The Ciompi Quartet played two concerts at the Fougeres Music Festival in Brittany, France, in May of 2014. It was a lovely trip, made so by the two essential elements: good music and good people. Our program was American: works by Samuel Barber and Phillip Glass, a newly commissioned quartet by Melinda Wagner, and the “American” quartet by Dvorak (about as American as bratwurst, as Eric said in his introduction).
The first concert was at the medieval church in Fougeres, St. Suplice. The acoustic was exceptional: warm and reverberant, which made playing a pleasure. We happened to be playing on the same night as the most important soccer match of the season, between Rennes and their Breton rivals, Guingamp (Rennes lost), so the audience consisted only of the hard-core classical music fans. But they were enthusiastic, and we added our encore, Gershwin’s “Lullaby.” The concert was preceded by a talk and film about Phillip Glass by the French film maker Éric Darmon. After wards there was a reception where we enjoyed being lionized by everyone from the Mayor on down (except for the soccer fans). We even had a nice review from Ouest France, the regional newspaper. Reviews are nice, and they look good on publicity, but the audience reaction and our own sensibilities are what matter.
The second concert was at the Franco-American Institute in Rennes, which was established after World War II, when the Bretons loved America for having liberated them from the Nazis.
We were at the festival for six nights, and we stayed in homes of the festival’s directors. Hsiao-mei and I were with Marcel and Collette (the parents, not coincidentally, of Anne-Gaëlle, who teaches French culture at Duke), while Eric and Jonathan stayed first with Daniel and Arlette and then with Nicole Rehault on the coast at St. Lunaire. Jonathan spent the last days of his trip with friends from New Hampshire, Peter and Francelle Bixby, who have a charming old house in Dinan. Normally, I prefer staying in hotels, but this was an exception, in part because we were not travelling every day. But it was the hospitality and generosity of our hosts that made the experience so enjoyable. Marcel and Colette, my hosts, made me feel truly at home. Their house was airy and full of light, with a beautiful garden. Colette was a fantastic cook, so meals at the house were a delight of food, wine, and conversation. The running joke was Marcel’s insistence on speaking English, and mine on speaking French. Anne-Gaëlle was often there to correct both of us.
In addition to the concerts, we were taken on several trips around Brittany. One was to the famous Mt. Saint Michel, where we climbed through the monastery/fortress and were awed by the skill and artistry of its medieval builders. Another memorable trip was to Cancale on the coast where we feasted on the local oysters.
After the festival I planned to spend a few days in Le Havre, Normandy to see the beaches where the D-day invasion took place. I took a train from Rennes to Paris where I was to transfer from Montparnsse to St. Lazare train station. I had a little extra time, so I went across the street for coffee. My wallet had both dollars and Euros, and my pocket had Euros and dimes, as I fumbled to pay for the coffee, I set my wallet on the table. The next thing I knew, the wallet had disappeared. Instant panic! I checked my pockets five times, even ones I never use. I asked the waiter if he had seen anything and got a negative response. At least I still had my cello and my passport, which alleviated my fear. It could be worse! But my return flight was four days away, and I had no money and nowhere to go.
I went back into the station and found a police office in the bowels of the building. Now I HAD to speak French. I remembered the word for lost, but didn’t know how to say wallet or stolen. The sharp-eyed cop knew a bit of English, and eventually he understood what I was trying to say. I had the thought to phone Marcel and Collette, and the police let me use their phone (I do not carry a cell…). No one was home, so I left a message, beginning with, “J’ai un grand problem.” I also phoned the American embassy, but there was no answer. I told the cop that I would come back in a few hours to try Marcel again.
I wandered around the grand station for a while. Strangely, I was not terribly worried. I had my cello and my passport. I was in the most civilized city in the world, not in Afghanistan or Ohio. And as a privileged American, I had nothing to compare this to: I’ve always felt safe because of the good fortune of my background and hadn’t experienced truly dangerous situations.
But I was getting hungry. I thought of George Orwell’s book, “Down and out in Paris and London.” Orwell scrounged food from behind restaurants. I am ashamed to say that I stole a piece of bread from a stand. I waited in the line for a minute, then when I reached the front I casually took a piece of pain au raisins and walked away. When I sat down to eat my prize, the propriator of the stand and an assistant confronted me. I conveniently lost most of my French, stood up, offered them the half-eaten crust and said, “J’ai faim.” They gave me looks of utter contempt and walked away.
I went back to the police station. This time I phoned both Marcel and Gabriel, the violinist who is artistic director of the festival. No-one home.
There was a piano in the station where French students played jazz. I listened with pleasure, and this gave me the obvious idea: why not play the cello to make a few Euros? I moved out of range of the piano and found what seemed to be a good place, on the level of the station where many passengers were waiting to board their trains. Then I got cold feet: I’d never played on the street before. The line from Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” came to me: “You’ve never had to live out on the street/And now you’re going have to get/ Used to it.” So I took out my cello, found a crack in the cement for my endpin, and began. My repertoire for the occasion was mostly solo Bach, but I alternated that with some French folk songs that I learned as a child (“Sur let pont D’Avignon,” “Au pres de ma blonde,” and “Il ete un petit bergere.” Pardonez mon francais!)
I was amazed when the woman sitting next to me got up to leave, and put a one Euro coin at my feet. Two or three other passengers contributed, some a few centimes, others as much as two Euros! Then a policewoman approached and politely told me that playing for money was not allowed in the station. I had put a hand-written note close to my seat on the bench, explaining that I was a poor, lost American, musician, and that I needed 40 Euros to buy a ticket. I started to pack up my cello, but encouraged by the exhileration of actually having people drop coins at my feet, and by the politeness of the policewoman, I reconsidered and started to play again. And again coins rained (or at least drizzled) down at my feet! But the policewoman came up again, and this time her suggestion that I quit playing was not so polite. When I packed up my cello, a man spoke to me, saying that he had no coins, but that he was disgusted by the cops for stopping such nice music. And then a young couple came up, and gave me forty Euros, two crisp 20-Euro notes! I had the presence of mind to ask for their names so I could return the money. M. Adrien Becard, a consultant from Limonest in the Southwest of France, will receive a nice surprise in the mail.
It was 11 PM when all the fun was over. The police station had closed for the night, so I retired to a small fast-food restaurant named “Quick.” I didn’t go there for the food but for the relatively comfortable chairs. I was enjoying the cushioned back when I heard a voice call, “Fred!” It was Gabriel, my savoir. He had gotten my voice message during the intermission of his concert with the Orchestre de Paris (Richard Strauss and Mahler!). Since he did not have a car, he phoned Anne-Gaelle and a friend, Simon, also a director of the Fougeres Festival, and they had rushed to the station. But it was a huge station! For how long had they been searching for me, I asked Gabriel. With perfect Gallic insouciance he replied, “Oh, not long. I knew that Quick had the only decent chairs in the place.”
I never got to Normandy. That will have to wait for another trip. Instead I stayed in Paris, first with Gabriel and Anne-Gaelle, then for the last two nights at my own apartment on Ave. Port Royal. Gabriel had arranged this with the owner of the apartment, who moved in with her partner on my behalf. I sum up the adventure this way: My wallet was stolen, but I made out like a bandbit.
Fred Raimi May 19, 2014