Again We Avoid the Umbrella Men
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.