Bagpipe Blues - Or How I Met the Mayor of Siena

 O Snaptains! My Snaptains!

Your recent “Lost in Translation” episode spurred me to dig up my own story from a few years back when I was in Italy. Some friends and I who were working in Europe as bike tour guides headed to Tuscany for a break, and to take some Italian lessons at the ‘University for Foreigners’ in Siena. I play the bagpipes, and I’d brought them along with me. I find they can be a good – if somewhat loud – way to break the ice with people when travelling. But I was in no way expecting the reception they got in Siena.

Here’s how it played out, as I explained it to family and friends back home at the time:

Love the show!


Yesterday was definitely one to tell the grandkids.

It was the last day of class, and it started out great. Got my exam results back -- thought I hadn't done all that hot, turned out I was at the top of my class -- 30 outta 30! Forza! 

But the best was yet to come. Myself and my classmates -- a truly international group: German, French, Irish, Venezuelan, and a buncha Taiwanese, headed to the 'Piazza del Campo' in the centre of town (where practically everyone in Siena converges in the afternoon to soak in the sun) to celebrate and drink a little vino. It's a beautiful circular brick plaza that slopes down to a large medieval tower and building – city hall, it turns out, in which I was to find myself a few hours later, speaking in broken Italian to the mayor, his chief of staff, and a host of Carabinieri police officers...

Here's what happened. 

My German friend Arnim had made me promise several days before that I would bring out the pipes on the last day of class, as he was heading back to Germany that night. True to my word, I headed down to the bottom of the piazza under the tower. Arnim said it was too far from our group sitting at the top of the piazza, no one would hear me: I assured him that once I struck up everyone in the entire piazza and beyond would be tuned in, whether they liked it or not. But I was not at all prepared for the response that ensued. A large crowd rushed down to the base of the piazza and began whooping and hollering. People started coming up one at a time and throwing coins into my box, taking pictures, dancing. Two taxis full of tourists slowed and stopped as they passed. And then, somewhere in the middle of 'Bonnie Dundee', a small squad car with two Caribinieri pulled right up to me and ordered me to cease and desist immediately.

They then got out of the car, told me in halting English that "This is not Africa" (???!), and that I was in violation for playing an instrument in the Campo without a permit.  They instructed me to get in the vehicle. When the crowd saw what was happening, they started booing loudly. 

“Non voglio problema” ('I don't want any trouble'), I told the Caribinieri in my newly-acquired basic Italian, raising my hands...”Non capisco que ho bisogno d'un permeso” (“I don't understand that I need a permit”). As the officer led me into the back seat, a few Italians broke from the crowd and began loudly confronting the Caribinieri.

Cries of 'Fascista!' and other colourful Italian terms began to circulate. Then one guy got in between the open door of the car and the one officer and refused to move. He began swearing in his face and challenging the officer to arrest him (this was relayed to me by Arnim afterwards). I kept telling the officer in the driver's seat who was busily taking down the info off my driver's license that I didn't want any trouble. Then people began banging on the car, pushing it, rocking it! As I sat in the back a collective chant of 'Liberta! Liberta!' ('freedom!') rose up from the crowd, which was now pressed up against the windows. I was starting to feel a little like I was Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

The officer in front angrily told me that if “my friends” caused any damage to the car I would be paying for it, so I better call them off. I tried to explain that technically they weren't my friends. He shot back angrily once again for me to call them off. I asked if I could get out of the car to talk to them, and with typical bureaucratic logic he shouted at me to stay where I was and rolled up his windows -- essentially, sit still and do something. Then an official-looking woman emerged from the crowd and began talking with the officer who was being blocked from entering the car. She began motioning at me and looked like she was asking if she could get in back with me. I thought she was a lawyer and was wanting to represent me or something. After talking with the officer for what seemed like a pretty long time, she leaned in and gestured for me to take her hand and follow her out. I got out of the car and was greeted by huge cheers and handshakes from the crowd. The woman led me through a door into the building I had been standing in front of. 

“This is the mayor of Siena”, she said, introducing me to the man standing in the entrance. I was led into an office, followed by the two Caribinieri who began busily explaining the situation to the mayor, who listened attentively.

Occasionally they would gesture at me, to which I would simply respond that, ”‘scusi me”, I didn't want any trouble. I understood the one officer tell the mayor they didn't have any problem with me, i was “molto tranquilo”, it was the crowd who were causing the problems. I said to the officer very formally and very politely that I understood they were just doing their job, which seemed to please him. He seemed to be explaining that I looked suspect – he used the word ‘terrorista’ (I had dawned a black toque and black goggles before I started playing). Then everyone left and I was told to wait. 

After a few moments they returned, with even more Carabinieri, and the woman, who it turns out was the chief of staff again gestured for me to follow her, and I was led back out to the Campo where the crowd again greeted me with cheers and handshakes and pats on the back. And as I walked back up to our spot at the top of the Campo, young ladies began coming up to me and giving me kisses!  Mama mia! 

 When I looked back down at the base of the Campo a total of three squad cars carrying at least half a dozen Caribinieri had pulled up. Arnim told me that just before I came out of the mayor's office, one of the officers who had arrested me came out and angrily addressed the jeering crowd. 'This is what happens when we try to intervene!' he shouted.

...Too bad he had to have such a shi**y day to make mine...

Que bello giorno!