A clear soprano voice drifts down the narrow street into the gourmet sweet shop where I'm browsing among nut clusters, dark fudge, and fancy chocolates in olive shapes. Intrigued, I exit the store and walk left. Strasbourg Cathedral looms at the end of the street, its carved figures, arches, and intricate Gothic spires towering above the central square.
About a hundred people are gathered there, cutting off any view of the musician. "That woman must be a professional," I think, inching between packed bodies to catch a glimpse of the singer whose voice is like soft, warm caramel.
I crane my neck, a middle-aged couple moves aside, and I finally see . . . a stocky young man, blond hair tied back in a thick ponytail, lightning tattoos patterning both bare arms. He's wearing dusty fatigues and a black cape. Bells around his ankles punctuate each pause in the song and he strums a mandolin for accompaniment. I gape at him, like many others in the crowd. This is the singer whose voice I followed?
Though he sings in French, I recognize many words and phrases. After a moment, I forget about translating and lose myself in the melody. I'm reminded of the last rays of sun on a summer's evening, of yearnings for family and friends on another continent, of a longing for peace in our world.
Another youth joins the group, snickering at the incongruity between soprano notes and the performer's gender. I agree, the spectacle is odd, but when he sings, I can only listen and nod. Finishing his third song, the singer addresses us, asking for a few Euros to help him survive through the winter. His speaking voice is unremarkable; it could be any grown man talking.
He collects a hatful of coins and sells several homemade CDs, then it's time for another song. I want to stay all afternoon, soaking in the music. It seems appropriate to have Strasbourg Cathedral as his backdrop—sculpted saints, looming angels, and marble gargoyles overlooking a bravura performance.
Beside me, a teenage girl squats on the cobblestone pavement, staring intently at the singer. She seems on the verge of tears. As I glance around the semicircle, I notice men and women blotting their eyes with tissues, holding hands to their hearts, swaying sideways to the music. Pure and simple, he cuts through our facades, straight to the core: addressing our hidden passions, our desire for another world, our lapsed hopes and lingering dreams.
It jars me to see this man, with his clunky Doc Martens boots and silver eyebrow piercing, singing so angelically. But I'm moved to consider: doesn't God speak to me, often in unexpected ways, through the most unlikely people? Mightn't the teenager next to me on a streetcar or in the deli carry an important word? I don't want to quickly dismiss someone who may turn out to be God's strange messenger.
His piercing song, carried on the breeze, lured me out of the candy store and into the streets of Strasbourg. If I ever visit the Alsace-Lorraine region of France again, I will keep my eyes open. I might stumble once more upon a young man, dressed entirely in black, strumming a battered mandolin and singing alone in the Old Town square with a voice of sunshine and rain.
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