Getting Back on the Bike

Get this! We went to a concert at the end of last week! It was nothing grand; no big names, no hot venue. It was free, in fact, and was held in the village square. But it was real, live music performed by real, live musicians in front of a real, live audience. And it was delightful.

We could have gone to a similar event a week earlier, but the Swing Band concert that kicked off the village’s modest Musica in Piazza programme this summer simply slipped our minds. Only it didn’t really slip our minds in the sense that we forgot the date or were just too busy to go. No, over the days that followed, it dawned on me that it was more as if we had somehow almost forgotten how going to an event worked. After so many months in lockdown during which, even when it became possible to move around freely, there was still nothing to do and nowhere to go, the staying in habit had become so ingrained and so familiar that we were out of practice with proactively going out, being sociable and having fun.

This dispiriting realisation jolted us into action, though. So in bright red capitals I immediately scrawled details of the following week’s concert – a soul quartet – on a large, fluorescent orange Post-it note that I stuck at eye level on the door of the fridge to make sure we both saw it every time we prepared a meal or poured a drink. And it worked. In fact, so firmly planted in our brains was this low-key outing that, come Friday, our anticipation was such that anyone would have thought we had got tickets to the opening night of the opera season at La Scala. But even that was part of it, really, as it had been so long since we had had something like this in the diary to look forward to.

To be honest, we came over all a bit too Anglo-Saxon about it – which showed just how out of practice we were. According to the poster we had seen outside the town hall, the concert was billed to start at 9.00pm. So, knowing that the most of the village centre would be closed to traffic, we pulled into the parking area just outside the ancient fortified walls that encircle the centro storico at about ten to nine, leaving us plenty of time to walk through the formidable Porta Ulpiana and up the cobbled hill lined with tall, elegant townhouses with their dark green shutters and geranium-filled window boxes, then down through the shady Piazzale Cesare Peruzzi dominated by the imposing Church of the Crucifix and its even more imposing neighbour, the Church of St Peter and St Paul, before arriving in the corner of the Piazza del Comune. On the far side, in front of the grand 14th century Palazzetto del Podestà with its sturdy bell tower stood a brightly lit stage with drum kit, keyboards and mike stands already set up for the performance, and to the left, in front of the graceful Palazzo Comunale (town hall), groups of people sat at tables that spilled out onto the square from the Pizzeria del Borgo and the neighbouring Caffé del Teatro, the sound of laughter and the clinking of crockery drifting across the square on the soft, pizza-scented breeze.

We ambled across the square and sat down at a table with a clear view of the stage, gave Cecilia our order and settled down ready for things to get going. As Simeone the café owner set our customary beer and Aperol spritz combo down in front of us, however, we noticed that even though the town clock was about to strike nine, the organisers hadn’t yet started setting out in rows the dozens of white plastic chairs that were stacked next to the stage, no one was champing at the bit to get seated, and there was no sign of any roadies, never mind any band members. And it was at this point we realised that over the previous eighteen months we had also forgotten that few events, especially informal local ones such as this, start anywhere near on time. We briefly cursed our lapse into our old, overly-punctual ways, but then, with the sky darkening from lavender to indigo, sat back to enjoy some long overdue people-watching as we sipped our drinks and picked at the selection of tasty morsels that are invariably served with drinks. It was such a pleasure to see the square teeming with life on a deliciously warm summer’s evening – and, despite a scattering of masks, all looking so wonderfully normal. Parents dishing out slices of freshly-baked, oozy pizza to their families, dumpy grandmas rocking babies to sleep, groups of leathery old men shooting the breeze, teenage couples staring dreamily into each other’s eyes over glasses of cola, children playing tag across the square, and toddlers happily dripping ice-cream down their fronts.

At about 9.30pm, a handful of men in black ‘crew’ T-shirts started setting out chairs in front of the stage and people began to take their seats. Shortly afterwards, another crew member checked the microphones and adjusted a couple of lights, then at just before 10pm, the band, comprising vocals, trumpet, keyboard and drums, finally took to the stage and without preamble launched into Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’.  In the context of the ongoing pandemic, starting their set with this track seemed a very apt choice, and as the words ‘When the night has come, and the way is dark / And that moon is the only light you see / No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid / Just as long as the people come and stand by me.’ rang out across the square, I found myself with a lump in my throat.

The band were really very good; they performed a selection of Soul and Motown hits, interspersed with Italian classics that got people clapping along and a couple of folk up on their feet. After a solid ninety minutes on stage, they brought their show to an end with a well-crafted medley of Soul/Disco crowd-pleasers that concluded with ‘I Will Survive’. And with its defiant chorus of No, not I, I will survive / Long as I know how to love / I know I’ll stay alive / I’ve got my life to live / And all my love to give and / I will survive’, it was another choice that surely can’t have been a coincidence…

In the end, though, the evening was ultimately less about the music than the sheer pleasure of reconnecting with the community and being among people united in the enjoyment of a shared experience.

And as for the whole going out thing, it seems it’s like riding a bike after all.

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