I brought the guitar to Paris as a sort of insurance. If and when I ran out of funds I could always play on the street for money, I reasoned. When I initially moved into my eleventh story flat on Avenue Jean Jaures, my landlord—who was named Catherine, as so many women in France are—gave me a pitying look and told me that the guitar would almost certainly be stolen. When I ran into her on the train on my way to fly out of the Charles de Gaulle airport several months later, she was astounded to see that I was still lugging my guitar and its cumbersome, battered case which proclaimed that—if for no other reason besides the fact that I had not been robbed—my stay must have been a success.
It was not long before the money ran out. When I woke up that morning and found that all I had left in the world was eighteen euros, panic did not strike and no fear crept in, even though I was essentially stranded in one of the world’s most expensive cities and owed a fantastic sum in rent. I knew what had to be done, so I dressed and took up the guitar and went out to blow the rest of my cash on an expensive breakfast—big salad, eggs and croissant, and a carafe of inexpensive red wine.
I knew that by the time I finished my meal, all of the best bridges in Paris would be taken by street performers of all kinds — accordionists, violinists, and trumpet players. The Latin Quarter was also out of the question, as it was a Saturday and it would almost certainly be run through with buskers. The trains and Metro stations would all be choked with gypsy children dancing to boom boxes. And, there was no reason to believe that the overly crowded Saint Michelle area would be a better option to set-up and play the guitar. Upon completing this process of elimination, I decided on Montmartre.
After breakfast, I used one of my last train tickets to board the Metro at the Jaures station. From there I made my way to Pigalle, where I disembarked and started up the hill. Sacre Coeur loomed above everything, and I made my way in its direction. At the top of the hill one can find the Place du Tertre where in stall after stall tourists pose for portraits. In years past, a lot of great artists and writers lived and worked in this area—Van Gogh, Dali, Monet, and there were others. This is also the site of Cafe Lapin Agile where Picasso had once traded napkin drawings for food, but I was not headed that far up the hill. Instead, I found a grassy park-like patch with a wide, winding staircase that leads up to the church where I hoped to mark my territory and reap my spoils.
It was hot – miserable hot. The crowd was thick with Americans and Brits, which was a good situation for buskers as many Americans tend to forget that while a one or two euro piece may be of similar size as a quarter, they are worth much more. After finding a relatively empty spot at the foot of the park, I began to quietly strum and sing.
In no time at all, I was sweating and terribly uncomfortable. I was also being ignored by all of the passersby, many of whom, I guessed, were skeptical of giving money to anyone for any reason. In fact, the park seemed to be overrun by young men who darted about trying to sell hemp bracelets and a variety of items that were most likely stolen. I was on the verge of giving up when an elderly man approached and made some impassioned declaration in French. At that point, nothing he said made any sense to me, so I smiled and stumbled through one of the only French phrases I knew which explained that I was still learning the language.
“An American?”, as he arched a gray, woolly, caterpillar-like eyebrow.
“Oui…I mean yes…I mean, oui.”
He gave me a critical stare and said, “Do you know what you are doing wrong?” I had no idea. “You are standing here in the sun where no one will stop to hear your songs. You are surrounded by parasites trying to make something of nothing. But you are bringing music, and that is something. You need to go to the shade. Or better yet, tell me this: Can you actually sing?” I made some stammering affirmation and he shook his head, “No, no, no. I just heard you do it and it was fine. But can you sing loud, with great volume? You are an American—Can you sing something by Kurt Cobain? Can you sing ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’?”
I began to play and the man looked down at the ground and nodded thoughtfully and, with a gesture of his hand, said, “Louder.” I sang louder and his head bobbed with more and more enthusiasm. He again told me to be louder before clapping his hands and saying, “You do not need to find shade. You need to go to the top of the stairs.” He pointed up the hill toward the church. “Go to the top, sit down and play, and sing loud. You will make money.”
That was it. He didn’t say another word. He just turned and left me standing there.
I put my guitar away and started up the staircase. With each step, the church looked larger and more majestic. It peers over the entire city like a great, white castle in the sky. When I finally reached the top, I observed a cello player just finishing up his morning’s work. I watched him nervously as he collected the coins and bills from his case and packed up to leave. Seated on the steps in front of him were perhaps two hundred people. The most I’d ever played in front of had been 30 or so at a bar back in the States.
As the cellist left, he nodded at me with a smile and shook my hand and said something in French that I did not understand. I sat on the top step and laid out my guitar case. Below me, the buzzing crowd grew quiet. Beyond them, the entirety of Paris was laid out like a feast. While it was still hot and muggy, a slight breeze eased the sun’s oppression. I began to play, and as the song went on, a few people, mostly children, stood and climbed the steps to throw coins in the case. More people approached during the next song. By the third, people were clapping and singing along. An American with a southern accent requested a Johnny Cash song, which I obliged, and from then on the case was visited with regularity. I played for maybe an hour, until I saw a man and woman with an accordion and clarinet making their way up the stairs. My time was up.
I stood and scooped up the coins and bills (and there were many bills), and made my way to the shade of the church. There I knelt and counted it out—nearly two hundred euros and a mix of currency from places I did not recognize. I had never made so much for an hour of “work” and I never have since.
After that I stood and looked out over the city for a long while. Its perfection from that vantage point was immaculate. It is no wonder that Henry the IV and the Russians after him had placed their artillery there to bombard the city. It has a spectacular view.
After that day, Montmartre became my habitat. The art, the bars, the church, the sleaze…it was all there for me. Has Montmartre effected you in a similar way? I’d like to read your stories.
Written by Guest Contributor Nick Hilden for EuropeUpClose.com
Raised in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, travel and adventure writer Nick Hilden currently lives in Granada, Spain, where he contributes to a variety of publications and develops advertising campaigns on a freelance basis. Nomadic by nature, his wanderings have taken him far and wide, and his work has varied accordingly. You can find out more about him at www.NickHilden.com.