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Saturday, 5 May 2018

The Peacock Man

It’s not every day one sees a big blue peacock perched on a tractor. It’s one of my early memories after coming to live in our rural pocket of France, which suggested things might not be entirely conventional around here. Happily they aren’t.

So when my sister, Di, said she wanted to buy her animal-loving neighbours something a bit different, a breeding pair of peacocks came to mind. We decided they would go very nicely with their llamas, who are excellent lawn mowers and defend their chickens against foxes.

Our next task was to find a breeder. I asked the tractor peacock farmer where he had bought his. He said he hadn’t. They just turned up one day and stayed. We both agreed this was probably perfectly normal and I scurried off to seek sane advice from Google.

Amazingly, I found a breeder in the Gers, a department adjoining ours. Full of confidence, I wrote to the gentleman who immediately stumped me by replying with the following sensible questions:

Which breed of peacock did I want?
Did my sister’s neighbour have other peacocks nearby?
Did I want mute – or singing birds?
Would the birds be in an aviary or at liberty?

Embarrassingly, I had no idea which specific type we would want. The peacock-owning farmer lived fairly close, but his birds didn’t seem to shift much so I didn’t think they would be a problem. I thought all peacocks wailed. However, I knew they would be at liberty – hanging out with the llamas.

I confessed my scant knowledge, and arranged a meeting with the owner to view his stock.

Di and I headed off bright and early on our mission. Gers is a department known for its gourmet food and temperate climate; of equal appeal is the gorgeous countryside.

We were quickly immersed in rolling landscapes decorated by pretty medieval villages, each a gem screaming out for a visit. Fields would soon be filled with sunflowers as far as the eye could see, adding a smiling face to the already radiant scenery. It may be one of the least densely populated areas in France, but we could easily understand why it attracts so many visitors.

After driving for an hour or so our satnav system gave up the ghost and resorted to a display of limp white lines and no directions. We were in such a rural area the map detail wasn’t much use either. This was annoying. We knew we were close, but had to seek advice.

Asking a question is often tricky as the local accent is so hard for me to understand. The other problem being that I have great difficulty pronouncing the French word for peacock, paon. Looks easy, doesn’t it? The problem is, pronounced incorrectly, it sounds very like several other words.

We drew up alongside an immensely old lady who was feeding her goat on the roadside. I asked in French if she knew where Monsieur Delacroix, the peacock breeder lived.

Éleveur de pain?” she asked, looking thoroughly confused as she would because she thought I had asked for a bread breeder. I tried again.

La pépinière des pins? Désolé je ne sais pas,” she replied shaking her black-shawled head, now believing we were looking for a pine tree nursery.

Clearly there was something fundamentally wrong with my pronunciation. I took a deep breath and spat out a word that sounded like pong.

Ah oui!” she cried triumphantly, “Là-bas, il y a un pont. Peut-être qu'il vit de l'autre côté?

Bless her for trying. This time she thought I was talking about a bridge. Life was too short for me to continue massacring the language and Di had begun tutting impatiently. There was only one thing for it. I resorted to charades.

I apologised again, this time blurting out a word that sounded like payom, accompanied by a goodly flapping of arms. Madame stepped back in surprise, grabbing her goat’s string protectively. She stared hard and then crinkled up into a perfect wrinkly smile.

Paon! Oui, bien sûr.

Eureka! The lady did not know the man’s name, but she knew there was a peacock breeder nearby and pointed along the same road.

We waved our kind helper goodbye, and resumed our journey. Soon after, a property with several aviaries came into view. Heaving sighs of relief, we pulled up alongside a big metal cage housing exotic birds.

Monsieur Delacroix appeared and we introduced ourselves. It quickly became evident that he didn’t speak English. Di is at starter-French level so she was in charge of approving murmurs while I did the talking.

He gestured towards the big aviary.

“So you like my parrots?”

“Absolutely,” I replied, “they’re magnificent.”

“You can go in but you must be calm.”

“Thank you. Don’t worry we will be.”

I shot a warning be calm glance at Di, who was beaming soundlessly and monsieur positioned us in the middle of the cage.

Now here’s a thing about parrots I hadn’t considered before. Some are very large. As monsieur walked towards them they started shrieking meaningfully and whizzing around the cage, flapping tremendously long wings. These were birds to be respected, as were their extra-long talons. 

One alighted on monsieur’s shoulder.

“This is Simba, the female. She is jealous of you.”

“Oh dear,” I dithered, “should we leave?”

“No, it’s okay, but do not provoke her or she will attack.”

We stood rigidly to attention, trying to look relaxed as the unbelievably beautiful Simba started lovingly nibbling her owner’s ear.

“Simba, no!” cried monsieur, gently waving the huge beak out of the way. “They can break a finger with these beaks, you know,” he added cheerily.

We oohed quietly. I looked at the massacre of walnut shells on the ground and then his earlobe. I didn’t fancy its chances if she decided to give it a kiss.

As monsieur continued to wrestle with the aptly-named Simba’s loving advances, the other parrots flew from perch to perch. We watched, amazed by their extraordinarily colourful plumages, their inquisitive behaviour and raucous candour at our presence.

Simba eventually became overly frisky so monsieur motioned for us to go. We avoided bodily injury and followed him to the first of a long line of aviaries. I noticed they were all padlocked. We were soon to find out why.

The first couple contained golden pheasants. I know this species, but they were new to Di. She wowed at one of the males. His red-tipped golden crest extended along his head to his neck. His bright red underparts and snazzy gold and green rump confirmed this lad was out to impress. Conversely, his mate was dressed-down. Coy, mottled brown and buff feathers covered this female, ideal for concealment in her natural habitat. 

We watched these restless creatures patrol their pens. They were mixed in with other, less garishly-painted pheasant species. All visually stunning in their own ways.

“And now I will show you my peacocks,” monsieur smiled.

Pen after pen contained these fabulous members of the pheasant family. We were allowed to enter most, watching intently as the magnificent birds strutted their stuff. Monsieur described the different species he kept. The first were Javanese.

Also known as Green peacocks, the male’s heads and crests shone with verdant green. The peahens, also brightly coloured with green hues, were only slightly muted compared to their mates. They were kept as breeding pairs or young families. Heated shelters protected them from adverse winter temperatures, and expansive, grass-covered enclosures gave them ample room to exercise.

Monsieur pointed to an adult male in the pen adjoining ours. We looked across to see one of the males fanning his tail feathers.

“You have come at exactly the right time,” he said. “The males are beginning their courting displays.”

We went over to look, entranced by the billowing tail feathers covered in blue-green eyes. Soon other males began to sense spring was in the air. Many copied, outshining their competitors next door. I ambled ahead, still glued to these amazing creatures, when a strange rustling sound came from behind.

I wheeled around to find myself uncomfortably close to a very bulky, foreign-looking turkey. It stared at me with puffed up feathers and started advancing, making rapid gobbling sounds. There was no point backing away, I was already pinned up against a Green peacock pen. Feeling distinctly anxious, I decided there had to be a better way to go than death by a massive bird with a pendulous skin thingy hanging over its beak.

“No problem, he’s harmless,” said monsieur, spotting my apprehension. “This is one of my Canadian wild turkeys, he is very friendly.”

Mightily relieved, I watched the tank-sized bird, with its duvet of browny-black feathers cackle around us. I didn’t know whether it was capable of flight, but if so it would look like a B52 in the air.

We returned to the finesse of the peacocks, this time the Indian blues from Sri Lanka. The male’s iridescent cobalt heads and necks dazzled, outdone only by their fabulous trains as they unfurled their tails, fanning them alluringly at their mates.

“These birds are rustic,” monsieur explained, “they can withstand hard winters. You can buy this pair if you want, they are five years old.”

I duly translated to Di, whose eyebrows shot up to her hairline.

“Have you seen the length of its tail?” she hissed. “We’ll never get it in the car! Ask him if he has any 6-monthers that’ll fit into a normal bird carrier.”

My question was drowned out by a boisterous cawing.

“Ah, he has seen us. You must come to see my latest bird, I rescued him,” said monsieur, pointing towards the din.

As we walked over, he told us the bird, a Military macaw, had been kept by an old lady in a tiny cage for years. He opened the pen and beckoned us in.

“I am afraid he is mad now, his space was too restricted. He tried to kill the mate I put with him last month. You must stand very still or he will attack you.”

Mildly concerned about my ears, I translated to Di who was halfway in.

“Not another killer,” she muttered, before stopping and abruptly stepping back outside. She’s not stupid. 

We paused to observe this astonishingly striking animal, terribly saddened by what had happened, but so glad he had been saved.

The final pen contained an assortment of chickens.

“Here we have some English!” chuckled monsieur.

I had read about these but never seen them. Great big, fluffy Pekin chickens waddled contentedly around their compound. We were in raptures.

With our tour finished, we thanked monsieur for giving us so much time.

“My pleasure. At this time of year I love watching my birds mating. They are my passion. Wait, I have something to show you,” he added, disappearing into his house.

Di gave me a very old fashioned look at that translation, suggesting we perhaps ought to leave now if he was at risk of showing us something inappropriate.

Not a bit of it.

Monsieur returned with a book filled with photographs and information about the mating rituals of peacocks. His words did make sense. These animals were as graceful as they were ostentatious during the breeding season. No wonder he loved them so much.

We thanked him again and returned home with more questions than answers.

Sadly there was no prospect of buying youngsters from monsieur so we had several considerations to tackle. Would we find a way to safely transport the five-year-old peacocks back? Was it a sensible idea to buy mature animals? Were there alternatives? Fat chickens? These were decisions we would soon make.

In the meantime we agreed one decision had been well made. We had spent a wonderful morning in the company of an expert peacock man.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Fancy Lunch?

How I get myself suckered into these situations I shall never know, but they do seem to happen eerily often.

My sister, Di, admits to being a bit of a flibbertigibbet when it comes to shopping. She is apt to visit as many similar shops as possible on a compare-and-contrast mission before deciding that, actually, the item in shop number one was the best after all. I find it an exhausting process. What I hadn’t realised was that these tendencies extend to choosing hairdressers.

Since coming to live in France, she has tried several different salons with varying levels of success. Never truly happy until…

“Honestly, Beth, you have to come to Salon Costeau, it’s brilliant.”

“I’m fine with the one I go to.”

“Really?” she replied, looking surprised, “I think you’d prefer this one. Go on. give it a try.”

“Oh, okay,” I groaned, swayed by her disconcerted look. “Where is it?”


What? That’s miles away!” I exclaimed, sounding as staid as I presumably looked.

“Oh don’t be silly. It’s not that far. We can combine it with shopping.”

And that was it. An appointment was made with Claude.

Off we drove, passing through several towns peppered with hairdressers. Many tried, all rejected.

For the first timer, Montauban, the department capital for the Tarn et Garonne, has a certain stately wow-factor. Standing on the banks of the River Tarn at its confluence with the Tescou, it is an imposing medieval bastide town with romantic qualities. The reddish stone used for construction gives the city a soft, quixotic feel. I like it.

We entered via the Pont Vieux. Commissioned in 1304 by King Philip of France, the 205-metre long bridge took 30 years to complete. Its level surface, a rarity in the Middle Ages, is supported by seven magnificent arches.

We headed for the centre. Like all medieval bastide towns, Montauban has a principal arcaded square. I always think this one is particularly dignified. Two layers of cloistered walkways line the perimeter, supporting red brick townhouses. French windows with filigree wrought iron balconies grace these splendid dwellings. Imagining great opulence behind the coquettish net curtains, I would love to peek inside one or two.

Cafés and restaurants are tucked under the complex tangle of arches, their tables spreading welcomingly onto the square. During the warm months, sunlight basks their clients in this romantic sun trap. Understandably, it is a lunch and dinner hotspot.

A greengrocer’s market stall was positioned on the side of our street. We paused, attracted equally by the sight of super-fresh veg, and the alluring aromas coming from the pâtisserie behind. We decided to squeeze in a quick coffee and an inevitable cake. It’s obligatory in France.

It turned out we weren’t the only ones with the same idea. A handbag-sized dog was sitting on the table next to ours, enjoying a crusty croissant with his elderly owner. Since nobody batted an eyelid we decided they must be regulars.

I dragged Di, kicking and screaming, past the Galeries Lafayette department store. Luckily our coffee break had used up our available shopping time. We arrived at the salon on time.

Claude was exactly how you might expect; a delightful gentleman who wore much more make-up than I. He was also a bit of a drama queen.

Everything might have been fine except that Claude had just returned from a styling course in Paris. He was dying to try out his new techniques, and sadly I was his first victim.

He gasped dramatically at my mundane locks. Pinching Di playfully on the arm, Claude told her he would sort everything out. Just in case my input was relevant, I made a plea for subtle highlights. He giggled at my outrageous idea and reached for his tube of chemicals.

Claude squirted a log of blueish paste on top of his hand. Demonstrating his new colouring technique, he smeared copious amounts of the clay-like substance onto hanks of my hair. It was a time-saving device if nothing else. There was nothing remotely subtle about this man, nor was there any downtime.

While my hair began to change colour, Claude busied himself by painting Di’s nails his latest favourite shade. He said they would go beautifully with the colour of her eyes, océan. This he followed-up with an interesting shade of green on her eyelids. Seaweed came to mind.

Meanwhile, my hair was apparently taking too long to change colour. Claude tutted irritably and grabbed an ultra-modern looking static hair dryer. While my ears cooked, he coyly offered to share his lunch with us. Despite refusing, we were given small pastry pillow cases filled with jam. It was a very kind gesture, which nicely diverted my attention from boiling ears and discouragingly blue hair.

Once cooked, Claude rushed me to the sink, simultaneously washing my hair and his sugar coated fingers. This man was efficiency itself. I was then told to stand in the middle of the salon to be cut.

Claude came at me with a razorblade. I won’t say I was unduly nervous, but it did strike me that scissors might have done just as well.

I stood stock still as he lashed around. Lock after lock fell. Di, who now had even darker green eyeliner on top of her eyeshadow, was looking distinctly anxious. This wasn’t a good sign.

Finally, I was allowed to sit to be dried and styled. I knew this wouldn’t take long – there wasn’t much hair left to dry. I studied the end result in the mirror. A pudding basin of tobacco-yellow striped hair and an extraordinarily straight fringe close to my hairline looked back.

“Fancy lunch?” asked Di, hurriedly.

I nodded numbly, paid Claude, who was close to tears at our decision to leave, and followed her back the arcade.

“Here we go, this’ll cheer you up.”

“It’s just as well I’m not vain,” I grumped, sloping after her.

We walked through a passage into a tiny quadrangle. Ahead was a deliciously inviting eatery called Crumble Tea. Di beckoned me in.

The interior was intimate. Tins of tea lined the walls, looking incongruously uniform next to the graceful arches and modern art. The dining area was filled with a hotchpotch of tables, cushioned chairs and cosy bench seats. It was just like home.

The proprietor, a petite lady, welcomed and directed us to a table lit with a cute chintz lamp. We settled down and listened to our three menu choices. Everything was homemade here, she said, describing each. I had no idea which of the mouth-watering options to go for, in the end plumping for onion soup, side salad and ham-filled croissant. We both did.

What an inspired choice!

Mammoth portions soon arrived. Everything was a taste sensation and especially the chunky soup. Smoked, caramelised onions in a broth laced with white wine and Cognac, the melted, toasted cheese on top made it a culinary triumph. Each mouthful yielded comfort, quickly putting my coiffure experiences into a proper perspective.

Despite being stuffed full, we decided there was just enough room to share a dessert.

Madame reappeared to tickle our taste buds with her list of puds. Again, agonisingly difficult though it was, the complicated sounding sponge cake with several different fruits inside was the clincher. We munched our ways through, washing each delectable mouthful down with a sip of exotic tea. What a treasure this place was.

Still remarking at the impossibly large quantity of fruit that had been crammed into the dreamy dessert, we paid our bill, thanked madame and waddled out.

But Di still had one more treat up her sleeve.

“Come on, we’ll go back this way.”

We entered a different section of ancient arches, treading over more centuries-old bevelled flag stones and came to a shop. Talk about extravagant. It was obvious what was sold here. Plants.

Just like the restaurant, inside it was small and intimate. Only this time it was festooned with healthy plants, flowers and objets d’art. I looked around, imbued with gloriously conflicting scents, for once happy to join in the browsing. It was heavenly.

We reluctantly tore ourselves away with plants purchased and headed home. We giggled at our unusual looks, contenting ourselves that my hair would eventually grow back, and Di’s mermaid look was easily dealt with by gallons of make-up remover.

We agreed that Claude had been a true gentleman, and couldn't possibly have showered any more attention upon us. Sadly, though, Di’s latest salon was about to join the others, but not her choice of florist or lunch venue. There was no doubt about it, we would return at the earliest opportunity for another fancy lunch.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Mysterious Masks in France

Would it be the same wacky Italian band backing a troupe of raucous can-can dancers? Who could say? Would it be as exciting as last year? Wait…could it be?

It was the annual Spectacle Vivant (performing arts event) held in our local town, Lomagne. Last year we were dragged along for the first time by our friends, Anton and Camille. We quickly discovered it was a must-attend event, one that brought party-goers out of hibernation in their hordes. We enjoyed it so much, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to return.  

Unfortunately, Jack wasn’t so keen.  

“Do we really have to go?” moaned my wannabe-sociopath husband.

“Yes, of course, Jack, you ended up having a great time.”

“I’m sure I didn’t.”

This year the event was enticingly titled: Carnaval de Venise. It would be compered by the same indefatigable entertainer, Signore Jean-Michel Zanotti. It was worth going along just to see him.

We set out in weather reminiscent of the previous year – so stormy even the birds couldn’t fly in straight lines. Jack aquaplaned us along waterlogged roads, eventually pulling into the venue car park, which had become a paddling pool.

We joined the crush of soggy attendees in the foyer. What a shambles. Everyone had started out looking so nice but conditions had intervened. Ankle-height tide marks on clothes indicated that many had parked in a similar spot to us. Hair dos, crimped for the occasion, were askew, glasses needed windscreen wipers and scarves had become dishcloths. No problem, I decided, it all added to the community spirit. I felt certain we would quickly dry out in this atmosphere of excited anticipation.   

We walked into the main hall to find my sister, Di, and our friends already there. On the whole, they looked less dishevelled than us, although I swear my sister’s trouser hems were steaming. Anton, an Italian, wore his customary trilby and natty cravat. Camille and Susan were damp, but otherwise immaculately turned out as usual.

Throngs milled about, there must have been over 300 present. I glanced around the room. The stage scenery featured a very large poster of the Rialto Bridge in Venice. Occasional tables near the pillars were decorated with assorted pasta. We had returned to Italy alright, and there was more.

The building walls were decorated with baroque Venetian masks of extraordinary beauty. Designs differed. Some covered the eyes only, others included the nose. And there were one or two which covered the whole face. These had extravagant, decorative fins which curved outwards. Each looked like a priceless antique.  

We had come to a Venetian masked ball, and I couldn’t wait to see how it would unfold.

The band struck up and Signore Zanotti appeared from the wings looking extremely dashing. Masked, wearing a tricorn hat and cloak, I suspect he was supposed to look like a Venetian character. It may have been the black shiny shirt, but he looked a dead ringer for Zorro to me. Clasping a microphone instead of sword, he belted out an Italian favourite whilst simultaneously ushering us to our seats.

Diners were assembled on long trestle tables. I was wedged nicely between Anton and Susan. It was her first visit and I had yet to see her blink. This eclectic mixture did take a bit of getting used to.

With elbow room at a premium, eating was always going to be tricky. Fortunately Anton is jockey-sized, and Susan not much bigger, so I would be fine. Di less so. She was sitting next to an extremely angular lady whose upper limbs had already claimed my sister’s side plate. Di was dealing with the potential sensitivities by doing what she does best – chat her new neighbour to death.

Table dressings were tastefully in keeping with the Carnival theme, with the added novelty gift of a fan for each lady. Camille immediately unfurled hers and began flapping, intermittently bonking Jack on the nose as she fluttered. This wasn’t advisable. Judging by Jack’s expression, I feared the fan’s days may be numbered. Fortunately she was diverted by activity at the rear of the room.

Armies of masked waiters appeared. They lowered the tone nicely by plonking plastic beakers in front of us and filling them with fizzy Lambrusco. Actually I love the stuff, but not Anton. As a connoisseur of wines he wouldn’t dream of drinking it.

Poof!” Anton yelled, before bellowing a command at Di’s rangy lady to pass a bottle of Valpolicella. She immediately complied, possibly relieved at the opportunity to stall the incessant verbal flow.

As we sipped our aperitifs, Signore Zanotti crooned a jaunty number, which produced a star performer. Out smoothed a slim man. I would recognise that magnificent, droopy moustache and daringly wide cummerbund anywhere. This man was a plant. Monsieur was the professional dancer. 

He headed towards an unsuspecting guest. She barely had time to jettison her Lambrusco before being whisked onto the dance floor. Thrilled to be the chosen one, she flailed magnificently in the iron grip of Monsieur Moustache.

The sight of only one duo on the dance floor quickly proved too tempting. Diners, young, old and others of indeterminate age, took to the floor and started gambolling to a two-step. But it was not they who caught my eye.

They were extraordinary. They were incongruous.

Two couples appeared, dressed in Renaissance regalia. They wore intricately painted masks with material attached to the edges. This effectively covered their faces and the back of their heads. The ladies had magnificent headdresses, the men, tricorn hats. Their costumes were extravagant, absolutely exquisite.

Ahah! Ils sont le Vénitien costumes!” cried Anton in appreciation of the newcomers.

In my ignorance I did not know the history behind these lavish players. Anton grew up near Venice and knew all about it. He gave me a brief explanation.

Venice Carnival is a centuries old tradition, he said. Events are held during the 10 days leading up to Shrove Tuesday, making it one of the biggest events in Italy. But it is the masks that make it so special.

Anton thought the tradition of the Carnival started in the 12th century. Venetians would hold celebrations and parties from December 26th until the start of Lent, and wear elaborate masks to conceal their identity. These parties were the only time when the upper and lower classes mingled. But it sounded as though things went a bit far.

Aristocrats and peasants played out their fantasies together. They indulged in illicit activities. Gambling, clandestine affairs, political assassinations, it all happened under the guise of the Carnival costume. In the end, Anton said with a chuckle, it all became too much even for the Italians.

The Carnival was eventually outlawed. After a long absence, in the 1970s, as part of a cultural regeneration programme in Venice, the Italian government decided to re-introduce the traditional Carnival as the centrepiece of its efforts.

 I looked around the room, happy to conclude that our rabble rousers didn’t look remotely lascivious.

My moment of history was interrupted by the starter. Out came the battalion of waiters with a tapas Jack absolutely hates. I spied his wrinkled-up nose. For a die-hard carnivore I have no idea why he hasn’t been able to cope with simple slices of salami, finocchiona and pastrami. He maintains they are akin to chewing mouthfuls of rancid fat and impossible to swallow. Fortunately Camille didn’t agree.

Typical of someone who has courageously dieted for years, Camille cleared her plate of meat with a ferocious energy. Spying Jack’s untouched meat, she kindly offered to have his too, leaving him to nibble delicately on a cube of specimen cheese and a pencil-sized bread stick.  

Similar to last year, there wasn’t a moment of downtime for our entertainers. Bottles of wine whizzed up and down the trestle tables, filling glasses to the tune of Signore Zanotti and his band, who had switched to love songs. Anton knew them all and couldn’t resist joining in. Camille was mortified.

Ah non, Anton, noooon,” she implored, as he burst into song.  

Others, inspired by his rich baritone voice, joined in. Soon the room was filled with the yodels of ‘O Solo Mio’. Ladies fluttered their fans in the air and Anton, completely taken by the moment, grabbed the nearest prop. A plate. Fortunately cranial fractures were averted by the arrival of the next course. It was another gastronomic no-no for Jack.

Out came steaming cauldrons of Boeuf à la Romaine and bowls of polenta.

“Argh, why on earth do we have to eat this gunk. It’s semolina anyway, which by the way is a pudding. I never liked it when we were made to eat it at school,” Jack howled.

“Oh for goodness’ sake, do stop moaning,” I chided. “Eat the meat instead, you'll love that.”

Jack smugly pointed at Anton’s plate. Anton, Italian through and through, was the only person in the room with two fat baked potatoes sitting on his plate. Evidently he didn’t like polenta either. Completely foiling my telling off, Anton harpooned one and slapped it on Jack’s plate. The pair of them are incorrigible.

More wine bottles were slewed in our general direction. It did wonders for Jack’s temper and helped wash down our tummy-sticking polenta a treat. As diners feasted, the music changed. Richly textured Baroque tonal harmonies wrapped themselves around us as a new group of masked Venetians promenaded around the room.

 “Good lord, they’re gliding,” gaped Jack. “Actually, they look as though they’re on castor wheels!”

He was right. The posed, they postured, they floated slowly from table to table. No expression, just players performing silently behind their splendid masks and costumes.

The main course proved an agonising experience for poor Camille. She had eyeballed her beloved polenta avariciously, but remained faithful to her diet by dutifully restricting herself to a teaspoonful. Not so lanky lady on Di’s left. She ladled on lashings. I watched, thoroughly impressed at seeing the third dollop slopped on. That said, Di was still in full flow, so perhaps the poor lady had resorted to comfort eating.

The interlude between courses was taken up with activity of a different sort. The band came back on stage. Accordion man squeezed his instrument and Signore Zanotti started a rousing dance number. They turned up the volume which made conversation difficult, but created fervour amongst the keen dancers.

More than a hundred diners leapt or limped onto the floor and began a frenzied line dance. We had seen this last year but it was the first time for Susan. Inspired, she bravely joined a particularly ungainly line and high kicked her way through several tunes.

I think there was supposed to be a prescribed set of moves, but the more avant-garde approach was favoured here. I doubted many of them would have been much good in an aerobics class. But that didn’t matter, they were having a marvellous time. Susan returned with a dusty footprint on her tights, but was otherwise unscathed.

Dessert of tiramisu was washed down with another serenade by Monsieur Moustache and another diner, plucked from her pudding bowl. Such was madame’s thrill at being selected by our dashing professional dancer, she momentarily forgot she was still holding her spoon. Casting it aside with a girlie giggle, she allowed herself to be sashayed about the dance floor in dizzying circles.

The cheese course was served with another increase in volume. By now there was no point attempting conversation across the table, it was just too loud. This was perfectly fine for Jack. He was finally on safe ground with food he could recognise, and gnawed peaceably on several hunks of stinky cheese and bread in socially-acceptable silence.  

Meanwhile, Signore Zanotti sang for all he was worth, creating a fanning frenzy among the ladies. As luck would have it, Anton had run out of plates, so he waved his trilby instead. On the whole it was a much safer accessory.

Waiters swarmed back in with bottles of Amaretto and Limoncello to go with fresh plastic beakers, this time filled with coffee. It was not the first time I felt someone ought to tell Camille, a teetotaller, that Limoncello is fairly alcoholic. She loves the stuff and glugged back gallons, gradually turning a deep shade of pink.

Not so subtlety the music changed again. We were plunged back into the mystique of baroque rhythms and the secretive world of the masked ball. A larger troupe of performers strolled about the room. The range of costumes was extraordinarily lavish. There were china whites, gold leaf, rich velvets, satins and feathers. Pantaloons, cage crinoline dresses, taffeta and organza, it was impossible not to be impressed.

Anton shouted something about each mask having identifying names. In years gone by, he bellowed, people with different professions wore different designed masks. Today we were being treated to an extravagant selection.

Là là bas, ils sont anglais!” he cried, pointing at a couple who were covered from head to foot in masks and material. How on earth he knew they were English I had no idea. Perhaps we glide differently to the French.

The masked performers were cheered and clapped. They posed for photos, videos too. They knew they presented an incredible spectacle and played their inscrutable parts effortlessly. After a final float they glided off, leaving a trail of delicious privacy behind, and a roomful of delighted diners.

Our day at the Carnaval de Venise drew to a close. Jack had finally found something he could eat, and swore that if we ever attended the event again he would bring a packed lunch. Di had talked herself to a croak, leaving her gangly neighbour looking exhausted. Susan still hadn’t blinked much, and Camille was beginning to turn the same colour as her Limoncello bottle. Anton was as chipper as when he arrived and had avoided smashing anything or injuring anyone. That qualified as a result.

We left to the echoes of Signore Zanotti’s serenades ringing in our ears. They melded perfectly with the early onset of tinnitus. Had we enjoyed ourselves? Absolutely. It had been terrific. It might take a month or two for our ears to recover, but we will definitely be back next year.