It’s not often we get to share a festival bill with drumming legends like Benny Greb and Stewart Copeland in a city we had previously never heard of, and perhaps even less often that we get shown to a dressing room on a barge. Our green room was the city’s own floating museum, complete with a collection of old sailor hats, chests and suitcases, black-and-white photographs, and a broken piano accordion. With this we were introduced to Bydgoszcz with an air of charm comparable to none.
This old northern city, a few hours south of Gdansk, felt to us both charming and bizarre in equal measure. The brown wooden interior of our hotel, with in-built FM radios next to small brown-panelled beds in pokey single rooms, made us feel as though we might be stuck somewhere in an early-eighties time warp. Sitting awkwardly in the inappropriately large hotel restaurant surrounded by nothing but empty tables and the faint murmur of panpipe music (mostly intriguing versions of nineties pop hits – ‘Angels’ was a particular highlight), we might’ve been the leading characters in an old episode of Twin Peaks. The tension was heightened significantly by the presence of the head waiter – a full-bellied man whose stern silence was both terrifying and unintentionally comedic. He communicated primarily in grunts and the occasional ‘no’ whenever we asked for anything that wasn’t specifically mentioned on the menu (bread, water, vegetables). To be fair to this agitated man, our attempts at Polish were beyond pitiful, and we’ve since discovered that most Poles don’t tend to drink the local tap water no matter how clean it appears to be.
It wasn’t easy to get past the traditional image of Polish cuisine – all meat and starch, everything of a similar colour scheme to our hotel. But nonetheless, we filled up on soup and cream cheese Pierogi, and were soon pleasantly surprised to come across a few vegan cafes dotted around the city centre. It seems that almost everywhere now, all these meat-and-carb diets the older generation are clinging to are beginning to be balanced out for the young cosmopolitan hipsters. I had a soya flat white and a slice of gluten-free sugar-free plastic-free greentastic fun-free entirely-made-from-organic-air vegan cheesecake, and I’m not even ashamed.
On another occasion we unwittingly found ourselves at the long table of a funeral party, at which the smartly-adorned elderly guests confusedly gazed between our strange group of lost drummers and a framed photograph of a old woman at the other end of the dining table. It’s safe to say we had mistaken the Opera House’s silver-service restaurant for our own performers’ canteen – an easy mistake to make.
Mooching around the quiet cobbled streets of Bydgoszcz we found mostly second-hand shops, the odd Polish folk-art store and an abundance of bridal shops. In fact, it seemed like marriage was a recurring theme wherever we went, with wedding adverts popping up at every restaurant and white dresses in window displays on every street corner. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when, towards the end of our evening gig, we accidentally joined a wedding party in a small amphitheatre by the river, bringing around a thousand people to join the bride and groom and their well-dressed guests in singing songs and waving sparklers in the air while we drummed and danced in front of them. Never had we believed gatecrashing a wedding and making an almighty racket would go down so well. We topped it off with a quick photobomb with the married couple and, soon after, everything in Bydgoszcz, one imagines, returned to normal.
The gigs included an afternoon showcase, where we attempted to draw the crowds in with a short street performance in the beautiful Market Square, and a longer evening street show. The hours in between were filled with coffee, ice cream and Samba Batucada as part of the drums parade, which started at the exact moment the first drop of a torrential rainstorm fell. The samba drummers were soaked but admirably still in high spirits, while we sought out the refuge of our cosy canal boat.
Fortunately the rain stopped long before our evening show, though the mosquitoes – that famously love bright lights and sticky white makeup – were out in full force. In any case, it seemed the whole city of enthusiastic spectators, young and old, had suddenly appeared to see us, and we gave the next hour every bit of energy we had, resulting in one of the most exciting and satisfying shows I’ve ever played. By the time we got back to the barge my back was shaking, shoulders aching, and hands were shredded with bloody blisters, but somehow we still managed to pose for a few extra photos before calling it a night, with genuine grins and adrenaline still pumping.
Following the show we found a bar that played death metal and served dangerously strong beer that tasted exactly like a forest floor (or so I imagine, if I’d ever tried to eat one). Around 2 or 3AM, we ended up in the only place still open – a cellar bar called ‘London Pub’ – drinking Scotch and watching chain-smoking locals play darts and exchange suspicious glances.
The following morning we stared holes in our scrambled eggs at the hotel breakfast buffet with weary eyes and minds, and eventually wandered along the road to a humble market which mostly sold potatoes, tomatoes and funny hats. Dour-faced men and women eyed us with mild bewilderment, and we self-consciously inspected our own clothes a few times to make sure nothing was completely out of the ordinary. We must have received more baffled stares in the vicinity of our hotel than when we were madly leaping around the town in lycra and clown white. But despite our semi-unconscious state and our apparently obnoxious dress sense, the sun was shining brightly and we had just one more riverside stroll to enjoy.
And so we regretfully waved goodbye to the wonderful host who was at our beck and call despite the fact his wife was in labour, to the barge captain, to Mr Cheerful, the hotel waiter, to more joyful crowds, and to yet another wonderful place that, without this strange and unpredictable job, we might never have known at all.