Taking time to stop and… listen to the accordion?

August 16, 2010

From the archives. This entry was originally written for the internet blog I was commissioned to write at Astral Media, and posted on March 19, 2010. In the spirit of les vacances and all the travelling happening over here during the month of August, I thought it might make a timely addition to this one as well.

On a side note, while travelling through Spain earlier this month, I had a minor meltdown when it turned out that the train we wanted to take from Barcelona to Sevilla was sold out, unless we wanted to travel business class for 250 euro.  I was hot, sweaty, tired, achy, hungry, cranky, toting a giant backpack, and operating on about three hours of sleep, having woken up super-early to pack and make it to the station for 8:00 a.m.  Not exactly the ideal conditions for coping with unexpected bad news. Let’s just say that tantrums were had. In that moment, I could probably have stood to re-read my own writing.  However, after a much-needed nap and a bit of time to regroup, we decided to take advantage of our extra day in the city and see the Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí’s famous unfinished church.  And you know what?  It ended up being my favourite Barcelona sight.

The surreal exterior of Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Família, was stupefying enough, but it was the interior, with its complex shapes and sophisticated interplay of colour, light and shadow that really took my breath away. I can’t believe I almost skipped it.

Much of Gaudí’s design work was based on shapes and forms found in nature, and the interior of the Sagrada Família was designed to resemble a great forest, with massive columns rising up like giant tree trunks to the ceiling, a canopy of leaves that the sunlight filtered through.


“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
– John Hughes, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

One of things I love about travelling is that it’s really the only time that I shrug and give myself up to the hands of fate. Oh sure, I usually start out with a general game plan, but inevitably, trains are missed, strikes happen, hostels circled in my Lonely Planet Guide are unexpectedly closed and I find myself on a tiny island off the coast of Ireland in the middle of a punishing November downpour, teeth still chattering from the cold, eating a cooked-from-frozen mini pizza and listening to the friendly innkeeper of the only open B&B recount her ocean voyage to America on the RMS Mauritania back when she was a teenager. True story.

In everyday life, I have a regimented schedule, chock full of official Places To Be and Things To Do. If I am out on the street, it’s because I have to get somewhere, and usually in a hurry. Who has time to look around? If I am at a restaurant, it’s because I’m meeting friends. The couple sitting at the next table might be lovely people, but I’ll probably never know because striking up a conversation with complete strangers is, well, kind of weird. And if somebody I don’t know starts speaking to me on the street, I allow them to approach, but warily, first trying to assess if they are going to hit me up for money or ask if I want to score a hit. (Generally, I’m relieved to discover that they just want directions.)

When I travel, I am out on the street because I want to experience my surroundings. I meander. I look up at the buildings and admire the architectural details. I go into random shops because they look interesting. I read the plaques on the historical statues in the city parks. I turn right instead of left because the graffiti on a particular street strikes my fancy. I sit and people watch. I initiate conversations with perfect strangers. I notice if an elderly person on the sidewalk needs help, and I offer assistance. I make eye contact and I smile at passers-by.

Something about travelling opens up the spirit to our surroundings in a way that we just don’t embrace when it comes to everyday life. We take off our blinders and become capable of recognizing random beauty in the seemingly mundane. And as for schedules… well, some do drive themselves crazy trying to adhere to a planned itinerary, but I find that most seasoned travellers have come to accept with good grace that being on the road comes with its own set of rules and that it is far better for one’s sanity to roll with the punches and improvise when the last bus out of Havana for the night doesn’t show up, taking it instead as a sign that one was perhaps meant instead to stay in town and catch the evening show at the Tropicana. Personally, I could stand to adopt a little of this attitude in my “regular” life as well.

Which brings me to the accordion.

The other day, having just missed the southbound train at Bloor Station, I had a few-minutes wait to stand on the platform and look around. That’s when I noticed a little boy listening with rapt attention to a busker playing the accordion. The accordion player himself was decent, but it was the boy standing in front of him—hands clasped, swaying back and forth ever-so-slightly, eyes wide with wonder — that caught my attention. His father leaned against a pillar in the background, waiting for his son with the sort of indulgent patience universal among parents of young children. I couldn’t help but smile at the sheer enthusiasm of the busker’s sole audience member, who was completely oblivious to the jumbled rush of commuters hurrying past. And the more I watched the little boy, the more I took the time to listen to the song, and the more I listened to the song, the more I realized that actually, the busker was more than decent, in fact, he was really very good. The fingers on his right hand flew up and down the keyboard with skillful dexterity, spinning out an infectious melody while he pumped the bellows of his instrument with gusto. Soon I was swaying oh-so-imperceptibly to the music as well. The elderly musician smiled and nodded a good-natured “thanks” at me as I dropped some change into his case, then returned his attention to the really important person in the crowd—the five-year old who had recognized his talent from the get-go. And my southbound train came and carried me off to work—but I smiled and hummed a little tune for the rest of the morning, glad that I had had to spend that extra three minutes on the subway platform.

The Washington Post once did an experiment where they placed world-renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, in a Metro Washington subway station in nondescript clothing and had him busk for 43 minutes. Three days earlier, he had filled the house at Boston’s Symphony Hall and two weeks later, he would play to a standing-room-only audience at the Music Center in North Bethesda, but on that January morning, out of the 1097 people passing by on their way to work, only 7 stopped to listen. He earned $32 and change – not even enough to buy a ticket to one of his own concerts. Everybody was too busy getting to where they were going to recognize the musical genius in their midst.

Now, not every busker you pass on the street is going to be a Joshua Bell, and not every wall of graffiti is going to be a revelation in art. And the fact of the matter is that we all have jobs and lives and places to be, and we simply don’t have the luxury or the leisure to act as we do when we travel. But travelling through life is an adventure too. Let’s maintain some of that travelling attitude in our daily lives and leave our eyes, ears and hearts open to what is going on around us on the way to getting where we’re going, and not just when we’re on vacation.

Instead of allowing yourself to get consumed with annoyance the next time the best-laid plans go awry, take it as an opportunity to catch up with a friend or go see that new movie. Forget your umbrella? Use it as an excuse to break in your new rainboots and go splashing through the puddles. Shrug and give an afternoon up to the hands of fate.

Every once in a while, make an effort to stop, take a breath and look at what’s around you, even if you’ve seen it a million times before. On your way home from work today, try to see the city around you as if you were on holiday. Smile at a stranger. Strike up a random conversation. Savour a new food. Smell the roses. Take a cue from a little boy and listen to the accordion. You might be surprised at how much it adds to your day.

2 Responses to “Taking time to stop and… listen to the accordion?”

  1. Khaled Says:

    What a lovely story. Thank you so much Darlene, whenever I read your writing I feel like I was there and seeing and feeling everything around me. I really love it.


  2. Joanne Chu-Fook Says:

    Funny, you mention the accordian player, I’ve seen him too and he brings back memories of when I used to play (yes, don’t laugh!). But how surprising how we let life pass us by because we’re too busy with the rat race to stop. Thanks for the reminder!


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