I Play The Accordion, And I’m Sorry

“Ich spiele das Akkordeon, und es tut mir Leid!”

I wrote that on a sign that hung from my accordion case as I played in the U-Bahn for the first time today. The act of playing music in public for money is called “busking”, or in German, “musizieren” (literally, ‘to music’ or ‘musicking’).

In order to begin, I heaved myself out of bed at 5.10 this morning. Those of you who know me personally are very well aware that the two things I resist most in life are going to bed and getting out of bed. I absolutely hate it, and I’m a little biyatch for about an hour after I wake up. Therefore, getting up before the sun is anywhere near the horizon is quite a struggle for me. But I did it.
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The way you play music in Montréal is interesting and pretty logical: In the metro, you go to the station you want to play at the morning of, usually at 5.30, and write your name on a piece of paper where the spots are; you get two hours after the time you have signed up for; you must do this every day you play. For outside, it’s slightly different: You go to the Ministry of Culture of Québec (I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing) and sign up for an audition, because, obviously, nobody wants Cirque de Soleil to happen a second time; you do your audition; if they approve you, meaning you aren’t terrible, you pay $120 CAD for your permit that lets you play outside all year in a certain large area of the city. Efficient and easy.

The German way is so very stereotypically German that it’s almost a caricature of the country. Here, to play in the U-Bahn stations, you must only wake up early on Wednesday (which is very nice, especially in contrast to Montréal). You go to Leopoldplatz Station by 6.25, and write your name on a list that one of the Russians is holding. Oh, by the way, they’re all Russians. I was one of two or three musicians who wasn’t from a former Soviet Republic. So once your name is written, you wait a bit. One of the Russians has a bag with a bunch of number balls like in BINGO, each ball having one number. You all draw lots in the order you wrote your name on the first sheet of paper. I was called and pulled the number eight, so they put me eighth on the new list.

OK so now that you are on the second list in an order determined by chance, you get in line at the U-Bahn information desk. There is a man whose job every Wednesday is to hand out permits. He waits for us to get the order of the line from that second sheet. So I was eighth in line now. This man takes us one by one, and we select which days and stations we want to play for the remainder of the week and the entirety of next week. You get the whole station for the whole day, and there’s a piece of paper to prove it. Every day you take costs you €7,50. So the first guy goes up and selects the stations and days he wants. On and on until we’re all done. I was number eight, and I ended up leaving at 8.30. I selected five days, and paid my €38,50.

Therefore very organised, very bureaucratic, but very convenient.

I began with Rathaus Steglitz since it’s relatively close to where I live and I needed to test out stations anyway. I played four hours and my entire body aches. But I can’t complain €66,20 later, net profit, tax-free, at a quieter station during low-traffic hours. That’s €16/hour, which is a decent amount of cash. If nothing else, I can pay myself back for all the museums I went to.

The people here were also very nice. The odd thing about accordion which I notice everywhere I have played is that two very specific types of people give me money most often: old people, and punks. I have no idea why the latter give me anything. You would think they see that as a totally like old school thing dude but I guess these pink-haired persons see it as some sort of rebellion.

Also, I got sexy-stared by a lot more fine young ladies than I ever was in Canada, so I’m not going to complain about that either.

The U-Bahn police come by every so often and ensure you have a permit. These two come up to me, I hand over my permit, which has my passport country and number on it, and she looks at me and says, “Oh thank God, someone who’s not Russian! Keep playing. We need more Americans.” I was surprised Germans made comments like that.

A few people were very taken aback that I’d apologise for playing the accordion. They all looked at me in a very concerned way and said things to the effect of, “Oh, please please, don’t be sorry! You play beautifully!” as if it were a political issue like homosexuality and they were reassuring me that my life choices were acceptable to society. I’ll ask someone if what I wrote has the same ring to it in German as in English, because my humour involves quite a bit of self-deprecation, in case you couldn’t tell, and I’m not sure how it came off.

Bonus story: The most Norwegian encounter I have ever had occurred today. One of the musicians was from Norway, and we were chatting when I said, “Ah, Norway! Land of Dahl and Munch and Ibsen!” (Ibsen is generally regarded as a better playwright than Shakespeare) He laughs once I list these names, and relates a very funny story: “So, not to brag, but I have a great story about Ibsen. Ibsen’s buried somewhere in Oslo in this graveyard. And one time, this chick and I were drinking and stuff in this graveyard, and we got it on on top of Ibsen’s grave.” Ah, those liberated Scandinavians.

In conclusion, it’s a great opportunity to play in the U-Bahn if you’re good. And remember to smile. Germans really appreciate the smiling, more than they did in Canada, it seems.

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