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Short-Term Work Abroad

Busking Can Pay for Travel in Europe

By Jacob Bear

If you like to show off, if you value freedom and spontaneity, street performance may provide the ideal short-term employment abroad. Set your own hours, work wherever you want, and meet a lot of interesting people along the way. In most of Europe you can finance your travel by making a scene in public. Here are nine tips to put in your hat.

1. Dare to be different. Guitarists strumming out pop songs sometimes outnumber the pigeons, as my friend and I discovered one evening in Florence. When I broke a guitar string, we were forced to sing acapella. So we dropped U2 and harmonized old spirituals instead. We got more cash in the next 20 minutes than we had earned in the previous two hours. Unique stunts, exceptional costumes and props, or a rare musical instrument will almost always bring good results. How can you make your act different from all—or even just most—of the others? People will pay for something new and unusual.

2. Timing is everything. In popular, centralized areas where the crowds gather you’ll always have competition. So where to go? Better to ask when. I prefer places where the throngs are temporary, such as lines to get into a cinema or museum. I provide entertainment while they wait and have a captive audience where everybody’s relaxed and in a good mood. An occasional performance for the locals in their neighborhood park goes over well. But keep in mind that frequent repeats may cause resentment.

3. Think like a professional entertainer. You’re live at the Acropolis, even if it’s just the sidewalk outside, so keep high standards for yourself. Develop a 5- to 10-minute act that attracts attention, draws people in, and rewards them for staying. Rehearse it to perfection. Wear a first-rate costume in excellent condition, or at least the best clothes you can get. Use your props, voice, etc. to gather a crowd and convince them this is a real show. Most Europeans value artistic talent. Your professionalism will inspire them to give you money out of admiration, not pity.

4. Break the "fourth wall." Overcome the invisible barrier between you and your audience. Talk to them, make fun of them, try to interact. Respond dramatically to what they do. At least acknowledge them when they give you money. Be personable.

5. Keep on rolling. Passersby might dump bills in your hat the first time, but not after they see you every day. It’s helpful to vary your act from time to time but even more important to change locations frequently. This becomes crucial if you’re working in the off-season and can’t rely on a steady stream of fresh tourists to finance you.

6. Rules of the trade. Make sure your audience knows you’re looking for cash. Keep your money receptacle visible, and put something in it (bills, not coins) to reinforce the idea.

7. Watch for thieves. If someone contributes a large bill, put it in your pocket so nobody can walk away with it.

8. Arm yourself with all kinds of papers and documents to ward off police. Almost anything is better than nothing. Use a student ID card, letters from organizations you belong to, etc. A passport from an English-speaking country almost always smoothes the way. The local address or phone number of a friend gives you legitimacy, and even a card or brochure from a hotel or youth hostel suggests you’re not homeless. Bus, train, and plane tickets imply that you’ll be leaving soon, and police may be happy to let you move on.

9. Payment in kindness. Be open to receive offerings other than money. I’ve been pampered by an endless stream of pizza, coffee, gelato, free rides, and even job offers. Busking in out-of-the-way places can lead to interesting conversations that sometimes end in invitations. Be flexible. Not only will your talents keep your belly full, they’ll take you where tourists rarely get to go.

JACOB BEAR has lived and worked throughout Italy and parts of Greece. He currently plays his ocarina in Los Angeles.

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