Fiddle Guitar Vocal duo the Summer Januaries– Sean Michael Robinson and Rachel Erin Robinson

Back in the Black in Bologna

The Summer Januaries leave Firenze Italy

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.

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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.

Rachel Erin Sage of the Summer Januaries in Pisa, Italy

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.

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There is No Busking in Florence, Italy

After a very long and much needed night of sleep, we couldn’t wait to play. But duty called– we set out to explore Firenze, as we had decided before hand that we should always take the first day in a new place to get to know the city. It takes a while to get the feel for the busk-ability of a new location, and we wanted to take in enough to be able to wisely choose the best place to play.

That morning our first destination was Ponte Veccio, a covered bridge adorned with jewelry shops and crowded with vendors and tourists. Our friend Giacamo had reported seeing a classical guitarist busk here on a recent visit to Firenze. On our walk there, we were continuously surprised by the lack of musicians. There were tourists everywhere, and so many beautiful piazzas and picturesque bridges. Where were all the buskers? It was quite mysterious. We arrived at Ponte Veccio, sure that someone would be playing there. Nope. No one. Through our time of busking, something has happened to our brains– whenever we see a crowd of people strolling along, taking in the sights, we feel an overwhelming urge to take out our instruments immediately and perform for them. Why weren’t there buskers everywhere? Didn’t all of the local musicians see what an amazing opportunity they were missing out on?

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Across the bridge, we found a cafe and ordered “Due cappuccino,” the most delicious, frothy, perfect cappuccino I have ever had, which we enjoyed standing at the cafe counter (the prices listed on the menu are only good if you stand– there’s an extra “cover charge” for a table). Feeling sufficiently caffeinated, we picked up a baguette, plums, and a hunk of cheese from a little market, and carried our breakfast to a nearby piazza, passing several “artists” and print sellers along the way, but still, not a single musician. As we ate, tiny birds hopped beside us, daring to come very close to eat the crumbs that fell from our baguette. “We’re just like those little birds,” said Sean, “picking up the crumbs left behind.” This pleased me, as I strongly preferred being likened to a bird than Sean’s previous analogy of our relationship to the world, which described us as bottom feeders – the fish that suck the algae off of aquarium walls. Sean spoke to a man who was painting nearby. “La musica?” he asked, motioning to the surrounding area. “No, no.” the man replied. Very strange indeed.

On our walk back to the hotel, we came across a classical guitarist playing in the Piazza Repubblica, the same piazza where we had met a gypsy jazz trio the night before. Just as the trio had informed us, this busker had “authorization” – a weathered permit reading “artiste de strata” displayed in his guitar case. We had heard that some cities in Italy require permits, but were unclear as to how the laws worked, if the permits were really necessary, etc. We continued to debate the best course of action. Should we attempt to apply for a permit, or should we just go for it, play, and see what would happen.?

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Three Gigs and a Whole Lot of Walking

We had been asked by a local pub owner to play an informal gig on our last day in Leno, at a bar called Cosmopolitan. Other than that, we planned on taking the day easy and getting in some relaxation and packing. Twas not to be, though, as at the last minute we added another small performance, at a local Leno Christian Youth Center. They were having a charity breakfast that morning to bring awareness to free trade practices and goods, and they wanted to know if we were up for playing a little bit? Sounded good to us.

But before we could play that morning, we got another last minute invitation, from Renzo, the doctor we met the previous two days. He wanted to know if we would be interested to eat with his family that evening?

So we spent our last day in the area in Leno and then Brescia and then Leno again, three performances of varying levels of informality.


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Just a regular morning at the Leno Youth Center.

The Youth Center is a really interesting place, with a snack bar in the front and a large yard in the back for games or gathering. The breakfast was delicious, and like most of the breakfasts we had so far in Italy, consisted mostly of pastry and cafe (cappuccino) and juice. After a while, we pulled out our instruments and played a 25 minute set, aided by Bruno, our friend and impromptu translator/emcee, who helped us pimp our CDs and the gig that evening.

This is one of the best features of being a duo, particularly a duo that’s as loud as we are– we can enter a new situation, and after a little bit of time to size up the location and the environmental noise, we’re ready to go. No mess, no long set-up or sound check, just unpack the instruments and play.

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Leather Shoes and a Few CDs

Energized by the events of the morning, Sean and I headed back to the center of Brescia, ready to play. On previous visits we had seen a few buskers playing under the covered walkways surrounding the shops in the center of the city, so we were pretty sure that this was the place to busk. We walked around the center a bit, tipped a busker who was singing Italian songs into a microphone, karaoke style, accompanied by prerecorded music blaring from his case, and chose a spot just far enough away from him to be out of earshot, in front of a display window of fancy Italian shoes.

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Another local Brescia busker, not far from “our” spot.

A little nervous and unsure of what to expect, we started off with a slow instrumental tune, “Ashokan Farewell” which is always a hit in the U.S. Much to our relief, our music was met with smiles, nods, and coins tossed into our case. We played instrumental tunes until we felt more comfortable, and then launched into one of our favorite songs, “Androgynous.” A woman stopped and asked to buy our CD right away! “How much?” she asked in English. “Dieche euro” I replied, excited to use the few Italian words I had prepared. “How much?” she asked again, looking puzzled. “Oh, ten.” I said, realizing that of course she knew I spoke English, seeing it was the language we were currently singing in.

We played for a couple of hours, selling a few more CDs and stopping every once in a while to have a chat with someone who was listening. We stopped mid-song to talk with a doctor from Brescia who said that he had been to Seattle a few times for conferences, and that he thought it was a very beautiful place. He told us that he loved listening to music , and downloads 20 songs a day. He bought our CD and seemed excited to listen to it.

There are police everywhere in Brescia, and while we were pretty sure busking was legal and we wouldn’t get hassled, we were still a little anxious. A few songs into our set, we exchanged an uneasy glance as we noticed a pair of police officers approaching. Our anxiety quickly turned to relief, as they nodded politely and walked on by. They walked by again a bit later, this time smiling and bobbing their heads to the music, and even later we were waved at by police officers from the window of their car as they drove by on the street below. The police in Brescia liked us and didn’t plan on throwing us in jail! We were thrilled. We packed up our instruments and walked back to meet Gwen, tired, happy, and ready for more.

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