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.   


  1. Wonderful descriptions, Beth! We almost don’t need the photos, but they are marvellous too. I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to get here, but I’m glad I have! Your story telling skills are amazing!

  2. Oh gosh, Val, there's no need to apologise at all. Thanks very much for reading my blog, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Our bucket list has now been extended to include a trip to Venice and the carnival!