San Francisco has an entertaining cacophony of street musicians and performers, but only the pros play on the streets of Paris. Buskers, or street performers, wandering into the city from foreign parts face exacting standards, and official laws and enforcement of regulations are strict. Because the tourist trade is such big business in Paris, amateurs need not apply. The pros aren’t exempt from the law, but they know how to circumvent it – most of the time. They know where and when to play, and how long they have before the proverbial hook yanks them off-stage.
I love the entrepreneurial aspect of busking. These people work hard to earn their living. I’ve heard many good American musicians lament their missed careers as buskers (a few were assuaging their sorrows, glasses of pinot noir in hand, from the depths of their hot tubs). One understands. How can you compare a hot tub (even if you add in the glass of wine) to the joys of street performance? There’s no contest. On the Paris streets, buskers are living the dream, free and self-directed. Sure, it is a rough life and the rich times are few. But it is an authentic life, as crazy Ernie at le café des Deux Magots on the Place Saint-Germain des Près, proclaims.
Here are three different busking stories, told in pictures. Be prepared for drama. There are villains too. The stories overlap, as the first ends in overthrow, the second in solitude, while the third disintegrates into tragic climax. But don’t despair. Les Pompiers (the Pumpers, or fire-fighters) arrive to save the day. In Paris, they almost always do.
Join me now on Pont Saint-Louis, the busking haven of Paris. Notre Dame Cathedral rises on one side of the bridge, and the élite Ile Saint-Louis, with its serene streets and universe-famous ice cream, la crème glacée, lies on the other.
Jean-Baptiste and Olivier are my favorite bridge musicians. Their show is passionate. Both their CDs sound great, and ya gotta love a guy who brings his own upright piano to a bridge-gig!
Olivier blows with soul. When music-lovers say, “Blow, cat, blow,” they mean this guy.
Les flics! Voilà les flics! (which means, “Cheese-it, the cops!). Every story has to have bad guys. Fiction-writing teachers cry, “Conflict, conflict, conflict!” A story where we all got along would be as dull as ….
Well, les flics look friendly, but they insist upon the letter of the law. “Etre artiste de rue, c’est interdit à Paris.” (It’s illegal to busk in Paris without a permit)
Then the French locals step in to fuel the tense discourse. This is when voices get raised, fists shaken, and things start getting fun. The locals are the true antagonists in our story. The police turn out to be good guys, almost heroes, because they protect tourists like me from crazy locals like these.
Notice Jean-Baptiste doing business selling his music CDs while all this is going on. Police intervention has created a bigger crowd, sympathetic to our main characters. And that is good for business!
Alas, the story ends with a sad moment for Jean-Baptiste. Here he is, wheeling his piano away from the scene of disaster. But it’s just a lull in the storm. He’ll be back – he is a pro. He knows it, the flics know it, and the locals know it. It’s all part of the game. The key skill of a pro is getting back up every time the world knocks you down. But how in the world is he going to get his piano onto the Metro?
These skating buskers are fantastic. They are the celebrity-stars of our story. Not because of fancy tricks, but rather artful moves and genuine enthusiasm. Imagine standing bedazzled by dancing and jazz music on a bridge over the river Seine in the heart of Paris, on a sunny but cold day, laced with long shadows… Yeah, it feels good.
Every good French story has a femme-fatale. Here is ours:
Inline-skates and red garter belt are surprisingly seductive! How do French women do it? They know how to blend masculine and feminine, power and delicacy, perfectly. Here is a woman who will get to work on time under her own speed and look lovely during the entire commute!
Now you get the essential picture:
And did you notice the couple? Here is the hidden heart of conflict in our story. A thousand words could be written about this picture – and you’d still be left wondering.
In my story, “she” is reading the text message “he” just sent:
“Hey, babe, look around! We’re in Paris! Stop checking your #@^$&%* messages or I am skating away with Red Garter and just playin’ my guitar on the streets ….”
Wait, though, before you write your own ending. There’s more to come.
My ending is about this guy:
He’s got all the skills. He’s got desire. He skates hard and fast with rich intensity.
He's got all the moves.
And a need for speed …
Clearly this story must end in tragedy, and since it’s a French story, that’s a good thing. This guy just has to be a tragic hero, and we all know tragic heroes have a fatal flaw.
Looks like a broken collarbone, or, as they say in French, une clavicule fracturée.
Everyone in the audience now murmurs, “Eh bien, old bodies and excessive speed never mix well.” His tragic flaw is revealed to all. Oh, the humiliation of it! Someone his age with the hubris to go so fast!
Sadly, they also notice our femme fatale, as she slips away alone, dressed down to just another pretty face in pink shoes.
Oui! Voilà qu’arrivent les Pompiers! (Here come the Pumpers!)
They streak in at the ready, sirens sounding, adrenaline coursing, pumping their arms to lift our poor collar-broken victim into their chariot-d’assistance.
So ends our tale of busking and bad news on Pont Saint-Louis, one of the many heart-stirring stories from the bridges of Paris.
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