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It is Friday evening, and I arrive at Charles De Gaulle airport to spend the weekend at Maison et Objet, the autumn trade exhibition for the household goods industry.
I am staying as usual in central Paris, and will commute out to the exhibition which is held at the Parc des Expositions in the suburbs, and where Royal Crown Derby has a stand. As soon as I have collected my bag, I head for the RER train which takes you directly into Paris; quicker and much cheaper than a taxi.
I am lucky, because almost at once the fast train arrives, the one which swishes through all the little stations on the way, and takes you non-stop to the Gare de Nord, and then on to Châtelet les Halles, where I am headed.
I settle into my seat and look around me. There are about 20 of us, a mixture of travellers just off the plane, tourists and business people, and a few airport employees going home after work. There is very little conversation, most of us are on our own and enclosing ourselves in our own small world. The ubiquitous headphones are wedged into ears, banishing reality. Those trains have a particular thin grey overhead light, which has the effect of making people look tired and wan; maybe the flight, or the day’s work has exhausted us, or perhaps it is the dismal light itself which makes people feel washed out.
Anyway, we are sitting there, isolated in our personal cocoons, when the connecting door at the end of the carriage opens, and, horror of horrors, in comes The Busker.
The Busker is an unsettling figure. His swarthy face and long black smoothed back hair look Romany. He has a shaggy moustache. He wears an old tartan shirt and dirty trousers, and around his neck there hangs a large and complicated looking piano accordion. He must have been good looking once, but life has battered his features like the Hebridean gales shape the craggy granite. As he smiles around at us all, we shrink back nervously into our shells, avoiding his gaze. He has a bad limp, and makes his way slowly up the carriage to the space in the middle.
“Messieurs, Mesdames, Mesdemoiselles, Bonjour!”
We are pretending we haven’t noticed he is here. We are all wondering whether we will give him any money. We never asked to be played at; why should we? Those listening to their favourite iPod tunes are going to have them ruined by competing music. Surely he must feel the collective frost. We don’t want human contact, we want our music piped not live.
Then he begins to play. I suppose I had better listen.
And then I begin to realise that this man really knows how to play the accordion. Of course, he plays the stock repertoire of tunes, starting with “Sur les Ponts de Paris”, and similar old favourites, but as he plays he develops the themes with trills, riffs and arpeggios, running up and down the keys like a musical athlete; all of a sudden you realise he has moved to another tune and is weaving his way into it, playing with it this way and that. He is enjoying every note; he is having fun; he is ducking and diving; he is inventing, cracking musical jokes with his fingers. Now he has moved into a Rock and Roll number. How do you make a Rock and Roll tune sound like a corny Parisian melody? But that is what he does. I have never heard accordion playing like it in my life.
Then he stops and begins to limp up and down the carriage, proffering an old carboard coffee cup for a coin. I put in a Euro. Only one other traveller gives him a coin; the rest look determinedly away into the distance, pretending he doesn’t exist.
“Messieurs, Mesdames, Mesdemoiselles, Adieu!” and he limps off into the next carriage. Perhaps they will be a bit more appreciative in there.