bye to our friends and continued on to the piazza, only to decide that it was just too cold and rainy to play after all. Luckily we had had two wonderful sets on Saturday, so it was okay for us to take Sunday off. We had so many things to do to prepare for our day of traveling to Perugia on Monday anyway.

The weather has turned, and it is time for us to keep moving south, but we have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Bologna and hope to return in the spring. Ciao ciao Bologna! We’ll miss you!

Glamorous or functional? Pink umbrella in tow, we prepare to play in the rain on our last Saturday in town.

For more on Beppe Maniglia, check out this wonderful ode, and his own website.