Monthly Archives: December 2012

the Summer Januaries. Rachel Erin Sage and Sean Michael Robinson.

September, just prior to leaving Seattle. Photo by Una Simone.

For the past month Rachel and I had been giving some serious thought to the question of what we’d be doing with ourselves now that winter was finally coming. It isn’t just a question of comfort—there’s a practical limit to how cold it can get and still have functional fiddle fingers, and how cold our audience can be and still be interested in sticking around long enough to enjoy us. And as the warmth slowly seeped out of Italy, the question suddenly seemed even more pressing.

Our first instincts were to travel to Istanbul, a busking-friendly cosmopolitan city full of vigor and life and slightly warmer weather. But looking at the projected weather averages made it clear that even in Turkey we would be faced with many, many days of not playing at all. We’d have to write off any time spent there in the winter months as a loss.

But we were saved by a deal on airline tickets, and an offer from a friend. If we were willing to fly a circuitous route, on December 12th, we could get a flight to Orlando for an incredibly low rate, which would include a return flight to Rome in the spring. Orlando just happens to be my hometown, and after a little discussion with our friend James, it was clear he would be happy to put us up for a while. So we snatched up the tickets and tried to prepare ourselves for the reverse culture shock we would surely experience returning to the States.

Looking solely at the weather, it would seem like this is clearly the right choice. There’s nowhere in Europe that’s as warm in the winter as the southern United States, and just holing up and hoping for the best seemed less and less sensible in the face of affordable travel, and as our days of not being able to play due to rain or cold mounted up. But coming back, we would be dealing with a completely different set of problems, namely, busking in Orlando proper is, as far as we know, completely illegal, seen by the local government as some kind of coercive and intrusive panhandling.


I’d like to say that these are the thoughts I was having as we set off for the Roman airport, but the reality is both of us were too occupied by the prospect of our torturous day of travel—three flights sandwiched between two car rides, for a grand total of 25.5 hours of travel.

And it was just as brutal as you might imagine, although made nicer by the easy-going attitudes of the Italian and Spanish flight and gate attendants, who were more than helpful in getting our instruments safely aboard the plane. Our second flight was the transcontinental one, from Madrid to Dallas Texas, and lasted nearly twelve hours. Rachel spent eight hours of that time snacking and reading the first draft of my new book. I spent the same amount of time on the lyrics to a single song, obsessively completing verse after verse, working and reworking and discarding as I went. At the end of the eight hours I had completed the lyrics, which had only existed as a chorus and a melody before we boarded the plane. In the past I’ve found it very easy to write on planes, probably mainly because of the enforced stillness, which keeps me from troubling distractions like exercise and other people. But in this case, I mainly kept going to ward off the feeling of entrapment, which threatened to overtake me as soon as I was done.

Rachel and I filled the remainder of our flight with catching up on the world of television. (spoiler—it’s still not good. At least, not on an airplane.)

By the time we arrived in Texas, we were stumbling, exhausted wrecks, and still four hours and one boarding short of our destination. “Smells like America,” Rachel said as we walked by one of the airport’s many restaurants. Apparently America smells like fried food and black coffee and recycled air.

Mercifully both of us were able to sleep on our last flight, only waking up as the wheels of the plane were hitting the tarmac. One disembarkment later and we were at last in Florida. It was warm and lovely and stepping out of the airport into the beautiful night was the first moment I knew for certain that we had made the right decision.

So how does this return to the states affect our trip? Strangely enough, it’ll probably end up resulting in more playing than if we had remained in Europe or headed to Istanbul, even given the legal state of things in Orlando. We’re a road trip away from half a dozen buskable cities in the southern United States, and we’ll have other performance opportunities as well. The first of those will be happening this Friday, as we’ll be performing alongside members of Orlando’s the Silver Fleece at Stardust Video and Coffee, trying out some of our new material. And there are plans afoot for us to provide the music for a few plays while we’re here as well.

And there’s a part of me that would like nothing better than to challenge the status quo here, give my hometown some idea of what real busking looks like and why it’s worthwhile. We’ll certainly be taking (and writing about!) the first steps in that direction in the next few weeks. But in the meanwhile, we’re both just grateful to be in a place where we can go outside without wearing everything we own simultaneously. So long Italy! We’ll see you again when you’re warmer.

ImageSent by a fan. Don’t have a copy yet, or would like to buy one as a gift? $12 will get one to your door. Write to summerjanuaries at gmail dot com.



One successful Sunday of busking in Napoli had lifted our spirits, renewed our hope, and raised our expectations. After so many failures, Sean and I had been prepared to throw in the towel and move on, but everything changed, now that we’d found the perfect place to play. It was tempting to return to our new-found busking haven at the top of the hill the very next day, but we managed to restrain ourselves. We were exhausted from our four plus hours of playing the day before and we wanted to save our energy for the more busk-able days later in the week. Besides, we couldn’t wait to visit Pompei!

We spent Monday and Tuesday playing tourist, first admiring the many paintings, mosaics, and artifacts that are now housed at the archeological museum in Napoli, and then wandering around the ancient ruins of Pompei, in complete awe of everything we encountered. On Wednesday, we checked the weather, and were disappointed to see cold, rainy, storms predicted for the forcastable future. No matter, we thought. We’ll be on the ball, ready to play at a moment’s notice. Any time there’s a break in the rain, we’ll seize the opportunity. Unfortunately, the forecast was annoyingly accurate. We made a few trips up to the top of the hill in the funicolare , venturing out in moments of sunshine, but the rain always set in as soon as we stepped out of the station at the top of the hill.

By Saturday morning we still hadn’t been able to play, so when the rain cleared up after breakfast, we rushed to get dressed and get out there. For some reason, however, (perhaps having more faith in the weather than we should have) we chose to check out the seaside before heading up the hill. Unfortunately, the seaside was completely abandoned. Perhaps Napolitans were more aware of the fickle weather than we were and weren’t willing to commit to a day by the sea that might be ruined by a storm at any minute. Realizing our mistake, we hurried to the funicolare, hoping that our fave street wasn’t already filled with other buskers. At the top of the hill, we heard the sound of a band grow louder as we approached the street, but were happy to find that it was our friend Jimmy and the Napolitan musicians we had played with the week before. They were excited to see us, and asked if we would sit in and play with them for just one song, as they had a drummer and mandolin player with them this time who were eager to play with us too. Of course, just as we started to get ready to play….. it started raining again. Jimmy immediately launched into a pleading rendition of “I Can See Clearly now, the Rain is Gone,” but to no avail. The rain was there to stay. We hung out with them for awhile under a nearby awning, exchanging busking stories and advice, until it was clear that the weather wasn’t going to improve. We returned to our hostel to spend the rest of the afternoon working on arrangements for some of our original songs, a satisfying way to spend a rainy Saturday.

It wasn’t until Sunday evening that the weather behaved well enough that we could play again. We had a wonderful set, kept a crowd for a few hours, and made some new friends, with only minimal painful freezing involved. As we packed up our instruments that night, we realized that might have been our last day of busking for quite awhile, as the forecast was rain, rain, and more rain for the next several days.

These circumstances, completely out of our control, caused us to change our plans. We like to be efficient with the way we spend our time in energy. For example, we almost never play on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, using those days for sightseeing, rehearsing, writing, etc. but when the prime busking time on the weekend comes, we play as much as we can, taking advantage of the large crowds of people who are happy to slow down and enjoy their recreational time. Applying this stratagem to a larger period of time, i.e. the seasons, namely WINTER, we have arrived at the decision that, barring a freakishly sunny and warm day, we should save our busking energies until we can get to a warmer place, and find other, more efficient ways to spend our time for now.


While it isn’t very fun to put on every article of clothing you own in attempt to make yourself warm enough to play for the crowds of people that are too cold to stop and listen to you anyway, it’s amazingly fun to spend cold rainy days holed up inside, working on new original music. Up until now, Sean and I have spent most of our musical energy together crafting perfect arrangements of other people’s songs. We find the right key for our voices and instruments, spend hours composing the most satisfying vocal harmonies, choose the best chord voicings, and craft violin lines that weave through it all, even going as far as adding fiddle tunes, composing riffs, or even occasionally tweaking the melody. We’re very compatible musical partners in that we both want every detail, every note, of every song we perform to be just right – the best arrangement we can make. This has resulted in hours and hours of rehearsals devoted to giving our tender loving care to songs that we didn’t write- raising someone else’s babies. Since we’re both song writers, each with many original songs sitting around waiting for our attention, it might seem strange that we’ve put so much energy into creating such particular arrangements of cover songs, but that year of arranging experience was neccesary in figuring out who we are as a duo—and what types of things we look for in a song. And now that we finally have the time, we can apply everything we’ve learned to our own music. During the rainy day rehearsals of the past few weeks we’ve completed arrangements of a few original songs, and started many more. The process of playing new songs together has been so fun and inspiring that it’s motivated both of us to finish songs that have been laying around, waiting for that final bit of effort.

So it goes. If we can’t play, we’ll spend our time dreaming about it, and planning for the time when that summer weather finally comes again.

Or we could just find a warmer continent.

the Summer Januaries in Napoli

598399_10151330138360180_1365984536_nEvery time we told someone we would be traveling to Napoli (i.e. “Naples”) as the last leg of our Italian trip, we received virtually identical responses. “No.” “No, not Napoli.” “Non.” This last remark was said emphatically, with stern face and wagging finger, by a Perugian pizza chef, himself a Neapolitan intensely proud of his incredibly delicious Neapolitan-style pizza, but completely convinced that our traveling to his home town to play would be certain disaster.

Even our friend Vince Conway, an international busker on the hammered dulcimer and a man not prone to exaggeration, told us to watch out for “street kids.” A few nights before our trip to the city I did some ill-advised googling and spent the next three hours reading about Napoli’s problems with petty crime and street theft of all stripes—tales of roving gangs comprised of senior citizen pick pockets, ceramic tiles masquerading as I-Pads and sold to gullible tourists, and bags stolen in drive-by attacks on motorcycle or scooter. Rachel had to accompany me on a long walk so I could calm myself enough to go to sleep.

But of course, if you’re worked up about the thought of getting scammed or robbed, having a midnight stroll around Rome on a Saturday might not be the ideal antidote. I spent the rest of our stay there feeling vaguely uneasy, and spent an awful lot of time thinking about my body and pockets and the people around me.

Fortunately, the train ride was reassuring. The train was almost entirely unoccupied, and one of the few people we did meet was actually another busker. He was a balloon man from Argentina, and he very kindly gave us the rundown on the best places to busk in Napoli. We didn’t take his suggestions as gospel, since a place that’s good for a balloon man is not necessarily good for unamplified music—but just the fact of his existence, his friendly demeanor and his willingness to share a long list of pedestrian streets we could play on, was a tremendous reassurance.

And then we stepped out of the train station.

The area surrounding the train station was the urban hell that everyone had described to us—huge crowds of disoriented pedestrians in a concrete sea, and a horde of beggars, street sellers and scammers of every kind waiting for them, like the seals that wait by the fish bridge at the Ballard locks to pick off the salmon that stream over the side.

Most of these activities were nothing new at this point, it was just surprising to see them so densely concentrated in such a small area. We moved our way through the streets and to the bus line that our hostel had instructed us to take. When the bus arrived we piled into the red vehicle stuffed full of passengers, and put our tickets into the receiver in the back. Even more people piled on at the next stop and the crush became almost unbearable. It suddenly occurred to me that none of these people were inserting any kind of transit ticket at all—I realized that on this entire bus, we were probably the only people that had paid.


A lovely harpist we saw on Via Toledo.

The short walk from the bus stop to the hostel had more signs of these same kinds of indifference to the organizing forces of the city—uncollected trash everywhere, begging everywhere, street vending everywhere, the bags of the Firenze umbrella men for the most part replaced by taped cardboard boxes that served as mobile display furniture.

After dropping off our luggage at the hostel we got a brief rundown on the city from the very friendly staff and then took off for a walk around the historic center. We were immediately struck by how vibrant and alive the entire place seemed, and how unfamiliar. There seemed to be no kind of traffic laws at all, and motorcycles routinely pulled up onto the sidewalk in front of us. Parking seemed to be a free-for-all, and pedestrians turned a driving street into a pedestrian one by sheer force of numbers. There was graffiti everywhere, some of the tagging variety, but much of it political as well, especially in the old sections of the city, near the university.

We ended the night with one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life, at an amazing pizza parlor in the historic center. We remembered the advice of our friend Alma, who told us upon our arrival in Italy that “you’ll always have to pay for water here. And if you have to pay for water, why not just have wine?” So we shared a bottle of wine and two pizzas for a completely reasonable sum, and then stumbled back to our hostel, no longer worried about much of anything at all.

Our exploration on Tuesday only confirmed what we had thought so far—that this was a big city, rich with potential experiences and opportunity, but also a city besieged by opportunistic selling and scamming. Most of the umbrella men, however, were completely non-aggressive, just passively standing by their wares, propped up on taped cardboard display boxes, only moving when the police came by, and even then just calmly packing up their goods and moving a few feet until they passed..

One of the most amazing sites we’ve seen in Italy so far, a student protest that gathered thousands.

One of the reasons these men seemed so much less aggressive is probably that their wares are more in demand here. Rather than just selling junk souvenirs or the same light-up toys, these men were hocking, amongst other items, knock-off designer bags, which there’s much demand for. Unlike the United States, in Italy fashion and accessory designs are copyrightable, which means that under Italian law producing a Louis Vitton knock-off handbag and selling it on the street is the equivalent of selling photocopied copies of Fifty Shades of Gray on the sidewalk outside of a Barnes and Noble.

Anyway, we took all of this in on our first two days in town, and by Wednesday night we were ready to play. We went back to Via Toledo, a pedestrian-only street that we had walked the night before. We were mainly attracted to the hordes of people we had seen on Tuesday, but the fact that we had seen a few buskers that night didn’t hurt either.

Two hours later we were exhausted and not a heck of a lot richer, having beat ourselves silly trying to play for the hordes of locals that streamed by us. We had received many friendly smiles and even more curious looks, but very few long-term listeners and even fewer coins. It was almost a complete bust, capped off by being lectured by a woman working at a pharmacy down the street, who came out of her business to tell us “I don’t come to work to listen to music. You go elsewhere please.” We felt slightly better about it a moment later, when a woman who had overheard our conversation ran over to the pharmacy to lecture/argue on our behalf. As we packed up our things the two women were still arguing outside of the pharmacy. What a night.

But it wasn’t over yet. On the way back from dinner, who should we see in the street but our friend Jimmy Detroit, who we had last seen in Bologna a month earlier. After a quick greeting he introduced us to his friends, a guitar player he’s been performing with, and his girlfriend, both of whom were just as nice and inviting as Jimmy. They asked us if perhaps we’d like to busk with them later in the week? After a few months of playing as a duo, playing with a larger band seemed like a novel experience, so we made loose plans to get together soon. We also told them about our failure during the day, and both of the players were encouraging and suggested a few other areas we might try playing.

Some local buskers we saw on Via Tribunale.

On the following day we intended to try out some of the other areas, but the temptation of the crowds of Via Toledo proved to be too much, and we set up and gave it another shot. Our set started off auspiciously, as we were recognized before we had even played a note, by a woman who had seen us play in Perugia a few weeks before! She stayed for a few songs, and as often is the case, one person standing and watching us made it much easier to gain and then maintain a crowd. After an hour and forty-five minutes we had sold three CDs and done significantly better than before on tips. Still not what we were used to, and comparable to our worst days in Bologna, but no longer a waste of time financially.

But the playing had taken a pretty heavy psychological toll on us. A brief list of the things that occurred during this one set–

  1. An incredibly drunk man who we recognized from the night before, who was fixated on the money in our case, and over the course of a half-hour tried out several schemes to lift some from us, all of which were unsuccessful due to his impaired motor skills and our awareness of his intentions.
  2. A thin man who adored us, and adored even more every child who stopped to listen to us, making his adoration known by, in the case of the former, awkwardly-close cell phone filming, and in the latter, awkwardly intimate interactions with the children that caused their parents to flee with tots in tow.
  3. A little girl handing out fliers with her mother, burst into tears when she lost track of her mother. After a five-minute ordeal involving half a dozen passerby giving her assistance, mother was located and the two were tearfully reunited, so that they could continue their flyering.
  4. A muscular man aggressively pushing bags of men’s socks on unsuspecting pedestrians. His method seemed to be to place one of his huge arms around his victim’s shoulders and the other to place the socks into his victim’s hand, in some kind of fierce footwear embrace. He tried this four or five times in the minute or two he was in view of us, at least one time forcing his victim to flee into a nearby store in the hopes of losing him.
  5. A second drunk man, friends with the first, who fell down and struck his head on a phone booth across the street from where we were playing. I set my guitar down and started to cross the street, thinking I should at least make sure he was okay, but when I had taken just a few steps forward it immediately was clear that a. he was moving on his own, and b. his pants were down and he had shit all over himself. As we watched with horror he staggered back to the bench he had been sitting on earlier and laid down, facing away from us, to sleep. Unfortunately he still hadn’t managed to pull up his pants.
  6. Moments later three tween-age girls arrived on the scene, glanced at the man, and calmly produced their cellphones to photograph his butt.

It’s hard to say whether it was this last item that really ended our set, or whether it was the sudden wind directed from that side of the street to ours. Either way, we were done, and we were exhausted.

After heading back to the hostel for some much-deserved dinner, we saw that our friend Jimmy had sent us a message. Would we like to play with him and a few Napolitan friends tonight in the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore? We headed down, bringing my tambourine and flute along with our normal instruments. What resulted was two hours of completely unrehearsed singing and playing, some tunes we were familiar with, but many we had never heard. Rachel and I added our voices, violin, flute and percussion to an already thick sound—two guitars, upright bass, harmonica, banjo and many voices. It was a blast, and exactly the kind of thing we needed after such an emotionally exhausting day. At times we were playing for several hundred people, who danced and drank and sometimes sang or shouted, a completely different crowd than the people we were playing for earlier. Apparently that audience also included several people from the hostel, which is why you can take a look at a video clip of this madness now. (Thanks, Ian!)

Friday morning came and we approached the day with fresh hope. Today, finally, would be the day. We would play and people would stop and listen and enjoy and we would once again feel like some kind of street-level rock stars.

But after two different 90 minute sets, in two separate locations, it just wasn’t panning out that way.

It’s not like people were indifferent to us—they just didn’t seem interested in anything other than brief smiles, or exchanging surprised looks with us or each other. It’s hard not to take this personally after a while. What were we doing wrong? Were we out of tune? Did we smell? Were we dressed funny? Had someone placed a “do not feed the buskers” sign in our case? The last hour and a half was the worst. Playing from 5 PM to 7:30 PM on Via Toledo to throngs of shoppers, we made exactly the same amount as our three minute set on the half-deserted Ponte Veccio two months before.

via toledo

The constant temptation that is Via Toledo. I’m pretty sure this is a Tuesday afternoon.

We dragged ourselves back to the hostel and tried to decide what to do. It was clear to us that, though Napoli is an incredibly vibrant city, it’s also a city out of season, a tourist economy mostly dormant during the winter, full of shops and sellers of all stripes awaiting the tourist’s return. Was it possible these were just not people that were going to stop and listen to us? Even when we had played with the huge group of locals, although it had been a blast to actually have people listening and participating, the payoff had been virtually nothing monetarily. Were we just finally seeing the results of the European financial crisis?

We laid about on Saturday, wrote and walked around the city and tried to just enjoy ourselves and forget about the difficult day before. We had decided—we would be tourists for our last days here, and just move on to somewhere else. But where?

Jimmy had other plans. Go play, he said in another message. This is a magical city, and I know you’ll find some of that magic for yourself. He gave us a list of places to try, and encouraged us. Sunday beckoned.

That morning we woke up, grabbed our instruments and headed to the seaside. It was far from crowded, and certainly didn’t compare in any way to the bustling Via Toledo, but as we walked along the shore we saw promising signs. First of all, the day was gorgeous, and just playing in such golden sun with the water lapping behind us would do us good. Second, although there weren’t a lot of people, these were people that were relaxing, walking with their families, eating gelato and biking on big pedal cars or racing on tiny battery-powered go-carts. No cars, parks everywhere, people relaxing. This was the place.


Another band had already found our place, unfortunately. We went down a little further.

And it was! We had a crowd almost as soon as we started playing, a crowd that stuck around and danced and applauded after every song. It was a quiet day, but it was a beautiful one too, and because it was quiet enough, people could see us and hear us for a while before they were directly in front of us, which meant they had plenty of time to decide if they should stop and listen or tip or just pass on. In other words, it was ideal, and exactly what we needed.

After a late lunch/early dinner we decided to head back, just in time for sunset. Unfortunately the crowd had thinned even further, and it no longer seemed like such a great place to play. So we decided to ride the funiculare up to Vomero, the other place that Jimmy had suggested we play.

And lo and behold, it was once again the right place! Families everywhere, shoppers, people strolling by and relaxing and smiling at us so broadly you’d think we were handing out candy. Interested faces, a crowd the whole time, and, only strange because they’d been so absent in our time in Napoli so far, cell phones out to take pictures and video of us. It was clear that, finally, we had brought the balloons to the right place.

Summer Januaries

Two black silhouettes in the evening light.