Québéc, New Brunswick, Maine - Québéc City
Finally I was in Québéc (city)! A segment of the ride was actually complete; now I needed to work on the other side of the ride's concept: welcome to Buskerland! Yes, this town was known for street musicians - the time had come for me to enter the mix. With hostel details already settled by phone, checking in proved nothing but a formality as I immediately took to walking the streets with my horn slung over my back.
In no time I knew I'd be playing SOMEwhere, at least. Indeed, this was a capital idea if only because I quickly found myself seeking refuges from repeated deluges from the sky. Confounded rain! Stop that! Certainly this would limit my options, since being a WET street musician wasn't particularly appealing.
Thus I first I found myself playing to the dark underbelly of a tunnel. Naturally, it wasn't long before a scowling security guard was eyeing me from behind his fence at its other side. Was I doing something wrong? Didn't seem so. Plus, the accoustics were good... so I took perverse pleasure in my new friend's fence-enabled helplessness. Hey - the authorities had actually put it up themselves. It was liberating to thumb a nose at authority. Melodically so, unquestionably.
Smugly blaring away, I could tell that he was frustrated by his inability to tell me to buzz off. Even more surprising, however, was that he passed up the (albeit emasculated in its distance) opportunity to scold me "just because". He glared at me, instead, hands on hips. For all this, I mused that a fortress wall still made for a good barrier even 400 years after the fact. It wasn't like anyone was around, anyhow. No, this standoff was just a security guard thing, an itching to wield the supreme power that a security guard might think to possess. Still... that steely stare might've cut through the stone given time. Perhaps it was time for me to be... going.
Good acoustics had been my saintly inspiration, of course. With that in mind, I jammed the bell into the fortress cavity once more for a final sounding. Now deciding that enough was enough of that (I could only be so cruel) - perhaps a park bench, then? A change in venue? Yes, I thought, it WOULD be nice to get off of the feet... and most park benches are dry and pigeon-shit-free. Such is always the hope, anyway, and in this case I wouldn't be denied.
I next stationed myself adjacent to a green marching field, lying directly across from some architecturally arresting apartments. Perhaps this could be an unobtrusive, useful practice place? At the same time, though, I had to respect people's residences - I switched gears to play at a whisper.
This was a handy trumpet skill I'd developed, no understatement in using the "skill" word. Many a trumpet player could stand to learn the concept at times. For this I received the compliment that various people had noted their surprise in my ability to both speak lightly from the horn while sounding good. Admittedly, I took pride in this: I didn't "suffer" immeasurable hours of practice completely nobly and without a modicum of laudatory commentary - appreciation was appreciated.
Meanwhile, for the onlooker that hadn't dialed into the fact that a "whispery trumpet" could be achieved, the quiet yet unmuted trumpet remained one of the great mysteries of life. Somewhere between the wheel and quantum mechanics. This was shortly apparent when one befuddled couple stuck their heads out of their window numerous times, craning their necks conspicuously. Another man, rather elderly, nonchalantly stepped out from behind the glass door where he had been staring my way, turning a challenged ear. I choked back my sound even more, feeling mischievous.
Better, however, were some kids walking by. They unrestrainedly came up closer to smile, shake heads, and laugh. There rarely is mistaking children's thoughts, of course, and NEVER their mimicry. Thus their appreciating bobbles of nods cutting the air made the most pleasing of patterns. TripTrumpet had found his audience. I tooted a cartoon diddy, one that certainly flew right over their heads - perhaps I should move forward from Looney Tunes and Popeye the Sailor Man to Barney? Nah!
In any event, rain, rain didn't go away. Afternoon rain shower recurrences had become well established on this particular day. Sigh. I got up from my bench, then, next following the cannon-laden ramparts of Vieux (Old) Québéc until I spied an guardhouse archway. Perhaps that could both offer protection and render nice acoustics, I hoped. Yes, there WAS a reason musicians played under bridges. Hint: it's not because we're trolls.
In any sense of isolated doodling, however, I was quickly to be denied. Within a minute of entering my redoubt, I was joined by a somewhat ragged-looking man with a scar running the length of his cheek. Hmmm, he looked friendly enough, but... there went the neighborhood, if not just the solitude! Oh well.
Within seconds, a girl entered, too, with a fresh red-purple black eye and a husky dog. She plopped instantly to the ground with familiarity, instantly cracking open a large can of beer nestled in a paper sack. She had a tired prettiness, but it was laid upon a face that was simultaneously one moment away from crying... or from closing both windows to the world and sleeping.
The grand entry, however, was reserved for Bill. Or perhaps it was Bob. Or Jim. Whoever he was, I quickly rendered him the name Fagan for obvious reasons. He burst in, immediately spying my case. "Dude! What's in there? Is that a fucking trumpet? Let's go! Let's jam! Ready, right now?!?" Here was a dare, and with panache. Yet even that wasn't enough: he next threw down his case for emphasis, pulling out his guitar. I pulled out my horn, too, curious as to where this would go.
No one could say that Fagan didn't lack for enthusiasm, slashing at his axe right away. Slow down, friend! Indeed, trying to find common ground led first to a number of false starts on tunes I knew which he didn't, frustrating him quickly. We shortly tried his stuff instead, first with Miles Davis tunes I had some familiarity with, but didn't typically play. This worked, albeit in Fagan's manic fashion. (Which in reality meant they didn't, but who'd know the difference?)
Somehow each tune turned into a slashing rockabilly showcase for him, regardless - I just did my best to keep up and outline the chords that weren't exactly forthcoming from him. I guess you take your challenges as they present themselves. Illustrating this admirably, a couple of times he exhorted me to follow him into some mad offshoot. I didn't exactly find any of these... digressions musical, but his inertia would will him through like a tornado. Good god.
Really, it didn't matter. Fagan was obviously oblivious to anything I did anyhow. Far more important, actually, was to keep my horn out of the way as he swiveled, jerked violently, then swirled about in some crudely practised troubador fashion. I gathered that he was working his audience with this enthusiastic mania. I'd worry more about keeping my trumpet undamaged. Fagan didn't strike me as the insured type.
Over the course of an initial 20-30 minutes our little space completely filled in, all with kids - teenagers all. And, while the older teen with the black eye had already moved on, it seemed that the rest of the disaffected youth of Québéc soon replaced her. Perhaps there were 20 of the purported delinquents in all, each clad in the various street kid fashions of the last four decades. Every other one had a pipe or a bag of grass, further exhibiting a practiced grace in handling them, and soon the party was under way. I quickly surmised that this was a daily occurrence; I was a mere interloper. At least no one was bothering to ask to "borrow" my horn.
All along, in between swigs of beer and outbursts of tunes, Fagan gave me an abridged life story. A Boston construction worker or crew leader for most of his prior life, I learned that as of the last two years he had turned street musician par excellence. Definitely the street part was true, anyway, I concluded. His appearance screamed "park bench" (as in "that's where I sleeps!"), leaving no question about THAT side to his authenticity.
As for the lifestyle's appeal, that was simple. These kids were his flock. It's good to be king, as Mel Brooks might say. Just as apparent as their appeal to him, however, and while they could tolerate this bungled funky jazz shit we were playing, what they really wanted was... Pink Floyd. This made more sense, at least in the sense of reciprocity.
Pink was an old vocabulary of mine, fortunately, from 20 years past. I'd be game with this switch to memory lane. Why not? I was comfortable with "Comfortably Numb"; I was there in "Wish You Were Here". But... still... I wasn't really of THIS particular scene in the end. Of course. So, as I found myself looking at both the hope and hopelessness in their faces, I felt like I was revisiting some of the same faces and words from many a debauch in my Germany years aged 17-23. Damn, that was a long time ago!
Back then in Kaiserslautern, my friends and I frequented a pub, the Alte Munz, until it became a second home. When otherwise not downing way too many a Parkbraäu beer, we analyzed lyrics of the day's supergroups that had most likely been created in hazes of heroin and acid (for the musician's parts). Thinking of this, the way I figured it was that Fagan had never left that place. Or he was on enough speed to return with a fury on a daily basis to his glory days. For me, though, it was indeed only a distant past. As the festivities rolled on, thus, I eventually slipped out after 80-90 minutes spent blacksliding a score of years and another life ago.
That trippy day's singularity aside, my Québéc stay worked itself out in a way that Montréal hadn't, however superb the Big M had been with me. For example, unlike in Montréal, I jammed with several musicians at my hostel, all guitar players. Some doubled with singing, too. This was a nice change.
Tristan and Jason, out of Ontario, were quite talented, with the latter being an unbroken string of riffs on his guitar. He truly was born to the trade, so I soon gave up trying to sneak in the start of a song of my own flavor. He was just too quick with his flurry of sharp licks and false starts. For all that doodling, however, he could honestly play and his technique was practiced. More engagingly, Tristan beautifully blended Tracy Chapman's sound while channeling Ben Harper to lyrics and music of his own (and Jason's). Talk about a talented pair (check out tristanraganan on myspace).
Another guy I met had his guitar on a bike. We played together a couple of times only before realizing that we had - by coincidence - taken practically the same route from Montréal to Québéc. We had both opted for the roads less travelled, always on the "wrong" side of the river. "So YOU'RE the OTHER guy on a BIKE!!!" we simultaneously said. (We had seen only two bikes parked at the hostel, both geared for touring.)
He was dumbstruck that someone was as fou (foolish - my new friend was French) as he was, carrying an instrument on a bike. Meanwhile I was perhaps more impressed with his carting a GUITAR - my trumpet was far more manageable, sizewise. Regardless of such logistics, we both saw eye to eye on the necessity - as did the other traveling musicians I met or jammed with.
Not that all went swimmingly playing music with others. Sometimes I had to sound out these fellow musicians, trying to guess how pleasant the jamming experience would be beforehand. For example, a surfer dude, busking his way across Canada, offered various opportunities. His constant references, however, to the Grateful Dead, Phish, and being as baked/drunk as possible when jamming weren't alluring. Call me crazy or close-minded, if you must, but I just couldn't find the appeal. Not that he was bad, though - I saw him play at a nearby Irish pub. It just wasn't anything I wanted to share.
You have to respect your own tastes, THAT'd be the greater message. I thus couldn't ignore that I was only a rocka-n-a-rolla in the nostalgic sense. Although I had probably thrashed my neck enough in my "Led Zeppelin era" to claim rock street cred, then, by the time I was in Québéc I kept that experience strictly to listening (and not often at that, for any number of reasons). Not all kids need to play in the same sandbox - there's plenty more of the stuff around for all to be happy.
Still, I myself hadn't laid down a case seeded with coins. Oh yeah - BUSKing. This deficiency of courage had stayed true until the last day of my Québéc stay, a sufficiently cowardly approach to what could only be termed my dilemma. When would I be getting to... IT? Yeah.
By then I'd played almost every park I'd encountered gratuit (free), of course. And, for that, I had noticed that people were being drawn closer far more than pushed. This was progress - yeah. I worked on solos and improvisations, while also trying to choose "approachable" tunes, too. Hours spent playing had piled up, not fruitlessly, but... yeah. I was enjoying the playing for itself and certainly that was very satisfying. Yeah.
Still, just like playing in a big band ensemble, then in my friends' adhoc jazz combo, there was a new and difficult hurdle to surmount. My public-playing, busker cherry had to be burst. Time to do it. With this in mind, I decided to head out to the Plains of Abraham - a nearby park - to try my luck. Sigh - was this supposed to be such a resigned undertaking?
Logistically, meanwhile, I knew that I needed a permit to busk in Québéc (City). For now, I'd keep that on the down-low. Like most musicians, I'd thumb my nose at that. Where was the serendipity? No, it'd be better to just keep an eye out and run. If caught, the cops probably would only tell me to stop anyway, I figured. I found a park bench alongside a nice garden to do my thing.
To be fair to myself (bring on the denials and explanations!), most people seemed purposefully on their way to something further toward the river. And I hadn't chosen an obvious place to dawdle, either, cowardly snug on a bench among some rosebushes. But... done. I had little to show for it, true, after an hour-plus of playing (what I thought was a) nice selection tastefully rendered, but... done. Rinse and repeat - that'd be the next challenge.
It wasn't a complete loss, all the same: I had put myself out there, and that would make the next time easier. Channeling Saturday Night Live's confidence-seeking Simon, I told myself the following: busking would be a game to be worked on. Perhaps I might need to neglect to shave. Maybe I should pose the bike nearby, for street cred. Possibly I could put up a placard. Or... I could play better, too... just MAYBE perhaps possibly. Nah!
In any event it was finally happening. THAT suitably covered the fact that the only person who actually dumped some coins into my case was the nice hippie from the hostel, who had just chanced by. I wasn't skunked! Just awfully close. If anything, this further proved that hippies were nothing if not encouraging. As if I didn't already know that.
It wasn't as if my benefactor exactly represented the typical audience, however. Indeed, from speaking with him - I had already had numerous, meandering conversations with the man - one might be forgiven for thinking he had perma-baked his brain years ago. True, he sported a nose that looked to have been bashed in more than once... but one could say that that bespoke some experience. More importantly, though, it could be said that he had done his share of busking, including the previous day. Here was someone who had jumped in like I was doing now, and far more bravely. I thanked him.
To make a long story short, the upshot of my "disaster" would prove positive. Fresh from the battlefield, I found myself unwilling to accept such an ignomious defeat on my new path. Another outing would be required, and soon. Like in a few hours! That's the spirit (if not the brains)!
I DID have confidence in my repetoire. Plus, it helped immensely to find out later that my chosen (unsuccessful) spot was on the chemin (way) for people who were in a hurry. Indeed, it was only after leaving my bench that I found that the masses passing me by were on their way to get some surprise tickets for - god help us all - Celine Dion's appearance at Québéc's 400th anniversary year party. She didn't even play trumpet, didn't they know? The horror!
On my second busking go-round, I more wisely stationed myself a block or so from the hostel, alongside a handful of cannons on the ramparts. With a commanding bluff's view, I knew it received a steady trickle of gawkers... but not TOO many. Baby steps, baby steps...
Blowing softly toward the buildings would render acceptable accoustics, too. (So would playing loud, but all it took was a neighbor with a sniper rifle or handy tomato to successfully complain about that.) At least I had learned that detail from playing in the open rose garden. Accoustics matter... a lot. This time, too, I would move the case from the bench, instead placing it at my feet. A new game had begun.
All told, I would make some $10 in change for the hour-plus that I played. This was an improvement, and sans the broken-nosed hippie I already knew, too. This wasn't stunning, true - actually, it stunk - but beer money out of practice time was still pretty cool. I still was a neophyte at this, learning the tricks of the trade. Perhaps that was the reason the police pitylessly put an end to my shenanigans...
Actually, they merely cruised by slowly the first time... before returning five minutes later to stop and wave me over. Busted! Granted, most buskers hauled ass at the first sighting - I kinda had asked for this by not doing so as well. But... I was on a roll! Plus, I was leaving town anyway. Between those two observations I apparently let my laziness get the better of me. I was caught. Oops.
I knew that I was breaking the law, of course. Oh yeah - THAT detail! I needed a permit, perhaps $25/day or $200/month (or year?) I think it was. Come bust time, I played far more ignorant than that, of course. "You need a permit? Wow - I woulda never thought!" Or, as it was, "On a besoin d'un permis? wa... je n'en avais aucune idee!"
I congratulated myself on making the most important decision correctly, which was to hold the conversation in French. This much I knew to always be to my advantage, at least over non-French-speaking tourists. Moreover, "keeping it French" was something I knew to be particularly appreciated in Francophone areas. As hoped, the cop in turn didn't utter a single English word. Did this work?
Certainly enough so. The short of it was that I got a free conversation in French for 10 minutes, while in exchange Mr. Occifer got my name and birthdate written onto a scrap of paper for future reference. Earnestly, too, I showed that I was eminently curious about the proper busking procedure in Québéc (which, for that matter, was about the same as I heard it to be in Montréal). I assured Mr. Johnny Law (M. Jean Droit, perhaps I should write) that I would mend my wayward ways.
Effusively lauding my latest benefactor for bestowing such valuable and detailed info as he did (he mapped a path to city hall or whatever to do the deed of registering, a concept I chucked about some eight seconds afterward), my mind had already moved on to bigger and better things. I schemed joyfully on what brand of beer I was going to buy back at the epicerie (grocery) near the hostel.
Well, I planned that and, more importantly, how early I'd be leaving in the morning. After all, the rest of Québéc province was there for the plucking! With my busker virgin status now irretrievably shattered, I was ready to whore myself out in earnest!
But talk of leaving would be getting ahead of the rest of the story. It need be related that, music and busking aside, Québéc played out as another great stay equal to Montréal in appeal. Still, it was considerably different, too. For example, whereas Montréal had its plentiful sections of old and preserved areas, its charm really laid in its nonchalant and cosmopolitan atmosphere. It wore its beauty and joie de vivre with ease, absorbing local and traveler alike with a shrug.
Québéc was, however, primarily a tourist town. History stared you down from every quarter of the Vieux Quartier, but all of the sidewalks were jammed with people toting cameras. C'est la vie, ou vive la difference entre les deux, as they say in... Russia or somewheres.
Seriously, people come by the busloads to Québéc - literally. One after another of the sleek, long beasts clad in steel seemed to be at about every turn. Conventions, school trips, tour groups - half the town seemed to be wearing an official badge of some type. I even considered making one of my own, of some obscure industry that should leave all in a bit of doubt. But that'd take effort - nah.
All of this isn't to say that Québéc didn't wear it well. The tourism industry was unquestionably evident and ready - one couldn't count the numerous, fresh-faced, and (always) young Canadians employed by the government. They were partout (everywhere), eager to answer any question or assist in any way, how, or where in the touristed areas. Not that they slapped you down with their presence, however. The cost of such tourism by way of eats and entries was a little touristy-expensive, sure, but not so wholesale. Taken as a whole, this is my way of saying that you could cry in your crepes and cafe, but the bill wasn't going to be the sole reason.
The architecture I so loved was pleasing and bountiful evidence, too, always a plus for any town in my crosshairs. Of the many details, however, I took particular interest in the many roofs of steel and tin. Various curves and angles always appealed to me, and here there was quite a bit to sample from. There were some superb examples, such as the train station, but just as equally I found that a quiet sidestreet's irregular string of roofs after a rain seemed to let out a wearied sigh that resonated. There even was, shockingly, some decent grafiti. Who knew?
Meanwhile, as a backdrop to my entire stay, the big thing going on - for the entire summer - was the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city. Per the usual, I hadn't known of any of this wee detail prior to getting down to the brass tacks of half-assedly planning my trip. If I had, I actually might not have even come through. I was not one who liked the crush of people at special events. Now it was too late, of course, but no matter.
On account of the anniversary, multiple events were happening each night. These ranged from concerts, plus a comedy series (Le Grand Rire - The Big Laugh), to special tents in every quarter of the core tourist areas to advise people such as myself to the current happenings. All this was couched while simultaneously educating the masses of Québéc's unique history along the way. I took the lively atmosphere in only cursorily, however, non-plussed mostly by the coincidence with my stay. I preferred to amble about aimlessly, allowing it to soak in as it might. Sometimes it did... sometimes not.
For example, I didn't go into any of the varied museums and historical buildings in town. It wasn't necessarily just this occasion, though. Whereas I used to load up on museums on a typical trip in my past, I was now at a point where I'd rarely enter one. So be it, I thought - if the interest was there, then I'd certainly wander inside - simple! More importantly, if something appealed to my taste specifically, like the three Dalí museums north of Barcelona had (causing a four-day detour on that occasion), I'd camp out and be all over it. This just wasn't the case in Québéc. Somehow I still managed to receive a good idea of the history nonetheless. Really, between the placards and newspapers there wasn't much choice.
The one exception I took to this tourism-evasion was taking in the hourlong outdoor movie on the waterfront. This took place every night at 10 p.m., an extravaganza for the entire summer. It provided something of a montage of Québéc's history, using as its screen the fifty or so massive grain elevators in the port. This made for an irregular surface, broken by the few structures amongst them, yet it was all seamlessly accounted for in the making of the film somehow. Speakers were placed all along the waterfront - and the waterfront-facing ramparts above - too. As they surely said from Montréal to Paris, "Quelle spectacle!" ("What a show!")
Outside of eyeing Québéc's obvious attractions, I spent a lot of my time (as usual) connecting with people in my hostel. Miguel, from Chiapas, Mexico, particularly attached himself to me. Apparently I'd be his translator immediately upon our meeting - he only spoke Spanish. Uh... okay. This made for an odd problem of sorts, as it would turn out.
Although a very friendly guy, I soon found that I had to be a little careful to maintain a distance, too. The reason was simple: in the constant shuffling about of beds in this particular hostel, I was wary of becoming one of his roommates. Indeed, I had heard about Miguel long before I saw him. His snoring was of generally-agreed epic proportions, both among the other guests and staff alike. Holy crud, that was some loud stuff! With snoring being perhaps THE key ingredient to a hostel stay, it'd pay to be strategic.
Lucy, another new friend I made, was from London. Providing some unique company at turns, she had a quizzical, hesitant, and slightly sideways smile that often soon broke into an ever-ready "mmm..." in that uniquely British way. I soon found myself always up to the challenge of eliciting that smile, with both of us seeking each other out for a beer, tea or chat.
Students from all over Canada, as one would expect to see in a Canadian hostel, were in evidence, too. So was a Euro contingent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the latter were mostly from France, Belgium, and Switzerland - the French-speaking countries of Europe. Just as expected, too, there were also the typically fluent German, Dutch, or Scandanavian representatives thrown in, too.
Beyond the student ilk, families, conventioneers, and retired couples - not your usual hostel bunch, but in this case people looking for cheap digs in a great location, both at an expensive time and in a spendy place - made for an odd mixing of oil and water at times. Fortunately, this never succeeded too poorly.
For my own interests, some Quebecois from the sticks made for good practice of Quebecois (the local version of French)... if not sign language. This version of French would take a bit to get the hang of. The subjects of conversation, as one might guess, ran from books, movies, and travel in Québéc, to previous travels and politics. As always, I got to know all of the staff well in short order, too: that was where one got the best inside information. Like which hot shower was actually... hot. (The one on the landing between the 2nd and 3rd floors, for the record.)
In any event, eventually one shower had to be the last one. The time was at hand, and the bike was kinda just... sitting there. A week in Québéc found me ready to press on. Now I'd be venturing into the completely unplanned portion of my trip (i.e., the vast majority of it). Uh... Tadoussac?
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