Reflections on Busking Western Europe (part 3)

Let’s do a little more talking about this summer, shall we?


As you read in the first post, we learned a lot about what it means to travel poor in a foreign country including get used to eating bread and cheese and learn how to collect bottles. Right, that’s covered.

We also learned a lot about what it means to busk Europe. And that is…

…busking Europe is very similar to busking the United States.

waterfallzaragozaEurope does have certain advantages: the cities are closer together, so there are more viable busking options in a shorter distance. Going on tour is a quicker operation.

But the same challenges apply: cities where busking is illegal or frowned upon and euros stretched thin due to competition.

Tom Senkus in the London UndergroundChallenge 1: Where to play

We could easily make this a formula. Out of 12 pounts…

Start with location:  Three points for a coastal/port town.

One point if town has ‘traditional’ architecture and historic downtown.

Another point if it’s possible to busk on the historic downtown streets.

Add a point if busking is legal.

Add a point if city is between 70,000 and 400,000 people.

Subtract two points if you find more than one gypsy in downtown area.

Add two points if town has been recommended by other buskers and travelers.

Add a point if downtown has multiple pedestrian-only streets.

Add a point for double-decker tour bus.

Add a point if city is/is near to wealthy metropolitan area.

For example…

There’s a reasonrain, rain go away you're never going to stop anyway! San Sebastian, La Rochelle and Lubeck were all really great places to play. Coastal port towns, hassle-free busking, larger than 70,000 but smaller than 400,000. Mostly gypsy free. Recommended by other buskers. Filled with tourists on tour buses. Near to wealthy metropolitan areas. Historic downtowns in doll-house size that funnel visitors by the music.

Then there are places like Manchester (not coastal, not recommended, no tour buses, lots of gypsies) where you can work all day and do OK, but you wouldn’t seek it out to make your fortune.

And then there are places like Mataro. Don’t go, you’ll just get shut down anyway.

Even within a town it takes some trial and error to find the right place to play. Here’s one where other buskers are not always right: what works for them may not work for you!  We always avoided the most popular spots, i.e. Glasgow’s Buchannan street, Covent Gardens (London), Paris in general, Spitalarstrasse in Hamburg. In order to really thrive in these places you have to have to have good amplification. And some talent.

IMG_20131006_131911Challenge 2: A Creative Angle to Defeat the Competition

In Europe you’re not likely to find a classic rock playing guitarist on every corner, so my guess is that you could easily show up with your classic and indie rock repertoire and impress.

Possibly, maybe, we’ve heard. But then again, that’s not our angle.

On the other hand, there’s at least two accordionists per city block so best to just throw that instrument into the river.

Leave the Django at home. And if for some reason you were tempted to play Autumn Leaves only do it as a bad-ass punk cover: this has got to be the number one over-busked song in Europe.

Creative busking always wins. Costumes, novelty instruments, odd but palatable songs, children’s acts. Put on a good show and people will love you.

Or say fuck it all and become a “bubbler.” Minimal set-up, maximum crowd interaction, and all you have to do is wave your arms around. Who doesn’t love bubbles?!?!?!?!

downtown rostock buskers

Downtown Rostock

Challenge 3: Icky City Laws

Shockingly (and maddeningly) busking is not legal in all European towns! Legality is not always easy to learn ahead of time, either. You have to trust word-of-mouth busker warnings and outdated musician blogs so every time you approach a new place you could be taking a risk.

Luckily, it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission, especially if you’re foreign. The risk is worth it on the chance that the cops won’t give a shit.

We never once were fined/jailed or had our instruments confiscated. We were warned, we were ID’d and we moved on, but it’s the same as in America, cops have bigger problems like drugs and crime and stupid tourists. We just follow the ‘always apologize humbly’ to a police officer motto. And if you can, add some bubbles to ease the tension.


Busking is a lifestyle as well as a career.

No, I don’t mean that we’re destined to live out or days digging through trash and jamming on three-stringed guitars.

We busk in order to travel and we travel in order to busk and underneath all of this is the gleeful feeling that we are actually making money off of playing music.

It’s possible, it’s possible, it’s possible!

It’s not easy. Before we left we had this misconception that it would be easier than America. Why? Who knows. You can’t ever get away from competition, mistrust, local government bans, bad weather, and that unmentionable busker flaw that prevents us from getting ahead.

So fuck easy, enjoy hardship. Stimulate your artist neurons. Force yourself to learn that song so well you end up re-harmonizing it because you got bored of playing the same chords every day for three months.

Many have gone on extravagant busking tours before, many will do again despite all the warnings that say: you’re going to run out of money and fail and get stuck or deported.

And that’s exactly what happened to us!

It was so worth it.

We got to fail spectacularly and plan to do so again. And again. And again. Until one day failing becomes the new success.


Week 12 in Review ::: From Lyon to Stuttgart in 7 Days

Lyon's book market overlooking the river

book market in Lyon

We have a mission.

Intercept the Ready for Buskers before their path diverges from ours.

The Ready for Buskers are: Valentine and Savanne, two traveling musicians from Romania and Hungary who’ve busked around Europe.

They’ve got a blog, it’s THE BEST resource out there for wanna-be Western European busker, and it totally inspired us to do this Europe trip.

the ready for busking vagabond satchel

ready for busking messenger bag

CHECK IT OUT::: ::: !!! 

You’ll get city laws, and how to break them, maps of  busking pitches, realistic estimates for how much one can earn, inspiring photos of the landscape and more. Plus, They’re all around genuine people and it’s fun to watch their ups-and-downs as they travel.

Right, so we have a mission: Sometime before we left the states we vowed to cross paths. And it just so happens that today we are very, very close. So now the Cack is headed to Chamonix …

camping in the park in Lyon France

Happy Monday from Lyon

Monday July 1st

From Lyon to the Lac d’Annecy.  Walking, hitchhiking, busking, Carrefour detour, hanging by the peage in a foothill town, some panicking @ Geneva, a hitchhike ride that takes us out of our way, but we still land safe in the serene town of Annecy and camp by the lake.

the lake in Annecy France

Lac d’Annecy

Tuesday July 2nd

Hitchhiking the alps is a summer breeze. Mission accomplished! In Chamonix with Valentine, Savanne, and their programmer friend, Fedot, who does freelance IT and rock climbing in his spare time. This outdoor-enthusiast vacation resort looks busker-plausible, but we reserve today for revelry at British pubs with Eastern European tour guides.

Wednesday July 3rd

Lazy day in Chamonix. We can’t busk because it’s raining and Sharmini lost her voice, so instead the five of us cram on the couch and watch the rain. Valentine & Savanne’s decision to give up their 2014 busking journey and head back home adds a tinge of sadness. They’ve found France too difficult, and we worry about our own busking future. But we are not about to give up, and they offer us a ride to Switzerland on their way.

romanian dwelling in Chamonix France

hanging out at Fedot’s aparment – one programmer, four couchsurfers and two laundry lines

Thursday July 4th

From Chamonix to Bern – A fed-tastic ride in Fedot’s car! Bern is, warning: Under Construction. All the pedestrian walkways are all catastrophically boxed-in by scaffolding, a very unpleasant place for making art. We earn 24 Francs over three sets, spend 7 on one hamburger, and then unanimously agree to leave. That damn bagpiper’s loud music certainly isn’t helping us either.

the hill town of Bern Switzerland

from a distance, you can’t see the ugly truth of Bern construction

Friday July 5th

Hitchhiking is especially thrilling today: our ride DROPS US OFF ON THE FREEWAY! Just as soon as we’re picked up, the cops pull our new driver over. We escape with only a scolding, but I now fear Swiss cops! Our driver, Mentor, is pretty cool Serbian- and we apologize to him for almost making him late to work at the prescription drug factory, and, it’s good he didn’t hear Sharmini throw up in the back.

Saturday July 6th

Basel. LOVE THIS CITY! In 30 minutes we make 30 Franks and 5€ and Sharmini doesn’t even have a voice today! It’s so much fun to play down by the bridge, but we can’t stay, we have another mission to get to Strasbourg and meet our American friends. And we succeed after the most epic hitchhiking trip ever, landing in Strasbourg with a total of 5€ in our pocket. 

Sunday July 7thwine towns in Northern France, Colmar

Strasbourg. HATE THIS CITY! A half hour set and the cops shut us down. Why? No busking allowed in Strasbourg. That’s funny, because I thought I saw a clan of gypsies jamming away by the main cathedral. But our American friends Abby, Nicola and Khalid rescue us from the bad busk with beers and a ride to Germany.

hell beer germany

we found hell in Germany – and it was only okay

Lesson of the Week – Lesson? Blah…let me sleep a little and then I’ll let you know!

WEEk 11 in Review ::: Familiar France

caravans for miles

caravans for miles

Monday June 24th

Montpellier. After our coolest hitchhike ride ever, with the fabulous Julio Cesar, we end up camping in the snail fields of France on a cold and windy night. Montpellier’s got some stiff competition including human statue Neptune and youthful break dancers. Downtown is packed, but busking is only okay.

Tuesday June 25th

Montpellier x2. Work, work, work, and then give ourselves  a break by counsurfing in the evening. It’s the first time we’ve ‘surfed since Bordeaux, and basically we’re doing it ’cause we need a shower, but we really plan to busk more! As always, couchsurfing has it’s own agenda and we end up spending the night with Ys and her college friends as they party late into the night. One thing of note: French people make awesome pasta.

dogs bath in the fountain in Montpellier


Wednesday June 26th

Montpellier x3. Nah, we’re kinda tired of this town. Again, 12-15€ per hour is acceptable, but only okay. The deal is sealed when we are 1) bribed to leave our favorite spot by an ice-cream vendor and, 2) mistaken for homeless beggars outside of the Carrefour. So we walk out of Montpellier and get an instant hitchhike ride to Avignon. Booyah!

Thursday June 27th

avignon by the river oh yeah


Avignon. HOLY STREET PERFORMER, I’ve never seen so many buskers in one town in my life! Apparently there’s a theater festival approaching and everyone’s come for the party. We have Leon, the German-born, Flamenco-fusion guitar player. Then there’s Tony, the escaped-from-a-commune English punk rocker, Cesar, the tri-lingual Argentinian caricature maker, the gold statue woman, the gold statue man, the balloon blower, the gypsy accordionist, the 3-piece gypsy band, Polish Zorro (who has anger management issues), the Spanish flamenco-duo, random street kid with a didgeridoo… What to do? Play-play-play for our desperate 30€ in four hours. The only thing left to do is get drunk with the Polish immigrants at the end of the night.

Friday June 28th

Avignon x2. Holy street performers who are not doing so well! Leon with the professional set-up and the escape van has been cleaning up, but everyone else is complaining. So much so, that we actually convince English Tony to leave town with us. Well, we can bus out of town together, but hitchhiking will be difficult with three. We let Tony stage himself before the pèage, and we slip behind the toll booth. It’s good to be cute Americans: we get a quick ride to Orange and wave goodbye to Tony.

fuck you orange France

fuck you orange

Saturday June 29th

Orange. We busk our hearts out for this sleepy town and then…boom! get shut down. The police suggest we go to Avignon, “there’s a place for people like you to make your music.” Hahahaha. We have a different plan, and head for the North. After 3 hours in the sun, we finally get a ride from a Quebeçois woman, Josee, who takes us all the way to Lyon. Yay! Conversation is limited because she doesn’t speak much English, and our French – well, you know. But Josee still stops with us in Vienne to check out the cathedrals and drink a beer. Plus Bon Jovi sing-alongs in the car. Awesome!

Sunday June 30th

Lyon. We’ve found the cheapest food in France : dollar hamburgs right near the Hotel de Ville. Fueled by the chili-mayo sauce, we play a fabulous Sunday morning set and make 70 whole Euros! Oh, the relief at being back in business! Lyon is beautiful as well, an “old-town” pedestrian street of cobblestones with those quaint and expensive French cafes that make culture happen. We will say one thing, this town hammers home our new Europe rule – don’t play longer than 45 minutes in one spot because someone will complain. That’s okay, we don’t care, because at least people are enjoying our music here! Horay for the Lion!

Lesson of the Week – Nice to have busker camaraderie, but when the streets are infested with musicians, get out!

Week 9 in Review ::: Tough Hustle in the Spanish Desert

pamplona at night from the tower

at night from the gates of Pamplona

Monday June 10th

Pamplona. It’s break day! Sanity calls, and the three R’s, rest, rehearsal and red wine call. Plus we find a cool park to sleep in.

Tuesday June 11th

camping in pamplona's park spain

not the only camper in Pamplona’s park

Pamplona. We meet another renegade camper for the first time! Lucas, a young Polish kid, has been traveling and busking for three years and was bold enough to set up his tent in this public park. We are all new to Pamplona, and head to check out the downtown plaza. There we meet Cornelius, another busker traveling the Camino de Santiago. The three of us team up for breakfast and scaring the locals, then disperse to try our luck busking. Cornelius makes 7€ and happily buys wine and coffee. Lucas makes 15€ and goes searching for weed. The Cack makes 19€ and breathes a little easy. We try again at night with the same results. Well, alright.

Wednesday June 12th

Pamplona x2. We busk the morning with about the same amount of success, 15€. Not great, not terrible, but kind of lacking and the cafe’s are co-opted by an old gypsy who falls asleep in the sun playing his music. When the heat of siesta arrives we opt to escape by busing it to Tudelo, a Lucas recommended spot. Why not? Artichoke fields, desert roads, towns so deserted they don’t even exist and finally hot, hot, HOT Tudelo! We try, we really do, we busk the cafes, but this town is too small and TOO HOT. Ouisseaux vant!

Thursday June 13th

the tram & the spires of zaragoza


Zaragoza. Beautiful town, but one in bureaucracy lock-down. The cops quickly inform us we need “permiso” to busk. We go searching for permiso, only to find that she’s left the building for the weekend. Some help you are, permiso! On to Lleida.

Friday June 14th

Lleida. Kind of a dull town. But we’re back in that broke desperate state so we work, work, work all day! The morning brings a lot of old Spanish folk’s sympathy and 14€. The evening brings 4€, and pre-teen boys asking for blow jobs at ‘whatever price you want’ (rough translation of Spanish here). Touched, but comfortable saying no, the Cack falls calls it a night.

Saturday June 15th

buskers permit permisso in Zaragoza Spain petition

the impossible permiso

Woken up at 3 am by sprinklers, we are soaked and cranky when we arrive at the train station to leave for Tarragona. But when we arrive in Tarragona, the Mediterranean beaches are looking great! We busk the market for 12€, then the backstreets for 10€ and finally move onto the cafes. For cafe 1 & 2 we put on a performance extraordinaire! People clap, dance, take pictures, we even get a tip from the maitre d’. Cafe number three is  a bomb, though. The owner bribes us with 10€ to  “no molestan” his customers. And now we are 40€ richer.

Sunday June 16th 

Tarragona. We think Tarragona’s good, but not great, but we convince ourselves to stick it out to store up some money for future travel. The old town streets are good, but only pull in 30€ for the whole day. An internet *sigh* and a stretch of the legs, at least it’s a living wage. With some cash in our pockets, we head out to sleep on the Mediterranean beach.

camping on the mediterranean beach outside of tarragona

Mediterranean beach camp

Lesson of the week: Café’s are good. Central Spain is not.

east cackalacky on the beach

We’re Still Alive!

The planned tour through Southern Europe:

Our actual route through Southern Europe:

We have to admit, it’s been a rough two weeks. From constant police shut-downs in the Mediterranean, to competing with too many buskers in Montpellier and Avignon…We’ve traveled through way more cities than intended. But three positives: the hitchhiking has gotten easier, it hasn’t been raining, and we now have a smart phone!

But because of the hardship, we’ve decided to skip Italy for now. If Spain was any indication of how tough a broke country is to busk, then Italy just isn’t going to improve our morale right now. We’d like to be able to keep this journey up so now we need to chase the money. It’s disappointing, but hey, if things go well in Switzerland and Germany (and all indications point to YES THEY WILL), then we’ll take a journey to Northern Italy in the future when we’re balling and just don’t know what to do with our cash.

Our planned route for the next week? Lausanne, Switzerland then Berne and Basel. And Southern Germany by next week.

Bring on the Frankfurts and Hamburgers!

the distant cathedral over the chateau of nantes

Week 5 in Review

WEEK 5 on the map :::

Monday May 13th (Day 29)

good camping off the freeway, calais, france

spot the backpackers in Calais

Calais. We don’t want to stay here and busk – besides the rain, it seems like there’s an excessive of homeless immigrant men hanging out in Calais’ parks. The word is these men try to jump in the back of trucks headed for the ferry to England. Maybe it’s true?! We want to go to Boulogne-sur-Mer. Hitchhiking. But it takes us all day to find an onramp where cars might actually stop. In the meantime, we meet the McDonald’s cat named nugget, dodge the rain, discover 1.50€ wine, enjoy various breads and cheeses, and get some good exercise. We do finally get a hitchhike ride around 7 pm. Boulogne is very nice, a fortified city within a city, but we ain’t busking it on a slow Monday. Goodnight!

school yard graffiti in france

French school yard graffi

Tuesday May 14th (Day 30)

Boulogne. Rain, rain, go away, weren’t you supposed to stay in London anyway? We spend most of the day researching how to escape the rain (not a chance in hell, even Germany is covered in clouds), then give up and head downtown to play. There are about 6 people in the fortified city, however, we’re the coolest event in town and we make 14€, free beer, a toke or two and a place to sleep in a half-built house. A good omen from France?

Wednesday May 15th (Day 31)

In the early morning, our friend Mike (who arranged our nighttime accommodation) shows up with a French baguette to kick us out. Early morning hitchhiking doesn’t work, and seems to depress our future rides who look so angry in their work clothes. Instead, we take a bus out to the south of town and end up on the back roads. The bus was fantastically cheap at €1.30/person. But the back roads are tediously long. Three hitchhike rides and 10 miles of hiking later, we finally make it to our next destination, Berck-sur-mer. In what might be the biggest mistake of our French tour, we turn down a ride to Lyon sto stop in Berck-sur-mer. We make 10€ in Berk, but all the people disappear in the evening and we’re left with homeless friends as we eat our dinner in the park. On a side note – a very drunk man passes out on the steps of a doner cafe, and a few French woman try to hail down the cops to help him. They seem concerned, not angry. It makes me like France.



Thursday May 16th (Day 32)

Berck is not so great day two. The beach is nice, there is sun, but, wow, this town is small. Without much success, we head out of town in the evening. At least the veches like our singing! When we reach the peage at dusk, we energetically decide to sneak around it and hike the freeway so we can get farther away from Berck. Three miles later, we walk off the freeway and camp behind a few bushes.

Friday May 17th (Day 33)

Walking the A-10 freeway is not so bad, but we can’t find any exits! The cops can find us, however. They give us a stern warning not to walk the freeway or, “we’ll take you to our office.” What? no free ride? French cops seem more intimidating than English cops, until one of them returns and starts looking for his lost keys. We end up in the countryside walking all day until we reach the train station in Rue. Time to let the train accelerate our journey. We end up in Abbeville, but no people out at night. Instead of busking the town, we strike up a conversation with a hippie-attired French girl who offers us a place to stay for the night. More craziness: Claire takes us to her home out in the town of Eu (pronounced ‘uh’) and on the bus a school kid hands us a pinch of hash. Well – okay!

architecture in Dieppe

your standard castle/church/old building/tourist attraction in Europe

Saturday May 18th (Day 34)

We head to Dieppe. We busk Dieppe. We have a crowd and sell CDs. We make 60€! We are so happy! At 9 pm it starts to rain.

Sunday May 19th (Day 35)

Dieppe. We wake up behind a Lidl grocery store with our tend sagging in on us from all the rain. It’s hard to get up when it’s raining, we’re waiting for a break in the weather, but nothing! Soaked, we run to McDonalds to dry out. We check the map. The dark cloud of Europe still reigns! Not wanting to wait it out in Rouen, we head to the train station and buy tickets halfway to Rouen. We intend to hitchhike but really don’t want to get off the train in the rain, so we lazily “miss our destination” right before the conductor comes by to check tickets. Rather than punish us, however, the train conductor not only lets us ride all the way to Rouen, a bigger city and better option, but also convinces the station master to give us free tickets on the returning train so we can get to the proper destination. Yay! Some good luck. We even manage to make 30€ busking Rouen! Even more good luck! But to pay for our misguided ‘train-hopping’, we spend 3 hours finding a place to sleep in super-built-up Rouen, and end up camping next to the Gare in such an obvious place we dare not set up our tent.

This weeks lessons? It rains more in Normandy than it does in the UK. Hey England – be thankful for your weather!

the rouen sncf gare

Gare in Rouen

le crapbot, the street sensation of bordeaux

A Petit Peu de French

This weekend has been pretty monumental for us

It was no Provincetown or D.C., but Bordeaux treated us better than any city so far. And this is good news because the busking has slowly been improving. We might actually be able to make it around the world!

WE LEARNED A NEW TRICK: playing for the cafes. Man, do we feel balsy and cool! Watch out America, we’re going to be hardened European musicians when we get back.

Here’s how it works: as the movies and legends told, France has lots of outdoor seating around their cafes. It’s perfectly cool in most spots to start playing in front of the tables and then ask for money. You play two or three songs, then walk around to every table with a hat saying, “pour la musique, s’il vous plaît.”

We were afraid to try – our beggar guilt was holding us back. But our friend Fabrizio set us up by taking us out to one of the largest cafes. Fabrizio was a street musician 17 years ago; he supported himself by playing accordion and singing in the subways of Paris. But when his son was born, he dramatically ended his street-music career by throwing his accordion into the river! Fabrizio seemed so intrigued by our act that he was contemplating playing on the streets again. But still, he admitted that he didn’t want to play for people if the people were indifferent.

So back to the cafes — IT WORKED!!! A little glance at the table, a little smile, a little pressure by standing around and people will open up their wallets and pull out a coin. It was pretty fucking hard to ask for it, I tell ya, standing at the tables waiting for people to open their wallets and not being able to speak French. But it worked!!! For about 15 minutes of work…that’s better than playing the streets.

We went back to try a different cafe later, but in the evening we had competition. Two Turks with drum and guitar who could move a lot faster than us and seemed more desperate to make money. We still made €6, but not the same reception.

But there ya go – it’s possible. And now when we read “the best way to make money in Spain is by playing the cafes,” we know what to do. So we’re not quite as afraid of Spain. And even Paris seems conquerable. And we feel like fucking champs.

I’ll let Fabrizio take it away with a song and some advice:

dover has drug problem uk
Crapbot in Glasgow weird street musicians Scotland box head