Swiss Border Guard/ Travel tips for internationally touring Musicians

Papers, Please

2:16 pm

About once every two years or so, I pack up my traveling rig and head out for a few weeks of touring in Europe, mostly in Switzerland. It’s great to be able to live the road life briefly and then come back home to reality. Switzerland is an excellent place to play because the country is beautiful, the drives are short, the pay is good (well, pretty good), and the Swiss love American music and musicians. On the road life is simple – show up on time, play an incredible show, don’t be a jerk, and then do it all again. I can do that for about two weeks before I start missing my kids.

We usually do about three or four shows in Germany, Austria, or Italy. The only downside of gigs in additional countries is that crossing borders without working papers can be difficult. Our record label does not pay for work visas. Instead, we are advised to say that we are “on vacation” every time we cross a border. Our tour manager always insists we will have “no problem,” but I am pretty sure that he has never actually tried it himself.

What’s with all the music equipment? “We’re just traveling around playing with friends.”

Why do we have 100 copies of our latest CD? Are we selling it? “No, they are for promotional purposes.”

Are we being paid to play? “No, sir!”
(We keep digital photos of our contracts rather than paper copies. And, all of our money is in cash.)

So far we’ve never been denied entry, but it is stressful every time we cross. Especially the time we made a wrong turn at a crossing between Switzerland and Germany. We had our van searched by Swiss customs agents. After about ten minutes, which felt like an hour of trying to convince them that we were just driving around Europe in a van full of gear for fun, they let us through.

About five minutes down the road we found ourselves approaching the German border again. Realizing we had taken a wrong turn, we pulled into the nearest driveway, which happened to be the employee parking area for the customs plaza itself. Soon about five guards came running towards us shouting, with their pistols and assault rifles out. Apparently German Border Patrol agents don’t like it when panicked Americans try to avoid them. We were surrounded by angry Germans with guns, had our passports confiscated, and had to wait while one of the guards went to check our papers. We kept insisting that we didn’t even want to go back into Germany. To say it was tense in the van is an understatement. Ultimately they allowed us to turn around and stay in Switzerland, but ever since then we are very careful not to make wrong turns in border towns.

It’s a tradition of my bandmates and I to find a song lyric to represent each day on the road. We call these lyrics “Rock’n’Roll Scriptures.” They reflect our mood or comment on some experience that we have shared. The Rock’n’Roll Scripture for our customs plaza woes is from the song “Border Crossing” by Timbuk 3. “If I were a smuggler, I’d breeze across this border, my clothes a bit conservative, my papers all in order.”

Alex’s Bio: Alex Anest has been performing, recording and teaching music in the Southeast Michigan area since 1996. He was a founding member of the Jericho Guitar Trio, Never Nebula, and Delta 88. With Delta 88 Alex performed across the Midwest and played at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 2004. Since then he has toured Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy with songwriter Kevin Meisel. Alex currently performs with Ryan Racine and Gas for Less and the electric anti-jazz ensemble Giraffe. Giraffe is a chance for Alex to bring his many musical influences together – a very enjoyable, though sometimes difficult task for a musician who finds inspiration from artists as varied as Paco de Lucia, George Harrison, Thelonious Monk, and Jimi Hendrix. The common thread among these giants (and the goal to which Alex aspires) is the ability to transcend stylistic boundaries while keeping their own unique musical voice intact.

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