A polyglot Slovak musician in Geneva


Last week I attended an international radio conference in Geneva. It was a beautiful spring day and after various lectures and seminars at the European Broadcasting Union, I was glad to go down to the lake for an evening walk, to enjoy the picture-postcard beauty of a neat Swiss city in spring. At the very bottom end of the lake, not far from Geneva's famous fountain that sprays water dozens of metres into the air, there is a footbridge, leading across to the old town and the cathedral. As I strolled across, a street musician, a man in his fifties, stopped playing his accordion and greeted me. Absent-mindedly, I stopped and said in Czech - "Dobry vecer" - good evening. His face lit up - "Aha, umite cesky" - and we struck up a conversation. I too was relieved to be speaking Czech again. After a day listening to presentations about bit-rates-per-second, PLT interference and rates of DRM take-up, our chat seemed refreshingly normal and familiar in this unfamiliar city.

GenevaGeneva It turned out that the man I was talking to - Milan - was from the town of Zilina in Central Slovakia - he had spent many years working as a welder in a small town near Prague, and now made his living with his accordion, which - at his own admission, he didn't play awfully well. "I'm a Gypsy", he told me, in a slightly apologetic tone - "a Hungarian Gypsy." I stopped and thought. "How many languages do you speak?" After a while he grinned, having evidently never really given the question much thought before, working his way through Hungarian, Romani, Slovak, Czech and - oh yes - a bit of Russian... "But none of them awfully well," he laughed, pointing to his missing front teeth. It occurred to me that Milan, with his frayed suit and battered accordion, was probably more of a polyglot than most of the army of highly paid and smartly dressed interpreters, working just across the lake at the United Nations.

As I found out later, from visiting some of the cafes of Geneva - Milan is one of a number of Slovak Romany street musicians in the city: violinists, guitarists, singers and accordion players. Milan told me how it works. They come by bus for two weeks at a time, and the bus is also where they sleep during their stay. In return they give a share of their takings - a pretty large share by the sound of it - to the driver. Milan explains that he makes around 50 Swiss francs a day - that's around 40 US dollars, a little more on a warm day like today. It's not much by Swiss standards, but goes a good deal further in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Most of the money goes to Milan's children in Slovakia.

GenevaGeneva Milan has a pretty tough life, exposed to the whims of the spring weather, but in a sense, Milan and the other Geneva musicians are modern European entrepreneurs, and would do many a free-marketeer proud. They have found a gap in the market and have filled it, without being afraid of the risks or the inconvenience of trying out new ground. Milan and I chatted for over half an hour - not very good for his business, I should imagine, but I expect we were both a little homesick. I walked on and we wished each other the best of luck.