Singing to Strangers

When busking, breaking the silence is the hardest part

  
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Hello and welcome to the 53rd issue of Place! Cities have long been serenaded by buskers, the musicians that turn the streets into their stage, their songs turning sunny walks and evening strolls into something that feels a little more magical. Today we hear from one such busker, Giorgia Macrelli, who, upon finding herself lost between the stages of life, booked a flight to Lisbon to play for the streets in order to find her way forward. You can listen to her perform “Glicine” on the streets of Hamburg in the audio above.

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When I packed my ukulele, my brand-new tiny Roland amplifier and an old mic, I was not sure I could do it. After all, busking is an act of braveness. In the previous month, while scanning the Internet for cheap tickets, the melodies in my head were a chaos of shoulds and shouldn'ts, tied together with the few weird looks I had received all those years in Cesenatico, my seaside hometown in Italy, where I first learned the art of playing in the streets. 

Salty air and flowery summer dresses, kids with ice-creams melting too fast, sitting on the pebbled floor and the gentle breeze arriving from the sea to announce September: all of it made me choose Cesenatico as my first urban stage in 2014. Even  though I didn’t have a real band, was not a master of any portable instrument, and didn’t think I was good enough for an  “actual” gig, I craved a space of my own. At 9 pm, on a random bench at the canal with a friend who agreed to play the guitar with me, armed with a set of a dozen of English and Italian covers, I felt a minor panic before the first notes. But through strangers’ eye contact and smiles, I felt I belonged to the streets and their democratic spirit. Five summers and a handle on the wanderer-friendly ukulele later, I was going on a one-month solo-busking trip around Europe. 

A plane ticket for Lisbon, one for Copenhagen and a lot of bus rides across Germany in between, I planned to explore five new cities through wandering, playing music and talking to locals and fellow travellers, longing for a kind of connection I felt I had lost during a period of stillness. I had spent the year in Cesena after I graduated university, juggling teaching English and dreaming about an acting career that ended after the first steps. I felt lost and powerless, as all I had accomplished up until that point suddenly felt like it amounted to nothing as I didn’t know what to do or where to go next. I was terribly scared of the idea of moving to a small town in Denmark for my master’s -- in my head the next steps kept coming, blurring and going.  I took my savings and decided to take off for a month with the only thing I had never doubted to be the best companion of my journey: music

While waving at my mum through the window seat of the bus, I was scared to be vulnerable in new cities with just my voice as protection. Soothing and powerful, for sure, but fragile as thin glass if hit by the wrong vibrations; when I play on the street, I exist through what I am able to create in a certain moment and place, agreeing on exposing myself to whatever is out there. After all, even if most of the people don’t understand my Italian originals, I’m still singing my feelings out loud and I consider it the emblem of vulnerability. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but as the writer Susan Jeffers recommends in her book, I felt the fear and did it anyway. 

***

If there is something that makes me find my sense of place, that thing is busking. Out of breath after carrying all my equipment, a restless urgency to find good spot kicks in, my eyes scanning the surroundings and trying to guess which corner I could collect more smiles and warm looks. I take a few minutes to feel where I am, plug in my mic and ukulele, and my mouth begins to dry. Breaking the silence is the hardest part, and in that fraction of time I often imagine all that could go wrong: angry pedestrians sending me away, no one glancing my way or forgetting the lyrics in the middle of a song. Then a kid stops, looks at my blue cardboard sign and then at me, trying to understand what is going on. It is in those moments of innocence that I find a crack to enter the scene and I start singing. As people start gathering, my voice finds its way among them. It makes me feel grounded and leaning outwards, strong in my own space but eager to soak all the life I can from the place I’m performing in. 

I found myself trying to tame those indefinite thoughts on my way to Luís de Camões Square, one of the picturesque spots at the heart of Baixa, the historic center of Lisbon. My mind was still reminiscing about the night before, when I had performed during an open mic and Joe, the host, agreed on lending me his mic stand for the following days; as I entered the square, I felt surrounded with so much warmth and genuine kindness that my heart was lighter and ready to receive what Lisbon could give, the good and the bad. All of a sudden, my eyes started bouncing from one corner to the other, my backpack felt heavier and I started questioning why I was even there, not preparing for whatever I should have been doing in the following months.  It’s extremely hard to live in the present when what you fabricate in your head points you constantly to the future; and even if it’s a blurry future, its absence makes it more attractive and thus strangely worth spending energy on. 

On that corner of Luís de Camões Square, with the Portuguese poet looking down on my slightly nervous face, I decided not to give in to that. What was real, present and dripping life were my hands setting up my mic, my hair gently moved by the marine breeze and my eyes blinking at the sun.

I had some of my favorite sets in Lisbon, always in the same corner of the same square because I was able to ground myself while reaching out for the town’s energy, foreign fuel to my melancholic homebound songs. That honey light which gently shone on the different faces resting near the poet’s statue naturally blended with the blue growth of a wisteria, glicine, I was singing about in my song. I sang “Glicine” over and over in that square, as a way of reminding myself that if I kept listening to someone else’s voice, I would never find again my own and take the courage to choose what felt right for myself. 

[...] oppure risalire piano

Sacrificio quotidiano

Di decidere da sola cosa è giusto per me

Glicine, glicine… 

***

Whenever I caught someone recording me, at the end of the song I asked whether they could send me the videos. At first it felt weird to stop the set to give away my number, but as a solo-traveler you rarely have tangible memories including yourself apart from selfies. When I received the videos, I carefully analyzed  them to spot mistakes or awkward faces, but after a couple, I realized the real reason: I needed to see myself immersed in that space, gently blending with the scene as if I had rehearsed that dance for a long time instead of randomly finding myself there. That harmonious feeling was still new and shaky, and I needed an objective and tangible confirmation that me, Giorgia, after dreaming about it for a long time, was playing her music in the streets of a foreign city that smelled like salt and cream. It was the proof  I was being  myself in a place I’ve never been to before, among strangers and new friends, carving my way one song at a time, no matter how grey the future seemed. The knots I carried within finally started to untangle.

When I changed phones and lost all the material, my heart cracked a little, remembering how much I needed those videos to have an account of that special sense of place I could revisit anytime I wanted. However, by that gloomy day I had already travelled and played in Porto, with its Rue da Flores and the neighbors listening to me from their windowsills, Berlin and Munich, where a man put a rose in my case and a bird pooped on my hand while I was playing a G chord. In that moment, it struck me that the feeling had stayed through it all.

It had become something intrinsic, a natural way to define my relationship with a place, a city, a street. The curious looks, that couple dancing, the old man sitting on the stairs with his eyes closed, other buskers smiling at me, the shadow of the trees slowly eating the ground as the day goes by: there are no physical traces of it that can compete with what I carry within me since that summer. The precious feeling that, wherever you go, you have the power to feel part of a place in your own, imperfect and nurturing way. If I protect it at any cost, even when the voices around me discredit it and the shoulds and shouldn’ts knock on my door, I will always be able to find me, again and again, exactly where I am.

-Giorgia Macrelli is an Italian songwriter, busker and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany. She's interested in identity, education and culture in all its forms. You can listen to her music on her Spotify.


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