Art of Survival is a documentary made by Sky Arts, which challenged me and three other artists to travel across Europe surviving purely on our artistic abilities. Travelling 1760 miles over 35 days, from Athens to Edinburgh, we had an incredible experience, which I would now like to share with you.
Almost a year has passed since I returned to Manchester, but it is all still fresh in my mind. It is difficult to explain the impact of this journey, and as such I have kept fairly quiet about it until now. But now I want to share my stories, not just those that were included in the documentary, but all the other magical moments and ups and downs that happened to me. Thinking of these memories makes me smile, and feel so happy and grateful.
Another reason for writing down these stories is that on my journey I met thousands of people who very generously supported me, enabling me to complete my adventure. This gives me a chance to say thanks to all of them, especially to those who haven’t been included in the 6 hours of the documentary. They will stay in my memory forever.
Since I was little, I had a secret desire to take my cello to all corners of the world, and to play for as many people as possible. When I heard that Sky Arts was looking for artists to take part in a challenge, travelling across Europe in 35 days from Athens to Edinburgh using only their art to survive, I decided without hesitation to go for it.
From the moment I walked into the audition room, I already knew I would get it.
Preparing for the audition was very exciting, and I started to organize a Europe-wide Visa even before I knew I had been shortlisted. I told myself “I have to take a risk and try my very best to win this opportunity”. This programme felt designed for me, providing a great opportunity to use my music to reach people and to see the world. From the moment I walked into the audition room, I already knew I would get it. I still remember the producer Seb asking me at the end of the final round “Li Lu, are you really sure you can do this? It will be much tougher than you imagine! Are you sure?” My answer was simple, “I am ready!”
I have always believed that things happen for a reason, and that once you are ready, things will happen very quickly! Three weeks later, I was in Athens.
“What are the real challenges of this trip going to be?” I wondered. I approached it with hundreds pictures in my mind about how tough this trip could be, but until I landed in the centre square of Athens, the reality of the challenge was not something I could really imagine.
- Challenge No.1 – Busking
I had never busked before this challenge. As a classical musician, I am used to playing in concert halls and theatres: anywhere but outside. And it was so hot: 38 degrees, and both my cello and I were boiling! Aside from this, how would my cello sound in this crowded public place, with no microphones or amplifiers? Would it be able to sing properly?
- Challenge No.2 – Living with Other People
Can you live with a stranger for 35 days? For 24 hours every day, we had to eat together, work together, and even share a bed together. That was the real challenge for both me and my teammate, a classical singer and actress named Lindsey Crow. Despite not knowing each other, Lindsey and I needed to start working together immediately once we had met.
- Challenge No.3 – Earning a Living
Can our music be attractive enough to catch people’s attention, and powerful enough to compete with other buskers to earn our living? We started with no money, no credit cards, nothing in our pocket! We had to use our music to trade for anything, even a glass of water. We couldn’t plan our route in advance, as we had no idea how much money we could make each day. Can we really make our journey from Athens to Edinburgh?
Alongside these challenges, we were also competing with the other team. Lindsey and I were team L, and team JJ comprised a painter Johan and a cellist and singer Janie. We all started in Athens, and wouldn’t meet until reaching our final destination in Edinburgh. The rule was that whoever made the most money wins. This could be Challenge No.4, but somehow I didn’t really worry about it. I believed in myself, and from the very beginning right to the end there was not one single second I would allow myself to think about failure. I knew that if I do my best, I would have nothing to regret. There is no “failure” in my dictionary!!
I just love the feeling that I am on the way!
This is the map of my journey across Europe.
I started in Athens, meeting my teammate Lindsey in the main city square.
After 2 hours walking around the city, searching for the best place, we started our very first performance in front of a beautiful church, where many people were passing by. We treated this debut performance as a proper concert. We dressed up and tried to give our very best to the audience. However, after 20 minutes, it wasn’t going as well as we had expected. I decided to make an announcement to our audience, who were all standing at a distance with a curious expression. I told them what we were doing, and why we were there. It was very effective, and immediately they came closer, with some of the audience asking us questions, showing us their interest and appreciation. A young married couple told me that I had made their day after I played the Bach’s Air, which was their wedding music. The woman was so moved that she couldn’t stop the flow of happy tears.
I mainly played the Bach cello suites on this journey and met thousands of people who loved it so much that they supported me, and enabled me to continue my adventure. Many times whilst playing, I saw more people like that newly-married couple, with tears and smiling faces when they were watching me.
Playing in front of the Acropolis, high on a hill, I suddenly felt connected with the whole world.
Playing in the centre square in Athens, we were surrounded by all kind of buskers, from rock bands to street artists. But the cello suites magically brought me a large audience. In that moment, I saw that you don’t need to shout out loudly, if you are doing a good stuff, people will naturally pay attention. We made 62 Euros in about an hour: not bad at all! We had successfully made enough money to secure our diner and bed for the first night. From then I knew that we would be fine, and that once I sat down to play, money would come in. The fear had gone automatically.
The second day was even better. I managed to persuade the manager of a rock band to use their stage to perform. An Italian man invited me to give a performance in his posh restaurant, as he was a big fan of classical music. Another man watched me play and then took me to his food store, letting us choose anything we might need on the way to the next destination. That was the first time my tears ran like a river down my face.
I was quite shocked by how generous people could be. It gave us great confidence to continue, responding to people’s kindness by working hard and giving them the best music to enjoy.
After three lifts, several buses and a ferry from Athens to Patras, we arrived at the south-eastern coast of Italy at the port of Bari. As the adventure continued, the real magic began to happen…
We wanted to take the opportunity to use this whole challenge to see parts of the world we normally wouldn’t, so travelled to Alberobello. However, we found out that in going there we had travelled south, rather than continuing on our northern journey. We didn’t feel too bad about this though, as it is a beautiful place, and as we were to see everything happens for a reason.
I am so proud to be Chinese,as Chinese people always help each other!
We had spent almost all of our money on the transport, and the first thing for us to do was to make some more for our accommodation and food. It was early afternoon and there weren’t many people around. While we were struggling on the street, suddenly I saw a huge group of people came towards us. I heard them speak Chinese! To my ears it was like sounds from heaven. I saw some of them were wearing a uniform and they turned out to be from the Chinese navy! I talked to the captain about our situation and asked them if it was possible for them to stop for a while, so that we could give them a performance. He listened to me carefully and said that they were just passing through and had only got an hour. But he was very impressed by our plea and was willing to help us. Fifty minutes later, just before they left, we got 10 minutes to perform for them. I can’t believe that we met hundreds of soldiers from the Chinese navy in such a small town in southern Italy. And the truly magic thing was that we had come here by accident! I played a traditional Chinese folk song and received the warmest greetings and shook hands with everybody! Our first night in Alberobello was secured.
It was pity that we didn’t get permission from the captain to film that wonderful moment, but it will stay in my memory forever. I am so proud to be Chinese, as Chinese people always help each other!
The magic continued on our second day in Alberobello. We met a local hotel owner, an absolute gentleman called Luigi. He kindly offered us free accommodation in his small but very stylish hotel. Both Lindsey and I were treated like queens. We decided to stay one more night there and took the opportunity to organize a proper concert in the local park. The park was in a central location, and was the most popular place for tourists, with a lot of performances and activities taking place on a typical summer’s night. When we started to perform, I noticed that most people were going over to the other side of the park, and that as a result not many were paying attention to us. I left Lindsey performing and went to find out what was drawing people over there. It was a mayor’s party! Woo! I guess you can imagine what happened next. We performed for the Mayor and his guests, and successfully earned enough money for us to head to Positano.
Stunning view of Positano
left: the Positano youth Hostel; right: our Capitan Cosimo
No matter how hard this trip is, how many compromises I have to make, I will be able to complete my adventure!
Our Roman Holiday was much tougher than Audrey Hepburn’s.
It is a busy and romantic city, full of spectacular scenery, but for busters, it’s another story. We played at most of the major sights but made the smallest amount of money yet. It was full of tourists busy taking photos, but too busy to care about our music!
The only success came from playing on a horse-drawn carriage. It was a very unusual stage, and I played O sole mio to win quite a crowd. Even the horse cart driver joined in with his brilliant voice. It was the most fun performance I have ever had!
We were stopped by police many times during the course of this trip. In front of the Colosseum, an undercover policeman came up to me after I had played my first piece, and asked me to stop immediately. While I was begging him to allow me play one more piece of music, an audience member came up and said to the policeman (with a very strong North America accent) “Hey man, let the girl play one more, can’t you see she is trying to survive…?” I was so touched by his defence of me and felt no matter how hard this trip is, how many compromises I have to make, I will be able to complete my adventure! I have to complete it, I thought, to deserve all the love and support I have received from the people I have met along the way.
Perhaps we used up all our luck at the beginning of our journey, as when we arrived at Venice, my situationstarted to get worse and worse.
I had lost my stool in Greece, so there were many days when I had to borrow chairs to sit down to play. Most places, people were friendly, but somehow in Venice, I was often told NO! It was raining and there was nowhere to sit, so no money come in. I couldn’t let Lindsey sing all the time as her voice was already getting tired. Eventually, I decided to steal a chair. It was the most terrible thing I have ever done in my life, but I had to survive, and had no better solution at the time.
I took a chair, crossed two bridges and started to perform in San Marco square. While I was playing the Chinese folk song Blind Girl, someone knocked on my shoulder and said to me with an angry voice “I want my chair back! I want it now! ” I was terrified. I begged him to let me finish the music that I had only played half way through, but he was firm. Unfortunately, he took the chair and walked away, leaving me standing there feeling hopeless. The audience didn’t understand what was happening. A Chinese family asked me what had happened, and after I explained to them, they let the baby girl put a note in my hand and said “go and buy a new chair!“ I was so touched, and to say thank you I played them a piece of music whilst standing up. After they left I opened the note, and saw that it was a 100 Euro note. Up until then, I didn’t even know that there were 100 Euro notes!
I bought a new stool and carefully carried it with me for the rest of the journey. It is in my living room in Manchester now and I will never lose it.
One of my most wonderful memories is of the time in Cremona, in Italy.
Cremona has a distinguished musical history, beginning with the violins of the Amati family and later included the Guarneri and Stradivari workshops. That was the reason for me going there, as my own cello is a copy of a Stradivari. Secretly, I wanted to see how my cello sounded in its homeland. It was a magical experience both for me and my cello!
center square in Cremona
I met a Japanese boy before we got off the train. He can’t speak much English, but understood that we need help.
He rang his friends, and friends’ friends. Then 20 minutes later, a Chinese boy called Lu Xiang appeared at the Cremona train station. Woo, we met an angel again! He kindly offered I and Lindsey a place to stay, as well as a nice Chinese meal. Later that night, I played in a big square in the town centre, in front of the city hall. Another local violin-maker called Xue Yi, friend of Lu Xiang, who originally comes from China, came to speak to me after my performance. He said that he was very impressed by my playing, and that it was very rare to see a Chinese musician in this town. We both soon felt that we had found a great friend.
The next morning, before we had to head off to our next destination, he asked me to play one more piece, just for him. Without hesitation, I played the Saraband from the Bach cello suites No.5: the most simple and touching piece to say good-bye. Then the magic happened. He brought out a half-made cello and said that once it was finished he would give it to me. This would be his way of saying thanks for my performance, and he hoped that one day I would be able to play this cello in the best concert halls in the world.
I knew from the very beginning that this challenge would provide me with a great opportunity to use music to reach people, and to see how different cultures respond to my music. I was looking for something extreme and memorable on this trip, but still can’t believe all this really happened to me. It often amazed me how generous people could be, far beyond what I had expected. Thisgift from Xue Yi is exceptional: a hand-made cello. It took him more than ten months to make and to me it is piece of art, utterly priceless! The cello has been completed now. Inside the cello, he wrote Fovet musica omnes. It is the Royal Northern College of Music’s motto in Latin, and it means Music Reaches Everybody.
I am using this cello to record Bach cello suites No.5, and you can hear the unique voice of this baby cello in my up coming recording In Love With Bach -vol.2
More stories happed in Switzerland, France and UK will come up soon…
We spent two days in Geneva, Switzerland. One day when we were having lunch in a restaurant, a few people came up to us to say hello, as they had seen us perform in Rome. It is such a small world! The same thing happened quite few times later on, in both France and the UK.