Our van sputtered into the Swiss town of Biel-Bienne to expire in a cloud of smoke next to a secondhand clothing shop. After stumbling onto the street with our instruments, we made our way through a heavy downpour to Le Cardinale, a smoke-filled cafe with high ceiling fans, photographs of the Alps scattered over the walls, and rows of crowded tables.
We’d been busking across Europe for months, and I was so exhausted I expected to fall into a coma at any moment. The novelty was wearing as thin as my t-shirt, but I didn’t have enough money for airfare back home. In fact, we could barely afford to eat because gas and repairs for the van devoured what little we made. We heard from other buskers that Switzerland and Italy was where real money was to be made, so one rainy day we pointed the van’s nose south and crossed our fingers.
“It’s all right for us to play,” reported Pete, who already rushed ahead to speak to the bartender. “We need to make a lot of money fast.”
The only space with any room was the checkerboard-tiled foyer near the doors. Waiters sauntered about, people conversed complacently, and smoke swirled under the ceiling fans. When we started “Tom Billy’s Jig,” a few pairs of eyes looked up. In spite of the hole in my stomach, I pushed the tempo harder to gain the crowd’s attention.
Terry sawed away on the fiddle, Charlie huffed and puffed at his flute, and Pete kept time on the bodhran. Conversations petered out and faces turned our way. We finally milked some applause and, after a few more numbers, called it quits.
Before we entered our next stop, the San Gervais, we ran to the doorway of a boulangerie to count our earnings. The cap was heavy with coins; our first few minutes in Biel covered the cost of the trip from Germany. “Look at all the silver.No centimes or pfennigs here,” said Charlie. “I like this place.”
The San Gervais was crowded and smoky like Le Cardinale, but the decor was more basic, with plaster walls, plain wooden chairs and tables, and a rougher clientele. We played the same set as in Le Cardinale and the crowd came to life, pounding their fists on the tables and clapping along. Someone even sent a round of beer to our table.
I turned to my left and saw a short, slender man with red hair and wire glasses perched over searching green eyes. He took off his black jacket, unraveled the purple scarf from around his neck, and shot his hand out to me. “My name’s Albie and I’m glad to meet you.” He spoke with a dense Cockney accent as he nearly shook my arm off. “Your music is super. I’ve waited a long time to meet you.”
Albie grabbed a chair from the next table and sat with his elbows on our table and his chin on his hands. His face had the expression of a practical joker remembering a particularly successful project. In spite of his size, I could see sinewy muscles beneath the freckles on his arms.
“I wondered how long it would be before you lot turned up here. You’re just as good as I heard you were.”
“How did you know about us?” asked Pete.
“First you answer one question. What part of London are you from?”
“My family’s from Lambeth. I met these lads in France and joined up.”
“Magic! I’m from the shadow of ‘Beau Bells’ meself.” The two clinked glasses. “It’s funny, running into another south Londoner all the way over here.”
I focused my attention on Albie. “But you didn’t answer our question.”
“I heard you were in Freiburg and figured you’d come this way. They say you’re following the sun to Italy.” He drew a thin cigar out of his jacket pocket. “Why don’t you tell me your story?”
I explained that we came to Europe to play at a music festival in France, got robbed of our travelers checks and plane tickets, and ended up busking for money. The chill of autumn crept up on us, and we found ourselves forced to move south to survive. What I didn’t tell him was that I had a girlfriend in Freiburg, and when she dumped me out of the blue one day, I wanted to get as far from everything German as possible.
Albie sat listening like a Buddha behind his curtain of cigar smoke. As Pete took over to finish the tale, the waiter was murmuring that the place was about to close.
“We’d better get going.” Terry wrapped a red scarf around his neck. “We’ve got to go try to sleep in the van.”
Albie’s eyebrows jumped. “You lads don’t have a kip?”
“We were too busy lashing into the drink to look for a place to stay,” explained Pete.
Albie led us out into the night air. “It’s going to get cold soon.” He hesitated a moment, then started down the lane with a sideways nod of his head. “Come on, then, you can stay at my flat.”
He led us to a side street, pulled open the heavy wooden door next to a bakery, and ascended a squealing wooden staircase. The landing was devoid of light, but the air was dense with the pungency of old onions. He then unlocked a door on the second floor and ushered us into his apartment.
The place was roomy, with only a couple of battered sofas, mismatched chairs, an iron floor lamp, and English newspapers strewn about. The breeze of our entrance animated a flock of dust bunnies, which sent them skittering across the parquet floor. Albie switched on the lamp, throwing our shadows onto the white walls. One shelf against the wall was crowded with carved wooden animals.
“There’s a crate of beer in the corner.” Albie threw himself onto an orange sofa dotted with white stuffing straining to escape through rips in the fabric. “I live here with my nephew, Steve. He’s asleep, but nothing short of an earthquake can wake him.”
Terry extracted four bottles of beer from the red plastic crate that stood in one corner. “How long have you been here?”
“Not long. We used to live in Zurich, but that was too rich for our blood. We’re spending the winter playing at a hotel in Interlaken, so they’ll be putting us up.”
I picked up a carved bear from the shelf and examined it. “This is really nice work. Did you carve this?”
“Took me hours. I’ve always been interested in woodcarving, and you can make a few bob at it, too. There’s a woodcarving school not far from here.” Albie took a last hit of beer and stood up. “I’ll let you get some rest. Tomorrow I want to give you a few pointers.”
We busked around town every day, collecting a decent amount of money. After busking in bars during the early evening we treated ourselves to Swiss specialties like fondue, raclette, or rosti, washed down with wines grown on the shores of Lake Biel.
After a week we made enough money to get our van fixed. The day we finally freed it a rush of cold air and snow swirled through town, inspiring a quick vote–the time had come to head for Italy.
Albie suggested that we all drive to their first gig of the season in Interlaken that evening so he could see us off. Charlie, Terry, Pete and I would start that very night across the Alps before high altitude snowstorms closed the passes.
Our two vans rolled through manicured countryside as the sun dipped low in the sky and cast a violet light over the land. We passed villages with turreted towers, and chalets where flags and pennants flapped in the breezeCows grazed in pastures, and tree-covered hills hovered over us on either side of the valley.
Interlaken lay at the junction of two lakes at the feet of the Bernese Alps, which rose up behind the town in a shroud of fog. The lakes exhaled a mist into the air that made the streetlights glow with a pale halo. We parked beside a large Victorian-era hotel and followed the Swells to a side entrance. Moments later we found ourselves in “The Barbie Doll Country Music Dancing Bar.” The club glowed with hot pink wallpaper, scarlet carpets, and red velvet chairs. A crystal chandelier hovered over the bar in the middle of the room. A group of men wearing expensive suits sat drinking cocktails in the booths. Albie and his mates tuned their instruments on a stage near the door.
As the show started, Mick and Steve—the other two band members–stood at the back of the stage playing guitar and banjo respectively, and singing “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” Albie danced gracefully, his tuxedo tails flying as he twirled and tapped, his freckled hands stretched out, his expression joyous and confident. Steve danced in steps perfectly choreographed with his uncle’s.
While the Squires packed up after the show, I decided to go outside to see if I could see Jungfrau, the highest mountain looming over the town. There I found Albie smoking a cigar. “I don’t feel like going back to Biel just yet,” he murmured through the smoke. “I’m sure we can find something interesting to do.” His eyes showed a light that tripped my internal alarm. “Come on then.” He squeezed my arm. “We’ll have a bit of fun. After all, this is your farewell party.” He twirled his cane and sauntered off down the boulevard.
“What about the others?”
“They can sort it out. Let’s get into some trouble,” he said taking off down the hill.
We stopped at a large white house surrounded by an iron fence overwhelmed by vines and flowers. The house was illuminated from within and sounds of laughter and piano music fluttered out to the street. Albie tapped the cane against his leg, looking the house over. “Here’s a likely place for a bit of fun.”
Before I could answer he opened the squealing gate and strode up to the door.
“Do you know these people?”
“They don’t know us yet, but they’ll certainly want to.” He rapped on the door.
The door opened and an attractive middle-aged woman, her dark hair piled on her head into an elegant column, peered out at us. Albie removed his hat and bowed. “Excuse me, gnadige Frau, but is this the party?”
“Party, party?” She looked baffled. “Ja, hier ist eine Party, aber . . . “
”I’m terribly sorry we’re late. We’re the musicians. Our van broke down, but we’re here now. We’ll perform for nothing and make it up to you.”
The woman looked at us a moment before embarrassment overcame confusion and she opened the door to let us in. It was apparently easier for her to give in to the intrusion than to explain that we had made a mistake.
The front room was carpeted with Persian carpets and furnished with antique chairs and sideboards while the walls hosted prints of paintings by Fragonard and Manet. Several people stood around a piano singing a Swiss folk song. Next to the piano a table was loaded with baguettes, slabs of meat, dozens of different cheeses, fruit, and bottles of Swiss and French wines. Candles scattered around the room provided the only light. Our hostess looked over at her friends with a smile. A large, red-faced man in a thick white woolen sweater broke away from the group and lumbered over to investigate.
Albie greeted him with an outstretched hand. “I need something to dance on.” His eyes came to rest on a low table by the stairs. “This is perfect.”
“I am not very sure . . .” The red-faced man followed Albie while other guests stopped singing to watch them.
After plucking the tiny wooden horses from the table, Albie removed the marble top and placed the top–bottom side up–on the middle of the floor. He stood on his dance floor bowing to an apprehensive audience. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! My partner and I shall perform a ditty from the golden days of British music hall and I shall demonstrate a tap dance style developed by the legendary Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Maestro, please.” He turned to me.
“I don’t have my guitar.”
Albie reached into his pocket, pulled out a plastic yellow kazoo, and tossed it to me. “Something lively, if you please.”
There was nothing to do except play along. I squealed out a tune on the kazoo that developed into a fractured version of “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” Albie began to softly tap, with an occasional slide, on our host’s marble tabletop. His dancing was subdued and intricate, drawing the audience closer. As I buzzed into “Silvery Moon,” he sang along, still dancing, his face glowing.
I grew increasingly dizzy as I hummed into that plastic contraption, and eyed Albie for the signal to stop. Instead he turned to me. “Double time!”
With what strength I had left I buzzed out a souped-up version of the song while Albie launched into a wild routine–his feet chattering on the tabletop–that drowned out my deteriorating kazoo playing. He flew into a midair split, touched his fingertips to his toes, then dropped to his knees, arms raised, glasses on the end of his nose.
“Bravo, bravo! Ausgezeichnet!”
I was still trying to replenish my oxygen supply when I heard pounding on the door. The woman hurried over to open it and I recognized Terry’s voice mumbling something about musicians.
“Oh, more musicians!” exclaimed the woman, clapping her hands together. “Come in please, this is very nice. And all for my birthday!”
Terry, Pete, The Swells, and a handful of customers from the Barbie Doll staggered in and dispersed to help themselves to food and drink. Our Swiss hosts stared at this fresh infusion of talent, and I expected at any moment to be hurled out onto the sidewalk. Instead, they accepted the situation and the red-faced man brought up more wine from the cellar.
A commotion broke out by the door, and in flew Charlie with an elated flush on his face. Behind him came Suzanne, a girl he got talking to earlier. Her green eyes flashed. She wore a quilted jacket with Japanese designs, and her long brown hair shimmered in the candlelight, brushing across her lower back as she moved. I could see why Charlie was so taken with her.
“How did everybody figure out where we were?”
“Alcoholic intuition, mate.
Charlie brought my guitar from the club for me and Albie managed to collect the performers around his marble platform. The Swiss group huddled around the piano as one of their guests pounded out a medley of ragtime tunes. When he finished, Albie cleared his throat. “Ah, before we perform our next number with the complete ensemble . . .” He coughed. “Yes, I’m afraid . . .” He coughed again. “Could I have some wine for my throat, please? It’s as dry as the Sahara.”
Pete winked at me. “He’s a nutcase, isn’t he? A real Londoner!”
Our hostess brought Albie a large glass of wine, which he finished in an instant, while the band assembled in a semicircle around the platform. The Swells eased into “Me and My Shadow,” while Charlie, Pete, Terry and I tried to follow. Albie and Tony danced with perfectly synchronized movements. A chubby fellow, who earlier that evening claimed to be a Saudi prince, descended into the wine cellar, reemerging moments later with an armload of bottles of Chateau Pommard ‘74. He handed a bottle to each of the musicians to prevent any more throat problems from disrupting the proceedings.
In the middle of the number Charlie put down his flute and lurched over to the food table. As he methodically attempted to construct a sandwich I noticed that he was more intoxicated than I realized. Our companions continued to help themselves to food and wine while the Swells gave it everything they had, uncle and nephew spinning and tapping with perfect control.
From out of nowhere an Irish Setter rocketed into the room, legs akimbo. He slid over the uncarpeted spots of floor, barking as his plume of a tail smacked this way and that. The dog tried to get a sniff of everyone at once, wiggled with excitement, barked briefly at the band, then rushed to visit the buffet. The Swiss hosts laughed and clapped along to the music. A few moments later, Charlie paraded through the living room in the midst of the revelry carrying the dog in his arms, his dark hair hanging over his eyes, a crooked grin on his face and crumbs sticking to his lips. He marched several times through the room holding the dog, who obviously enjoyed the ride.
“Bloody ‘ell, I don’t believe this,” Pete remarked as we watched the spectacle. “It’s like a bleedin’ Fellini movie starring Charlie as St. Francis of Assisi.”
As the song ended Charlie put down his canine pal and sat on the floor. When the piano player started another ragtime tune, Charlie reached over and picked up his flute to play along, but could only manage a series of squeaks. He then tossed the flute back into its case and listened, enraptured, to the piano. At the conclusion of the piece, Charlie rose and slapped the man on the back. “Yes sir, that was really great, man, great!”
The pianist tumbled to the floor. I hadn’t noticed before, but he had no legs, and he now rolled about straining to right himself while everyone stood staring. Charlie looked as if he had been stricken by apoplexy.
At last the host leaned over, pulled the piano player up, and propped him back onto the stool. Then the two began to shout at one another in Swiss German. The piano player beat his fist on the piano, trembling.
After trying to calm him, the host turned to Charlie. “You will please go now.”
The Swells did another number, the former club patrons drank another round of wine, and Pete got into an involved conversation with the red-faced man. I found a chair in one corner and sat down to watch the unfolding catastrophe.
“I found Charlie, so I guess it’s time we bugger off before anything else happens,” said Albie, joining me. “I’ll show you the best road to take over the Alps. You might want to pull over and get some sleep somewhere on the way. Give me a call when you get to Italy, and come up and see us if you get a chance.”
Darkness spread over the mountains after our Alpine crossing the next evening as we made our descent into the Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton. The road slanted down into warmer air and a different style of architecture. The buildings were built from stone with orange-tiled roofs, and squared turrets topped Romanesque churches with an unmistakably Mediterranean look. The mountains rose steep and rugged on either side of the valley, with white rocks exposing themselves through the vegetation like bellies protruding out where a button had come undone.
Lights twinkled more brightly as darkness completed its invasion, and still the road wound down and down. Flowering plants crowded the edge of the road. On the right-hand side, the wall of mountains came to an abrupt end, drawing aside like a curtain to display the scene below.
A million lights like shimmering coals encircled Lake Lugano. Outlines of mountains loomed against the starry sky, and red lights flickered on the summits like ruby sentinels. The stars sprawled across the sky, and man-made lights gleamed below. A train crawled across the center of the valley like an illuminated caterpillar. Here and there a clump of lights huddled, glowing and breathing, in the hollows of the hills.
“It’s those lights on the sides of the mountains, isolated and bunched together, that make me wonder.” Pete was echoing my own thoughts. “I can’t help wondering who lives there and what their lives are like. It’s lovely and strange at the same time.”
“They’re probably just hoping someone like us doesn’t come along,” said Charlie.
“How many lives does each of those lights represent, and how long have they been here? Think of all those who lived here before we ever set our eyes on this, and are long dead now?”
Charlie let out a hiss of air. “Oh yes, let’s think about dead people. We shouldn’t have gone to that Swiss birthday party. It’s made you too philosophical. My advice is don’t think about it.” He pulled out his leather tobacco pouch and rolled a cigarette. “I hate birthday parties. Marking time, seeing where you are, calculating how much time you’ve got left, telling yourself you’re old, or you should slow down, or you should allow yourself to slide downhill. Better not to think about it any more than necessary. I sure as hell don’t. I’ll just live until I drop dead and won’t waste time scaring myself with birthday parties.”
I gazed at the carpet of lights that stretched out before us. Terry turned to me. “Still feeling bad about Helga?”
His question surprised me. “You know what? I haven’t thought about her in days. I guess I’ll survive after all.”
As darkness fell over Europe we crossed the frontier into Italy and drove long into the night through a land that, a few months earlier, none of us thought or even dreamed we’d ever see in our lives.
C.B. Heinemann has been performing, recording and touring with rock and Irish music groups for nearly twenty years. His Celtic rock band, Dogs Among the Bushes, was the first American Celtic group to tour in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. A graduate of the University of Maryland, C.B. Heinemann has written three novels, and his short stories have appeared inStoryteller, One Million Stories, Whistling Fire, Danse Macabre, Fate, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cool Traveler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Car & Travel, and Big World Travel.His short story, Freiburgitis, appeared in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and was included in an anthology of short stories, Whereabouts, published by 2Leaf Press.