house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A Christmas Dinner

Almost Christmas and – for the first time EVER – I go to a Christmas dinner. It's with a group I teach, as part of the Senior University of Monção. These are retired people attending a municipal programme of various classes: Current Events, Literature, Health Issues, IT, English, Aquafit, Manual Skills. Most are retired teachers who simply can't stay away from school. A bunch of really nice ladies, and a few gentlemen. The former teachers are intransigent with each other and religious about homework.

Between school and dinner, I must one) shop, two) write evaluations for twenty pupils, three) wash up and four) cook a meal for the kids. Cooking is last, squeezed in a 10 minute interval other women might have (wisely) left to hair & makeup, or just makeup, or just 'final touches'. Final touches in my case included an elegant spattering of cooking oil and a freshly steamed coiffure.

And phew – I get there, late and sweating. I have dark rings under my eyes, the fingers of a slovenly gardener and a long fringe plastered to my forehead. Behind the said forehead there's an endless roll of children's names, marks, desperately diplomatic report wordings. I walk in and almost turn around again. The venue is the best hotel / restaurant in town. A restored convent, white stone and ancient wood, elegant. There's a room full of fresh-looking, sophisticated people. I barely recognise my 'pupils': everyone seems to have gotten a makeover for the occasion. The mayor is there and an important-looking delegation from the municipality. Oops.

Bits of the evening pass in a blur, thankfully. Others shine like beacons across the bay – the extraordinary bits and the embarrassing, mainly. Must I go on?

For example, why did the owner of the-hotel-and-half-the-town decide to sit right next to me? No, I didn't open the conversation with 'wow-how-tasteless-is-this-place-huh?' or anything like that. Of course, I had no idea who she was but worked it out sharpish by the fact that everyone around appeared eager to lick her sturdy pumps. There were endless shouts of 'Donna A.' from around the room and her phone never stopped ringing. She looked dour, she dressed like someone very scary from the bleakest Dickens, and she didn't say much (except on the phone) – but when she did, it was sweet little things, surprisingly kind and down-to-earth.

Then there was the Dinner. Just as I had come to love my diet of salads and roast chestnuts, here I was faced with a tepid, deep orange Prawn Bisque. It had the heaviness of liquid plutonium, under a dollop of haute cuisine white foam reminiscent of fluey spittle.

Everyone at the table ate with relish, every last drop of the horror. Next to Donna A., I had to plunge in as well. Can I stop here, please? One month has passed and typing the memory still brings the bile up. I SHALL be nauseous I swear, but for a little chocolate. Phew, there.

Next came the bacalhau, on a layer of greens, on a bed of mashed chickpeas, on a pedestal of pastry. I shall never understand why the Portuguese are so hooked on bacalhau. It's only dry salted fish for the love of food! Still, nothing could have been worse than that diabolical bisque, so the bacalhau was also gobbled up under the stern eye of Donna A. To swallow a cannonball might feel the same.

Before the puddings, a musical interlude. My pupils had bravely decided to sing English carols and here we were, warbling The Little Drummer Boy, then dragging our bacalhau bellies back to the table. It went well, and I won't talk about desert for a very simple reason: if you produce a large tableful of varied puddings NONE of which raise the saliva count of the person writing this blog, your national cuisine NEEDS A REVOLUTION. (It also means I'm in the right country and get a little virtual pat on the shoulder.)

If the meal was memorable, the post-meal entertainment touched on the surreal. It consisted of a long speech by the mayor, mainly on the difference between knowledge and wisdom. This elicited a long reply by the chef, mainly on the complex training and psychological profile that made the prawn bisque possible for us tonight... This created an opening for a long speech by the Current Affairs tutor, who in reality never stopped speaking the whole night.

This time he spoke about.... wait. I have NO IDEA what he spoke about. I only remember a sexist, ageist joke he told at some point. About an old woman who wanted to kill herself and, to be sure, asked the doctor where the heart was And he said Under the left breast And she shot herself in the knee HAHA. I was ready to shoot him in his heart (i.e. the left testicle) – when he went on and offered to tell the joke again, for any blondes in the audience. Bye bye both testicles and, in my reverie, I was just getting started.

… because what followed was a jokeathon starring the Mayor and Senhor Current Affairs, briefly interrupted by a young Mr. Bean lookalike dropping on his knee, calling one of my pupils 'Princeza' and bursting into fado. The prawn bisque was reaching a critical stage in its journey through the digestive tract and threatening a catastrophic chain reaction. Some of my pupils were falling asleep still muttering 'rum pum pum pum/me and my drum'. The two Jokers were still dueling on the public scene. I was rehearsing the virtues of a dash of arsenic in the tureen (one virtue, really: a quicker death), when suddenly we popped out of the Horror Bubble. People were standing up, exchanging Festive Wishes, wafts of perfume and bisque breaths.

It was midnight. The charm was broken. We walked out dizzy, sore, changed, ready for our separate sleepless nights.


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