Things weren't going well on the social circuit...
“Oh no! Not again.”
“Yes, again. We can’t get out of it. Just be grateful we’ve been asked.”
Jack, my husband, has never been much of a socialite. And, after so many years of marriage, I actually like the fact that we can still revel in our own company rather than having to be in a crowd. But, as we grow older, Jack’s preference for this has taken on an almost sociopathic flavour.
Since Christmas, invites to social occasions have been abundant. This latest invitation or ‘summons’, as Jack likes to term them, had been sent by our friends, Anton and Brigitte. It was in response to something we had apparently done for the event organisers, who they knew well, although for the life of us we couldn’t work out what it was. Entirely unfazed by our uninspired guesswork, Anton and Brigitte insisted that it didn’t matter, they had been most grateful, and had to return the favour – argh, but for what? Powerless to resist the ultimatum from our feisty pals we agreed and included my sister, Di, who has recently moved to the area.
The day of le spectacle vivant dawned with weather from hell. Rain lashed down in stair rods, and howling winds rocked the car. This was the perfect cue for Jack to point out that, apart from the emergency services and boats, nobody should volunteer to be out on a day like this. Fortunately, his moans went largely ignored. Then, just as he was beginning to cheer up, Anton, who originated from Italy, told us that the main entertainer for the day would be the famed Jean-Michel Zanotti. He had compered Anton and Brigitte’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration, an unforgettable week-long event from which Jack still hasn’t quite recovered.
One thing’s for sure – Italians certainly know how to party. For my part, I recalled the event with great fondness.
Fierce-looking bearded relations (mostly male), and their families had descended in their droves from the mountain region of northern Italy, towing bricks of Parmesan cheese, gallons of Prosecco and a gelato-making machine. Their sole purpose – to support Anton and Brigitte during their celebrations.
The men strutted up and down the village main street with panache, instantly starting a minor scarf-brandishing war as they eyed their French counterparts’ feeble attempts at matching the latest Venetian knotting procedures. The ladies, mainly dressed in black with gold extras, were raucously business-like, and got stuck into catering duties with dangerous zest. Clearly, these were seasoned event managers.
What followed was a week of merriment involving hundreds of family members and friends. The village bulged with pizza, wine and perpetual glass chinking. It vibrated with the echoes of laughter, storytelling and riotous song – all intended to entertain the happy couple. And it did.
The grand finale was a master stroke. Variously tottering, striding, wheeling, or strolling – the revellers poured into the village church to celebrate the re-affirmation of Anton and Brigitte’s marriage vows. Standing room only for most, the congregation watched, enraptured, as the scene from 50 years ago was repeated for the anniversary couple. It was an incredibly touching occasion. But that wasn’t the end.
Still looking as fresh as they had at the beginning of the week, the Italians, their French counterparts, and a few of us ‘internationals’ attended the finale banquet organised by Jean-Michel Zanotti. The whole event was marvellous, but left poor Jack in a much-weakened state of social overload.
There was no let-up in the weather when we arrived at the venue for le spectacle vivant. Jack thoughtfully tried to avoid the need for a short swim by pulling up right outside the main entrance. Sadly his kindness backfired. Unbeknownst to him, Brigitte, dressed immaculately as usual, slid out of the car directly into an ankle-deep, invisible puddle. As Di and I rushed to help, my hat flew off causing my hair to have a panic attack, and a passing car sprayed Di’s top half as it drove through a temporary stream. Only Anton remained unscathed.
Anton alighted from the sheltered side of the car looking entirely fit for purpose. Dressed completely in dark colours, sporting a black trilby and dark glasses (an aid for his cataract problem), he was dry as a bone and fully equipped for an Italian extravaganza. We squelched in after him and joined the excited throng waiting to be allocated tables. One thing was immediately clear – Italy had returned to the Tarn et Garonne en masse.
Di and I left Anton and Brigitte to chat with friends and had a look around. The hall was filled with row upon row of trestle tables decorated with Italian flags and other colour-coded paraphernalia. Nicely on-theme, pasta played an inventive part too. Various shapes and sizes filled pots, and lay scattered on table surfaces, it was all extremely festive.
More Italian flags, some cheekily knotted, hung on the walls creating backdrops for life-size posters of familiar scenes. The Bridge of Sighs touched shoulders with a merry gondolier and a Chianti vineyard delighted the eye with promises of fine wines to come. As we wandered around drinking in the atmosphere, a band materialised on the stage and struck up a piece that would have made a gelato seller proud.
When we finally located our table, Jack, who we’d last seen trying to find a space in the water-logged carpark, was already seated. This was predictable, as was his remark.
“Where’ve you been? You look as though you’ve had an accident.” he said, eyeing us suspiciously.
Di and I had been so busy checking the decor we’d forgotten to survey the storm aftermath. We were a sorry sight. After a short examination it was decided that, in order to avoid frightening the children, I needed to make a hasty visit to the ladies’ room to sort out my hair. Di, on the other hand, thought the tsunami-induced drizzle of mascara down her left cheek could be dealt with by the deft use of a hankie and compact mirror. I could swear steam was rising from Brigitte’s shoes as she came to join us, but decided to let that one go.
Once all damage-control measures had been executed we settled down to chat with our fellow diners, some of whom we knew, most of whom we didn’t. The first topic of conversation was the menu of Italian dishes. We could work out what most of it was, but the main course of Involtini à la pancetta was a tricky one. Despite living right next door to Italy, and priding themselves on knowing everything there is to know about cuisine, even our French co-diners were foxed. Jack declared that it sounded like a stomach complaint and was about to tell us why, when we were mercifully saved by a drum roll and big squeeze on his instrument from the accordion player.
We scanned the stage but saw nothing.
“Là, là-bas, c'est Jean-Michel Zanotti!” he cried reverently, pointing at the opposite end of the room.
Sure enough a little chap in a bright blue, shiny shirt was shaking hands and blowing kisses at the enraptured diners as he shimmied his way to the front. Then, horror of horrors, he switched on his handheld microphone and launched into a random audience-participation vox pop.
Terrified that he was going to head in our direction and stuff his mike under my nose, I shrank behind the invisibility cloak of my neighbour’s organza outfit. Luckily the material shrouded me as a parachute might, but only just. Happily, a lady very close by was singled out for a moment of stardom – but this was fine, she was definitely up for it.
Completely misunderstanding the function of a microphone, our lady screeched her excited response to the 300-strong audience. This did nothing for the labouring speakers on the stage, which crackled under the strain of her shrieks, but whatever she said clearly delighted the audience. Glowing with the success of her moment of stardom, madame gave Jean-Michel a parting smacker before flopping back in her seat. Completely spent – but beaming radiantly.
Our compere finally made it to the stage and serenaded us with Italian love songs. This was the cue for feasting to begin. Impromptu-looking waiters, many of whom we knew to be farmers, loped between the trestle tables sloshing Prosecco in the general direction of our plastic beakers. After the third sleeve-splash, I knew Jack wouldn’t be able to contain himself any longer.
“Bloody hell, that’s Alain, the maize farmer. He’s pouring drinks like he spreads compost,” he grumbled. “Why on earth has he been let loose with bottles of wine?”
“Oh never mind, darling, it’s all part of the fun,” I replied gaily, fervently hoping my hair wasn’t going to end up in the firing line. It just wouldn’t cope with another passing shower.
Our first course was minestrone soup, therefore relatively fluid, and so inevitably served with some sloppage. Fortunately the damage was limited to the occasional sleeve and one shoulder. Brigitte assured the wounded party that once the micro macaroni had been picked out of her wool, a dab of wine would remove the stain in moment. She then swiftly curtailed Anton’s helpful advances by removing the bottle of red he was about to chuck over the soggy cardie and replaced it with a hankie dunked in white. After 50 or so years of marriage she knows exactly how Anton ticks.
Things got drier on the food front, which was just as well because it quickly became evident that every time our bucolic waiters poured wine in our general direction they took a quick sip themselves. The atmosphere was becoming distinctly festive.
Introductory speeches were made, and when they were over the band struck up and Jean-Michel began singing a new repertoire of Italian favourites. Shut your eyes and he could have been Dean Martin. What a lovely voice. Whilst we were watching I spotted a gentleman with a magnificent moustache. Strangely, he’d appeared from nowhere. He glided up to a table, plucked a lady out of her seat and began dancing with her in the centre of the room. This was greeted by knowing nods of appreciation from the audience as we watched his sashayed moves.
Brigitte explained that he was a professional dancer and would be picking ladies at random to do a star turn on the dance floor. Here was another cause for concern. I reassured myself that he wouldn’t want to choose someone with a hairdo that resembled hedge clippings, but my sister might not be so safe. She was now nicely restored and looked young enough to live through a round of the tarantella. Luckily she missed out on that joy but our pro dancer proved to be an inspiration to others.
The young(ish), the old and the even older pushed back their seats and headed for the dance floor. Some trundled, others needed a spot of man-handling to make it, but that didn’t matter a bit, they joined in with enormous enthusiasm. Somehow our pro avoided injury from flailing body parts by skilfully fairy-footing his partner through the crowds and back to her seat, but others weren’t so lucky. The odd glancing blow and toe-crunch was inevitable, but the victims bore their wounds in great spirit.
The music abated and in came a dish of antipasti followed by our main course, the much discussed Involtini à la pancetta. Anton, who hadn’t been party to our original debate, explained that it was a popular dish in Sicily. To the untrained eye it looked like a piece of meat covered in bacon swimming in gravy and many herbs. There were also some carrots but I gathered these were strays and not part of the usual recipe.
Jack took one look at the collection of meat and unhelpfully commented that despite smelling like one, it probably wasn’t part of a horse’s head. Nevertheless, just to be on the safe side, he would stick to sipping the gravy instead. Whilst I did feel he was being a wuss I must admit it was rather pongy. If anything, the accompanying polenta fared even less well. It had obviously been standing for some time and we had a devil of a job digging it out of the tureens. This didn’t worry the elderly lady opposite me one iota. Despite being stick thin she had an enormous appetite and gleefully shovelled a slab of the solid yellow mass onto her plate. She then gracefully accepted both her own and Jack’s portion of rolled-up meat, and got stuck in with relish.
Fresh bottles of wine were thumped onto our tables to aid the passage of those morsels that might prove difficult to masticate, and with that, accordion man reappeared and started squeezing life back into his instrument. The rest of the band followed suit and in came Signore Zanotti, this time with a pair of dancing girls – which caused quite a stir. Bearing in mind the average age of diner was somewhere between elderly to extremely aged, the sight of scantily clad ladies cavorting about the stage was likely to test the stoutest heart.
Cutlery was abandoned and battles with the tenacious Involtini temporarily put to one side as most male eyes refocused on the girls, who were now bounding around with various props. Top hats were hurled in the air, walking canes with ribbons were twizzled and pairs of gloves were seductively removed, finger by finger. It was all extremely diverting.
The finale of the piece was something of a triumph. As Signore Zanotti hit a particularly challenging high note, off came the girls skirts leaving them dressed only in high heels, fishnet tights and skinny leotards. Male gasps of approval swept around the room causing immediate potential for a group cardiac arrest. Fortuitously, we were saved from any untimely declines as was signore, who had been stuck on top C for a rather long time.
The next few songs restored some level of calm. The girls wore a variety of different costumes while Signore Zanotti expertly crooned through a repertoire that seemed to have been taken directly from The Godfather movies. This period was used for our waiters to remove the main course. Most of us were happy to help out, save skinny lady opposite me, who took some persuading to part with her plate. We eventually managed to prise it out of her hands by replacing it with a baguette to munch on while she waited for the cheese course.
Signore Zanotti, who seemed able to sing non-stop for hours, was re-joined by his performers, this time looking ready for the Rio Carnival in Brazil. Their fantastic costumes bristling with feathers and other floaty accoutrements wowed the audience as they strutted their stuff and then can-canned their way around the stage. But this was just the start.
With boas bouncing they delighted us by flouncing down the steps and mingling on the dance floor. Small children gaped and cheered, and even cloth cap man next door to me removed his hat for a second to mop his brow before jamming it safely back in place. This event just kept on giving.
Still in full voice and with roving mike in hand, Signore Zanotti descended the stage steps and headed our way. Oozing with delight when chosen, some sang with him, others were able to sing on their own. Then he picked an impossibly old gentleman. The charitable side of me immediately felt compassion for this ancient of days – what a shame to cause him such exertion after all that camembert. I needn’t have worried. Without a single tooth in his head, he grabbed the mike and thrilled us with a rich baritone voice and intonations Pavarotti would have been proud of. This man was undoubtedly a plant.
Applause rocked the building when our soloist finished, which might have heralded the end of the song, but not a bit of it. This ballad had an infinite number of verses. And, to the evident delight of everyone present, signore continued his rounds until we finally arrived at the last one, which was massacred with great gusto by a lady who was having a marvellous time. We applauded her efforts until our hands stung, only subsiding to do battle with our digestifs. But it was for only a moment.
Signore Zanotti was still amongst the rank and file when he began singing the Neapolitan favourite O Sole Mio (unfortunately also known as Just One Cornetto). This was altogether too much for one of the diners. He seized the mike and finished off the song, once again entertaining us with a wonderfully powerful operatic voice. This chap was in his element. So much so that he held on to the mike, gathered a couple of his mates and headed for a raised platform. This was a potential worry. I wondered if poor signore had lost control of proceedings. However, the smile on his face suggested otherwise.
What followed was an a capella performance from three old codgers who almost sang like angels and caused the diners to yell with delight and holler out the choruses. They were huge crowd pleasers. But in the end even their energies were spent. They reluctantly returned the mike to signore and repaired to their seats to lap up the dregs of their gelato. With the professionalism of a true maestro, signore smoothed back to the sanctuary of the stage and sang to us until our meal was over and last sips of unusual digestif consumed.
Saying our goodbyes to our fellow guests took quite a while but we finally managed it, leaving skinny madame still in position, grazing contentedly on sprinkles of Parmesan. The weather had taken a turn for the worse. The rain was being blown sideways now, and puddles had become ponds. As we waited for Jack to get the car I wistfully considered the fate of my hat. It was probably halfway to Spain by now. Never mind, it was all too late to worry about stuff like that. We had spent another wonderful day in the company of our dearest friends, and I can’t wait for Italy to return to France.