After I had mopped up following the concert (and they were tears of joy not tears of laughter), it was time to walk back to the primary school for our Festive Dinner. The canteen had been transformed, with tablecloths and table runners and napkins and flowers; there were platters of open sandwiches, and little canapes, which we didn’t eat because we weren’t sure if we should, and there were no plates. This was the last night we would all be together, because the Portuguese delegation returns home tomorrow. So while dinner was being finalised, Czech Republic presented each partner country with a gift. Each presentation was photographed at least five times (it was like being the Queen, honestly). Then Bea presented Leos with his gift (he didn’t open it, so I still don’t actually know what it was), and when she was invited to make a speech (her words to Leos having been drowned by applause), she said ‘I would just like to say: it’s dinner time.’ That’s the kind of speech I like.
It was probably the most delicious dinner I’ve had since leaving England: a slice of sirloin (served with a squirt of cream and a slice of lemon, which I ditched, and a spoon of cranberry sauce, which I didn’t) in a ‘special sauce’ which tasted a little like pureed vegetable soup, but in a good way; and slices of dumpling, a herby one and a plain one, both light and both delicious. I had lots of slices of dumpling. I needed to mop up the sauce, and it was just … so … mmm …
And there was a selection of desserts – delicious pastries and cakes.
And there was a coffee machine which made the most fantastic cafe macchiato.
And there was rose wine to drink when I wasn’t drinking coffee.
So, all in all, an excellent meal.
When everybody had reached the replete and chatting stage, two of the school’s staff members tuned up a violin and a guitar, and started to play. Sometimes they played things people recognised and joined in with (‘Come and sing together’ was one, a guide song; they had Czech words, but I sang the ones I knew); sometimes they played folk music without words. After a while Leos took out his saxophone and joined in, and then the headteacher got out her accordian. Leos played ‘It’s now or never’ (actually he might have played the proper Italian one), and some people started to dance; this inspired somebody else to suggest the Birdie Song, and when we flapped our arms to indicate that we too knew this, that was the next piece. We all did brilliantly at the actions, but as a group failed miserably at the twirling from one to another between choruses. It didn’t matter; there was music and laughter.
After this, Leos introduced the teachers and students who were with us; and then he played ‘Rock around the clock’, which was far too energetic for me, so I declined to dance. But when I took a cigarette break at the front of the school, I could hear very faintly the music inside, and I suddenly felt an enormous sadness that this day was nearly over. I had not looked forward to it at all, so all the enjoyment had caught me by surprise. And now it was nearly time to go back to the hotel.
But only nearly. The Slovaks went first, because they had pupils here who were clearly sleepy. We were given the opportunity to go now, and I almost took it, because I knew otherwise I would be late back and writing until the small hours (the earliest we would get back if not going on the minibus’s first journey would be 10pm). But I really didn’t want the evening to end, so I stayed. And then the party really got going.
Every so often, the impromptu orchestra of violin, accordian, guitar and saxophone would play a tune we recognised: ‘Take me home, country road’ was one, and I sang it lustily, despite not really knowing the words (although I think I’d worked out most of them by the finish). During this song I noticed a lot of blue flashes outside; I thought it might be the police (we walked past both the police station and the fire station twice today, swoon swoon). After a while, I realised it was a massive thunderstorm. I mean, really massive, the sort where at home we’d crowd round the windows to get a good view. But the Czechs just carried on playing. Another song, I knew I knew it just from the introduction, but it was only when we actually reached the line ‘These boots were made for walking …’ that I properly recognised it.
It was the Polish delegation which requested (by the simple device of singing it to demonstrate) ‘Yellow Submarine’, which was one everybody knew (stitch that, Olympics); there was a ‘La la la’ type song which again I recognised but couldn’t place; and then ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah’ (which I know, but only with the words ‘He jumped from forty thousand feet without a parachute’. Leos reminded us of the proper words.) There had earlier been some discussion among the Czech musicians about an easy Czech folk song they could teach us; this now resolved itself into something that involved touching parts of the face, but there was some disagreement among the musicians about how it went. I mimed the actions to show we also have a song like this, but then I had to sing it for them.
And that is how I ended up leading an orchestra of Czech musicians, and a circle of representatives from eight European countriues, in ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes.’ Just a few hours earlier I had listened to the accordians playing Boney M and thought that life could not possibly get better. But here it was. And after we’d done the English version, I swapped places with one of the Czechs, and she led us in the Czech version.
Eventually, of course, we did have to go home. We sang ‘Auld lang syne’ (one day I really must look up the words) and then started to pack ourselves into the minibus. I was in the front back seat (if that makes sense) and automatically put on the lap belt.
To get us all into the minibus, we had to squash an extra person into each row. So we were very cosy, and there were no seatbelts in use at all (even the driver didn’t bother). The storm had ended in Vitkov so we drove through moonlight, under the stars, but with occasional flashes of lightning way over on the horizon. There was a radio playing some music but mostly I just listened to the conversations on the bus. Dave is brilliant, and I mean truly awesome, at finding common ground with the different delegates, even those who really don’t have much English (although everybody’s is better now than it was a week ago, except mine: I thought the word Martina wanted at the castle was ceiling rose, but it turned out to be chandelier). So Dave and David at the back were talking with Bea about pop music.
In the second row, Renata and Doris from Poland were talking with Salvador from Spain. The conversation was going well. Renata and Doris were talking about the word Hallelujah, which of course had been in one of the songs we’d sung. As is the way when two people are not speaking in their native tongue, to a third person with yet another native tongue, it took a while to get round to the actual point, which was:
‘People in Spain, they use the word ‘Hallelujah’ a lot. Why?’
And Salvador replied, quite simply, ‘I don’t know.’
Further discussion established that not only did Salvador not know, but he didn’t use the word himself, and had never heard any other Spaniard use it. So it’s going to remain one of those international mysteries. But by this time ‘The Great Pretender’ was playing on the radio; and it seemed fitting that we arrived at the hotel just as the singalong (well, all right – my singalong) came to a close.
What a wonderful, wonderful day.
And I’ve extended it by two and half hours.
I may not be at my best at breakfast in the morning.