Updated: Jun 24, 2021
David was half Irish- his father was from Cork. I wondered what he was doing working in a music shop in the South of France, so far from home. He'd spotted the 'Change The World' sign on my guitar as he'd been inspecting the damage. The words had been cut out from a clothes label from Oxfam and blu-tacked to the head-stock three years ago, by a very optimistic, seventeen year old me.
'So you're going to change the world?'
'That's my plan... I'm just not sure how.'
As the words left my mouth I realised that the last bit wasn't exactly true, so I added,
'We can change it in small ways. Just by being a good person.'
I'm still not sure whether this inspired him or if he simply felt sorry for the poor, travelling musician girl because he said,
'Bring your guitar case here.'
I brought it over and he slipped a packet of strings into the front pocket.
'Nobody needs to know.'
Following a hand-drawn map, proudly presented to me by a friendly old lady working in a supermarché, I'd finally found SOS music and introduced them to my broken guitar.
One of the tuning pegs had worn out and needed replacing. A discovery I'd made that morning, just as I'd finally summoned enough courage to busk outside the old city of Carcassone.
The string wouldn't tighten and I'd ended up having to take it off completely. It was the first time I'd ever tried playing with only five strings. It felt like walking through a city you know like the back of your hand and finding some of the streets are missing.
I'd left rainy Glasgow the day before and been welcomed by humming Southern sunshine. After dumping everything I owned off at the Auberge de Jeunesse, I'd wandered around marvelling at how surreal it felt to be lost in this little, fairytale world, hidden within ancient walls and towers. The medieval city was a beautiful muddle of narrow stoned streets, tiny ivy-edged doors and windows and endless nooks and crannies.
That morning I'd set up at La Porte Narbonnaise; one of the main gates leading to the fortified city. It was too early to be busy but the few people lingering around seemed to be reacting positively- both tourists and locals. It was my first time busking in a non-English speaking country and I felt conscious that I wasn't singing in French. I tried to make up for it by saying 'Merci' every time someone threw in a coin.
A few songs in and I'd just been getting used to the one string thing when the silent, solemn presence of une gendarmette materialised beside me.
'Here it's not possible.'
'Is it because I need a permit?'
She ignored me. Her Walkie-Talkie had started crackling and it was probably more important.
Then something happened that had never happened before but has happened many times since. It's secretly grown to be one of my favourite Being-Stopped-By-Police-Whilst-Busking scenarios, simply because it makes me feel like less of a criminal and more like a welcomed and appreciated street musician.
A man carrying cardboard boxes who'd stopped to listen and had witnessed me being shut down mid-song, marched towards the Gendarmette and over the mountain in his arms, he started arguing with her in French. She put down her Walkie-Talkie. All I caught all of his angry speech was 'musique' and 'plaisir'. I think he was saying I should be allowed to play there because the people are enjoying it. At least that's what I hope he was saying. He definitely disagreed with her anyway because in the end he marched off with his cardboard boxes.
I didn't feel like getting arrested so I packed up and went to the tourist office to ask where I could busk. Apparently busking is completely forbidden in the old city, unless the act is related to Medievalism. I could apply for a permit at the 'Mairie.' I wasn't in the mood for dressing up as a knight or learning the harp or the hurdy gurdy and having already made enough money for food, guitar repairment fees and that night's hostel, I decided to call it a day and find the music shop.
Below the Castle topped hill, beyond the River Aude, lays Carcassone's new town. I considered busking in a square called 'Place du Carnot' but it being a midweek day at the beginning of May, it was almost empty. There were also groups of Gendarmerie patrolling the streets and I didn't want another confrontation. Perhaps on some evening in July it would be perfect. But for now, in the words of the police lady,
'Here its not possible.'
Itching for a good old busk, I decided to leave Disney Land behind and head North-West, to the pink city of Toulouse.
'Happiness is sometimes found in the unknown.'
I was feeling disheartened.
I'd chosen France because after years of learning French at school, numerous Jacques Brel albums, a language exchange to Lyon, countless Victor Hugo quotes and too many French films about boarding schools, strange waitresses and Edith Piaf, I'd fallen in love. The reason I'd been in such a hurry to leave magical Edinburgh and it's old volcanoes behind was because my heart was already in France.
Now I was beginning to realise that the reality was; poetry and romance aside, France unfortunately has much stricter busking laws than Ireland and the UK.
The first thing I did upon arriving in Toulouse was find a music shop to ask about busking. I was gravely informed that amplifiers are banned all over the city. My plan was to busk anyway and if the police came to stop me, I'd simply say I didn't know.
Toulouse is one of my favourite cities in France. As soon as I'd stepped off the bus I'd felt something. The people are warm and friendly, buildings the colours of sunsets, street art on every corner, it smells like flowers and spices.
I knew just by looking at the earthy clothed, unconventional folk smoking cigarettes outside the funky bars and cafes and the fact that the hostel had a piano in the basement, that this was a place where people would be open to street music. Despite a discouraging beginning, I had a strong feeling that I should persevere and try to busk here.
Remembering the words of Todd, the escape artist I'd met in Edinburgh;
❛You have to be able to adapt to the street, be open to change. You have to be malleable.❜
I realised I had to improvise.
I think this was my second lesson. It wasn't helpful to compare Toulouse to my hometown and be angry and sad that there were rules here preventing me from doing what I do, in the way I'd do it back home. I shouldn't expect things to work in the same way everywhere. Different cities have different codes.
I found the narrowest street with the most foot traffic and started singing and playing acoustically. Nobody was really listening, my voice was so quiet unamplified. I was just considering crying and giving up and when a girl stopped to smile encouragingly, dropping a tenner into my case. I saw it as a sign.
I looked up to see this lively group of old, smiling, white-haired men standing across from me. They came over and told me about this French singer I should listen to. They started singing jollily whilst clumsily showing me songs on Youtube and making declarations of 'une belle voix'. I gave them a CD and things started looking up.
I really got into it. I was standing in front of this graffiti covered door, there was a ledge so I decided to stand on it to help my voice carry. That's when I let go. I had no choice but to let go. It felt so freeing, pushing my voice as loud as I could. The few people that stopped to listen were really listening, I could feel it. Without a microphone or a microphone stand, I felt much closer to them. I started feeling emotional.
I met a photographer who took some wonderful photos, he bought my CD and promised to send me them as a souvenir.
A man called Nino also bought a CD and told me he knew of a place where there would be more people. He brought me to La Daurade, along the Canal de Garonne. A patch of grass and concrete beside the river, swarming with groups of young folk soaking up the sun. I set up and sung two songs but nobody could hear me.
I decided to take the risk. We were a few streets away from the Capitole (the centre) and the place was packed. I figured the chances of me being noticed were slim so I took out the amplifier. It was amazing. I had a crowd the whole time. Nino stayed to watch and listen and offer nods and smiles of encouragement every now and again.
After lots of clapping, CD sales and receiving an invitation to sing at a wedding in November. I got a bit carried away. Completely forgetting the fact that I had a cold, I failed to remember my plan to only sing for an hour or so. It wasn't until I tried saying 'Merci' into the mic that I realised I was losing my voice. That was my last busk in Toulouse. My voice was gone. I'd had such a beautiful time that I didn't care. It was worth it. However I resisted the temptation to play again until I could speak without croaking.
Never busk with a cold was lesson number three.
That evening I made spaghetti with lentils and ate it on the hostel balcony. Watching the sky turn the colour of the brickwork, pretending I was sitting in a treehouse in a rainforest as a thunderstorm brewed and rain began pouring down over the leafy courtyard, I felt at home within myself.
My heart sank when the receptionist informed me in the late afternoon the following day that there'd been a mix up with my booking. They were fully booked and I couldn't stay there that night. In the heart of Arnaud Bernard, it was a colourful, welcoming place with a courtyard downstairs and mini-kitchens in each of the rooms. I was disappointed and slightly worried that I'd have to find elsewhere to sleep.
After two metro rides and fifty minutes on a bus, I'd complicatedly reached Colomiers. Twelve kilometres away, in Toulouse's largest suburb, the Friendly Auberge was the nearest and cheapest accomodation I could find at such short notice. The slight problem was that it was in the middle of nowhere.
I started to panic a little when I got off at the bus stop and realised I had to walk alongside a main road for another 20 minutes with a backpack, a rucksack and a trolley full of busking gear. It was getting dark and there was nobody about except for the occasional passing car.
Exhausted but relieved, I finally reached the colourful signs for the hostel. It looked warm and homely, the building was surrounded by nature. There were tents under trees and the shutters on the windows were painted blue, red and green. The reception housed a piano and towering bookshelves.
That's where I met Hanas and Helen. At first I thought they were French but as it turned out they were Germans who'd been living in France for ten months. They were my roommates for the night and they inspired me. We strolled to the supermarché for baguettes and other things, chatting about France in French.
Their level of French was insane. To my ears, they sounded like native speakers. After meeting them, I downloaded Duolingo, a French storytelling app and 'borrowed' a French children's book from the hostel. (It wasn't really stealing because I left the sunglasses I'd been given back in Edinburgh in the room on purpose, so it was more of an indirect exchange.)
Leaving Hanas and Helen behind, I returned to Toulouse the following day, resisting the temptation to busk. It was 26 degrees and the river banks were full of life. I was sadly still croaking so I forced myself to leave my busking gear in the dorm and explore the city.
I was walking barefoot in Prairie des Filtres, a park along the river, when a man sitting on a bench asked me where my shoes were and 'Is that a sketchbook you're holding?'
I ignored the first question and replied,
'No, it's my writing.'
He asked if he could draw on a page in exchange for me drawing on a page of his. I was wary at first. I was nineteen and travelling alone, my first reaction was to be suspicious. Then I noticed he had paper and a little black box with him. He must be an artist, I thought.
We sat down on the grass and drew.
His name was Claude and I couldn't tell if he was a genius or insane. He opened his little black box, revealing a row of black, red, blue, orange and green Chinese ink sticks. He casually strolled over to the water's edge and came back with two blue bottle caps filled with water. He ceremoniously dipped the ink sticks in the water, then rubbed them on two stones.