By Anya Pylypchuk
The world is filled with hidden treasures; some go unnoticed by passersby on the street every day. On a late August evening I was exiting Roodebeek metro station in Brussels, about to follow a long, dismally dark-grey tunnel that led outside. Often, during weekdays, its dreariness was diluted by an old man who played Mozart and Bach on his well-worn violin. While ascending the steps, I would immediately recognize his music even before seeing him – it was always so pure, subtle and full of feeling. In these moments, I’d hurriedly dip my hand into my backpack and try to fish from its bottom any spare coins I could give to the old man. He would never let me leave empty-handed either, favoring me with a pile of fruit candy and a smile. Once we had exchanged gifts he would continue his expert playing, which could be as joyful as cracking laughter, or powerful as a sonorous thunderstorm.
Upon entering the dark tunnel I heard the soft call of the old man’s violin again. But, unfortunately, my budget was limited to a twenty euro note. I had not a single coin on my person and I could not pass by without thanking him in some way or other for such exquisite, beautiful music. For it should be clear even to the casual observer that not only is he a professional musician, but a performer who dedicates both heart and soul to his art. That is why, without a thought, I took pains to go look for a place where I could change my twenty-euro note. I bought a bottle of water from a nearby kiosk and returned to the old man in about 10 minutes – now, to stay and enjoy his music for a bit. Previously there had never been enough time for this simple pleasure.
The old man smiled when I approached and continued playing. Having finished the piece, he drew nearer, and started saying something in French. It must have been clear from my expression that I could not understand him properly for he quickly changed to Russian, suddenly asking: “Are you Russian?” I responded in Russian that I had come from Ukraine to Belgium more than a year ago with my family. Surprisingly, he too had come here with his wife 20 years ago from Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. The old violinist introduced himself as Armen Petrosyan. Back home, in Armenia, he had been the director and concertmaster of a symphonic orchestra in the Yerevan Opera Theatre. His wife had been an opera singer at the same theatre and had regularly stirred its air with her remarkable voice. Armen claimed that he had often travelled around Europe and once played in the National Philharmonic in my beloved hometown of Kiev. The city itself and its main street Khreshchatyk, that has been an epicenter for the violence of the recent revolution, he remembered with a quiet fondness. Sadly, after moving to Belgium he had not been able to find a job, but he reassured me that his dark moods were easily lifted by the opportunity to play classical music for the pedestrians, connecting them in a simple, subtle way to the world of genuine art.
We continued chatting for quite a while and I was impressed by the broadness of his knowledge! Much to my delight, he could play nearly every tune I asked him. I was especially moved by the way he performed Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vocalise’. The moment I told him I was from Ukraine he grabbed his violin again and said: “If you’re from Ukraine, you might like this”. He played a beautiful, somewhat nostalgic tune, but unfortunately I couldn’t recall it. He told me it was a soundtrack from the movie ‘Roman and Francesca’ by the Ukrainian director Volodymyr Denysenko, the story of which takes place against the backdrop of WWII. “You must see this film some time, as it is one of my favorites,” he reassured me. His enthusiasm was infectious as he smiled at me, and secretly I could not help but to think of him as my kindly old grandpa.
In parting, grandpa Armen gave me a chocolate bar; we shook hands and wished one another a good day. I had already taken a few steps in the opposite direction when he shouted to me: “As you reach the end of the tunnel, turn around the corner, stand and listen. There, the music echoes as in the opera theatre. See you soon!” Grandpa Armen grinned broadly, lifted his bow to the violin and began playing Bach. His music floated through the air, mingling effortlessly with the countless other sounds of the bustling city. Gently, it pressed upon the hearts of all those who were fortunate enough to pass by, the music resting within them like a kind of colorful dream…
Grandpa Armen still plays on the streets of Brussels today. If you happen to hear Bach or Rachmaninoff echoing through the city, follow the lifting notes until you reach their source: a seemingly unremarkable old man, whose fingers dance upon the strings of his violin, with eyes alight and a soul set afire by music. Yet again, the world is filled with hidden treasures, keep your eyes open for them.
Photo by Anya Pylypchuk
Published in “The Voice” International Student magazine of Leuven in December of 2014, Year 18, Issue 2