Historic European (Busking)Train Journeys

LEUVEN – AACHEN

[first of an occasional series]

Leuven

Walking out in the early morning from the tiny, terraced house in Leuven which we had made our base on the continent – it being some time in the early 1980’s, and the day being Tuesday, our day for traveling to Aachen (just over the border in Germany) – we were happy simply to be alive, and following our chosen occupation.

It was a short walk from our street to the railway station – we would probably have had a coffee as usual in the Café Oud Leuven on the way, bought international tickets in the station, and had a joke with our friends in the ticket office to pass the time, since we were usually early for the train.

Leuven Station as it is today

AutoCCD, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

On our way out to the platforms on this occasion, we noticed that Padé was also at the ticket office, asking in a loud voice for a ticket to Tienen (although he called it Tierlemont- the French name). Padé was a Belgian gypsy. So far as we knew, he lived with his family in a caravan, somewhere on the edge of town. He supported his family by busking round Belgium, rather as we did, only we did not have a family. We ran into him – or perhaps I should say he ran into us – the very first day we showed up in Leuven. We were having a drink in the student café known as Alma 1, on the main road which led from the station into the centre, when in walked a remarkable-looking personage with a guitar, about as dishevelled as we were, with black hair, heavily lined, swarthy face, and a thick moustache. He started immediately to play the guitar in a distinctive rhythmic manner for a minute or so, before hurrying round the tables to make his collection.

We found out later that he was well-known in Leuven, in fact people would say that you knew summer had arrived when you saw Padé! Despite the affection people had for him though, it seemed he was not accepted as a proper musician – but I always thought that he had a perfectly natural and expressive way of making his guitar sound, and in addition he was completely professional in his relationship with the audience, no matter how informal the situation. Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult – in fact almost impossible – to get into conversation with him.

Tienen

Anyway, our train came in, and Padé got on the same train, because Tienen lay in the same direction from Leuven as did the German border. We saw Padé head straight for the buffet car and order a glass of Loburg, in French, again in a loud voice – and once again I experienced a fleeting sense of admiration for his style! Although we weren’t stopping off at Tienen ourselves that day, it was in fact a town where we frequently did play, though normally on Sundays. There was an interesting collection of cafés and restaurants that we used to sing in, in the evening, but our real joy on the visit would come from sitting through the Sunday afternoon in the strangely atmospheric railway station ticket hall, waiting as it gradually filled up every half hour with people making the journey into Brussels; then ten minutes or so before the train was due, we would give a performance of one or two old country-blues numbers and make a collection, winding up just as the carriages chugged in alongside platform 1. They were magical moments that never failed. We sometimes thought we saw the station master watching us through his little window, but he didn’t say a word.

Liège Guillemins Station, 1970’s and 80’s

Numérisation d’une dia personnelle (Claude Warzée 1975) de la gare des Guillemins Liège (Belgique). This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Liège

The train proceeded eastwards from Tienen; through Landen, where a disused train car standing near the station had been converted into a quaint little restaurant, and on to the city of Liège, where we would often have to change trains. Liège was our Friday pitch. That is to say, we would sit the whole of Friday afternoon in the station cafeteria with our instruments at the ready, every now and then playing a few songs suitable to the party atmosphere that usually prevailed, and making a collection. The waiters generally liked it, in fact on one occasion one of them did an impromptu dance on an empty table; it was the toilet attendants who disapproved, finding us – I think – a bit too cavalier on occasions when we surreptitiously unplugged the juke-box to enable the customers to hear our performance!

And so past Verviers, where sits the Cour de Cassation – the highest court in the Belgian legal system – then through the northernmost fringes of the beautiful Forest of Arden, past the border town of Welkenraedt, and on to the German border itself – which, for those entering by train, is situated in Aachen Station.

Aachen Station – then and now

© A.Savin, WikiCommons

Heinrich_Emil_Ludwig_Martha; Kaufmann_Anton_Ypsilon

Now this could go quite smoothly, or it could go wildly wrong. It just depended on your luck on any particular day. In any event you would have your passport checked, and always our names would be spelled out into a border guard’s walkie-talkie: “Heinrich – Emil – Ludwig – Martha; Kaufmann – Anton – Ypsilon” (that’s our surnames, Helm and Kay, in German police language). But on a bad day there would be a reception committee waiting on the platform of Aachen Hauptbahnhof, we would be marched along to the police office, and ordered to strip off all our clothes…. So, despite the fact that Aachen – when you actually got there – was a most attractive, surprisingly bohemian city, the problems we had entering Germany at that border do mean that this otherwise fascinating train journey is unlikely to take first place in our eventual rankings; although, in fairness, it should be conceded that the Aachen border was not the only one to offer this unconventional type of welcome – our strip-tease act was quite well-known all over the continent, and closer to home in Britain, too.

(Since the implementation of the Schengen agreement in 1995, you can now sail through Aachen station without so much as an “Ausweis bitte!” to disturb your day; although Covid restrictions, in these strange times, can still lead to the temporary re-introduction of border controls.)

So You Think You Can Make It to the Station Alone?

And so to some music. This song – I think of it as a wiser Bongo Mike addressing his impatient younger self – was recorded acoustically, and released  as the ‘B’ Side of the first single from our own label, Newspaper Records. 

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