All Quiet on the Roman Front
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
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.