free urban entertainment

In my travels, one of the many things I have learned is that sometimes the only cost of entertainment is a few spare minutes. Some of the best experiences in my travels have been stumbling upon chaotic performances in city squares. Some are staged, and some are not, but their entertainment factor is always high, and their cost is never monetary, just temporal.

Florence, Italy: Uffizi Corridor – Grey, The Mime

When I was in Florence in June 2006, it was hot.  Like, makeup-dripping-down-your-face hot.  We’d just emerged from what felt like the millionth art gallery of my six-week Euro trip, and, to be honest, I didn’t really care anymore.  Okay, so it was the Uffizi, but aside from the David, I was done.  I’d been all over Europe, and didn’t want to see another church or art gallery or museum, but I, and the other girls I was with, definitely wanted a rest stop.  A quick collapse away from the Uffizi are a set large stone steps where a small crowd had begun to park themselves, so we figured we’d join them, fan ourselves off, and engage in my favourite urban past-time: people-watching.

Il Mimo Grey in Florence Firenze Italy Italia UffiziAfter regaining a bit of consciousness, we noticed a skinny, wily-haired man with a red t-shirt, grey sweatpants, and haphazardly applied white face makeup.  He looked like the most derelict of mimes, perhaps on his way out of rehab.  We were intrigued.  We watched.  He played somewhat harmless pranks on passers-by, such as falling into step with them and holding their hand, and, my favourite, lying down on the ground and literally rolling into a group of tourists, while screaming.  We laughed harder than I thought possible, given the heat.  I generally avoid mimes, finding them unnatural and creepy, but this guy was absolutely hilarious.  After sitting on stone for nearly an hour, enthralled with this mime, my friend approached him when he stopped for a break.  He had a business card, his name was Grey (Il Mimo), and my friend proceeded to revisit him in the subsequent years while she worked summers in Florence.

I’ve looked him up online, and he’s a touch more polished than the ragged fellow we encountered nearly five years ago.  He has a website, near-perfect make-up, travels to other cities, has a tamed mane and wears an, albeit slightly tattered, suit jacket.  I suppose that’s a fairly standard evolution of all things tourism – destinations, attractions, and quirky secrets – they all eventually become popular and polish their image, however on that sweltering June afternoon, Grey was the best thing Florence had going for it.  I will never forget our experience being amused by Grey, especially that it was the best free urban entertainment I’d encountered in Europe.

Cusco, Peru: Plaza des Armas – children v. police, a foot-race

Our last day in Peru finally caught up with us, and we found ourselves thoroughly exhausted and completely full of the incredible and humbling sites of Machu Picchu, along with the rest of our colourful two week journey through the country.  With cultural saturation approaching quickly, Mum and I decided to spend our last morning in Cusco engaging in our favourite free travel activity – people-watching.  It should be said that Mum taught me all I know about people-watching, and together, we are true masters of being inconspicuously entertained.  Our destination?  Obviously, a bench at the centre of it all: the main city square.

Cusco Peru Plaza des ArmasAll of Peru’s cities and towns have a main town square, and, to make things simple, many of them are called Plaza des Armas, and many have beautiful architecture and churches to examine and praise.  Cusco’s Plaza des Armas is especially popular, and photographs nicely enough to often be sent to homes the world over on postcards.  In fact, it was postcards that started our debacle.  Due to poverty throughout the country, many children are required to ‘work’ for their families, and in Cusco, that generally entails exploiting tourists.  Throughout the Plaza, which wasn’t particularly crowded, a handful of boys aged about 10 or 11 dispersed, surreptitiously attempting to sell postcards out of their backpacks to us and the few other tourists scattered in the square.  We politely refused; we’d bought more than enough souvenirs and postcards.  No more, thanks.  The boys would continue on their way, eventually being asked by two policemen to stop (so our acute body-language and observational (read: spying) skills told us).

No sooner had the boys and the police disappeared, were the boys back again.  They either didn’t care that they’d already approached us, or they didn’t remember, but they continued, and we refused, again.  The charade continued, and was only mildly amusing, until we spotted two much younger children dressed in the traditional bright colours and fabrics of the Quechua people (Peruvian natives).  The children were cute, and carrying even cuter baby animals in slings, provoking tourists to pay them for photographs.  We’d seen them a few days before, but this time they had an itty bitty lamb and a puppy (last time was a baby alpaca).  Being women, and animal lovers, we’re suckers for baby animals, but we, once again, politely refused their photo opportunity because we weren’t into exploitation and thought it was rather sad.  Apparently it’s also somewhat illegal.  After a few minutes, the police were back, asking the postcard kids and the baby animal kids to scram.  They did.  And then they were back.  And then the craziness began.  The baby animal kids were sprinting through the square, squealing, like bright coloured streaks of panic, while the police chased them and then the postcard kids, who tried to take advantage of the situation.  Children and police officers were everywhere, chasing and being chased through the square, yelling and screaming.  It only took a few minutes for Mum and I to lose our title of inconspicuous people-watching masters, as we were laughing so hard we did induce a few tears.  Maybe you had to be there, maybe not, but if you were, you’d definitely understand why this was one of the best bits of free entertainment I’ve ever experienced.

San Francisco: Fisherman’s Wharf, Bushman

When I lived in England last year I received a care package from my mum that contained a couple things I missed from home and a few pictures she knew would make me chuckle.  As I flipped through the photos, all quite funny, the last one made me laugh really hard.  Bushman.  I showed my friend Lizzie, who used to live in San Francisco, “Oh my god that’s Bushman!”.  Bushman is a San Francisco legend, just as memorable as the sourdough bread and the calf-sculpting hills, but far funnier.

Bushman tourist attraction in Fisherman's Wharf San FranciscoYou haven’t really been a San Francisco tourist if you haven’t been a victim of the Bushman.  Apparently he’s been doing this since 1980, but we first discovered him in 2000, and, naturally, my mum took my brother there in 2006 to initiate him.  Bushman sits on the sidewalk behind some leafy branches and frightens people as they walk by.  Simple, right?  Boring, hardly.  Most of his former victims, including my mum and I, cross the street to casually observe his next catches.  It’s a riot, especially when you realise everyone on the street has been waiting for you to jump out of your skin.

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