How I ended up in the world’s second oldest profession – the Art and Antiques game.
Always a fan of public markets, jumble sales, street markets and all the rest, I first started hanging out with market folk when I was trying to sell my jewellery – a “trade” I learned from necessity when I’d fallen on hard times after hitchhiking around Europe/North Africa and washing up almost penniless in Taormina, Sicily.
In the early 1970’s, Taormina was winter home to a bunch of “temporary residents” from various other countries, some from North America but a lot from the colder Northern European states. Most worked as tour guides or in the hotels but some, like the Danes, ran hippie workshops . You could stay for free with the Danes but had to produce something in their workshops to flog when the tourists came to town. And boy, did they ever come.
One of the ex-Dane residents, Janos, was an Austrian engineer who’d run afoul of the border authorities at Bolzano – he’d overstayed his long weekend in Yugoslavia and driving back non-stop to Vienna, got busted with a bunch of amphetamines by the Italians. A quick hearing resulted in throwing him into a Sicilian jail for a couple of years. This led to him losing his job, house, wife etc. back in Austria. When he got out of prison, all he had was his massive Grundig top-of-the-line world radio – his passport to free accommodation with anyone who liked music – and those Danes liked it a lot.
I was down to the last few dollars sewn into the lining of my jacket when I met Janos. A Quebecois guy on his way home with a couple of pounds of Moroccan hash and I were at a cafe when Janos came over and introduced himself. He spun tales of fortunes to be made knocking up jewellery and selling it outside the Teatro Greco, an old Greco Roman amphitheater that drew thousands of tourists to Taormina. Not only did he know all this but also knew the arcanum for creating just the sort of thing the tourists would lap up. The proposal was that we, Quebec and I, would be the talent and he’d be the how-to guy.
So after a bunch of false starts and near misses, we started producing crude etched copper and brass bracelets. Quebec and I figured out the processes pretty much by ourselves as Janos could talk the big talk but really had very little experience creating an actual bracelet. It was almost as if he’d seen someone else do it once, but that was about it.
We did eke out a bare existence with the bracelets, but in springtime in Sicily there really wasn’t much that you couldn’t do with those few lira. As long as there was enough for wine and coffee, life was good. Life in Taormina was a sort of Hotel California – there was always enough money to live but never enough money to leave ….true, until the day I sold all my Taormina bracelets to a nurse on vacation from the States. I packed up and left Sicily five minutes after I made the sale.