On a Street in Paris

Not long ago I paused under a vaulting stone arch to listen to a young woman play the violin.  It was a sunny September day in Paris, the air generous with warmth and alive with the humming sense of possibility and promise one feels in large and beautiful cities.  The music was beautiful—Bach.  The woman was beautiful, too.  She was slender, in her early thirties, perhaps, with dark hair pulled back into a small bun.  Her face seemed finely made, an elegant nose, high forehead, her lips neither tense nor smiling but rather held in an expression of intent focus.  Cars drove by, people passed by.  The day ticked on, moment by moment.  I stood still and leaned against a stone wall.

Her tone was warm and assured; she was likely conservatory-trained.  She wore a simple outfit, black pants and a white shirt.  She looked a bit like Uma Thurman.

When I stepped forward to put some euros into her open violin case, she turned her eyes to me, still playing Bach, and gave me a quick smile.  There was not a lot of money in her case, and I wondered how often she played on the sidewalk for cash.  She was good enough to be in an orchestra, or to give lessons, but instead she was here, playing music written three centuries ago to a mostly indifferent city.  I decided to stay longer and returned to the stone wall and listened.

More people walked by.  A small number lingered, threw some coins into her case, then moved on.  I wondered what she would do with the money she earned that day.  Was she saving for something, or would she spent these coins later that day at the supermarket, the laundromat?

Locally, especially in Santa Cruz, I see people, usually men, who better fit the image conjured up by the phrase “street musician.”  Facial hair, a whiff of tobacco and body stink, the guitar or saxophone or voice sometimes conveying a undertone of melancholy, or anger, or need.  I think that for some of these men, playing their music on a sidewalk is a way for them to cry in public.

The woman in Paris was not crying, she was making art, though I heard in the depth of her playing a familiarity with suffering.  When I put the money in her case, her quick smile was marked by the same self-confidence I heard in her music.  She was past the age of the conservatory.  Perhaps she had a dull job in some anonymous suburb outside of Paris, and playing Bach on La Rue Béarn next to La Place des Vosges was how she remained connected to her lifelong passion.

I ended up staying a good while—she was as good as performers I have paid large sums to see and hear, and the setting, it must be said, was unmatched.  To hear such beautiful music in one of the most beautiful places in Paris!  I want to remember this woman for what she showed me about art and perseverance, and being unafraid, and being willing to share, through her music, her private self to a population of strangers that, for the most part, does not stop to listen.