Back in the Black in Bologna
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.