09 May, 2007

a birthday night to remember

Well, many have asked and so here it is: Vincent's birthday dinner, at last. I would not have said that our stay in Marrakech could get any better, right up to Saturday evening, but then... it did.

And let me tell you, I have tried in vain to find a decent blog post about the restaurant he found for us, the famous Dar Yacout, but aside from the most basic entries with address and phone number, and yawn-making descriptions like "it was just as wonderful as we expected," there is nothing helpful about the place online. I'm not one to complain about my fellow bloggers, but I do think the restaurant, and the sort of evening you will have there, deserves a really good go as a writer. So here it is: I'll do my best.

There is, first of all, something about men in black tie, or DJs (dinner jackets!) as both Mike and Boyd opted for, that brings out the olde-world gallantry so sadly lacking in our daily lives. For some reason, donning the old James Bond look makes gentlemen out of guys who normally would think nothing of shutting a taxi door right in their wives' faces or taking the best piece of tenderloin at dinner. So when we all appeared in the candlelit central courtyard of the riad, the ladies in flowing dresses, the sight of, let's see, six men in full regalia was most stimulating and sexy! They were divided, however, by their relative comfort level with ties: John caves to fear and wears one that's already tied, but hooks in the back, where Vincent and Peter appeared fully tied from the ground up, and Boyd sat looking disconsolate with his tie untied. Although he eventually got it all set, we agreed later in the evening that actually the coolest look of all is... untied. Looking like you don't care. But you're in a dinner jacket, so clearly you do. "I have had this dinner jacket since the 1970s," he said proudly (I think in part because most men are proud of never spending any money on clothes, and making things last forever, but he was thwarted in this because he looked incredibly dashing, with the perfect debonair physique to carry it off).

A strong wind had risen, blowing the flower petals all around the pool and making the candles flicker, and unbelievably we were only half an hour late getting started, with many flashbulbs and lots of laughter. Vincent had hired three horse-drawn caleches to carry us through the streets, and there were sleighbells! Astonishingly, our elegant procession got very little attention, probably because in general the activity on a typical Marrakech street is so varied, bizarre, colourful and exotic that the sight of a bunch of white people in tuxedos and a lot of jewelry isn't particularly interesting. We seemed to pass through the entire city, arriving finally at a completely nondescript alleyway, stepping down from our carriages and being led by a charmingly courtly man down a long passage until we reached the door of the ornate riad housing the restaurant, Dar Yacout. It's the most outrageously luxurious building you can imagine, fully tiled in the brightest blues, yellows and reds, mirrors everywhere, all the waiters wearing what I suppose to be traditional garb of long flowing red robes and matching hats, appropriately festively tasseled. We were led straight up to the rooftop terrace, commanding an unbelievable view of all Marrakech, lights glittering glamorously in the distance. Alas, it was too chilly and windy to stay very long (since stupidly I had not bought one of the millions of pashminas on offer at the souk! Pamela looked gorgeous in her bright orange shawl), so we descended again into a velvety lounge and sipped champagne.

I have to say, I know she's my child, but I was so proud of Avery for being, although the only child, able to fit in with adults she had just met a few days before, with little shared inside jokes with everyone and a total enjoyment of everyone's personality. Everyone made a huge effort to include her (I hold in my memory particularly the sight of Pam and Avery sitting by the flower-filled pool while Pam quite seriously listened intently to whatever story Avery was telling, secure in the knowledge that she was with someone who respected her). And Avery looked so pretty, too. All around us was the sound of traditional Moroccan music played live by a pair of musicians on the other side of a tiled wall. It seemed impossible that somewhere, people were mowing the lawn in Iowa, doing homework in London, answering the phones at investment banks in New York. Reality seemed to be entirely an evening of totally exotic luxury, bolstered up by the effortless generosity of our host. Vincent has a gift of being able to draw people together without being bossy, to organise activities without being overbearing, and to teach you things you didn't know without making you feel dumb. So I, control freak that I normally am, was perfectly content to sit back and bask in NOT being in charge, and know that delicious things were about to come my way.

And they did. We sat down to dinner, at an amazing table covered with patterns of mosaic tile and mother-of-pearl, all of us absolutely starved (aside from the hasty purchase by Mike of a handful of pastries and a bottle of water for us to share, we had gone all day without food!). And it was not for nothing. The waiters simply continued to bring dishes. We began with the array of vegetables that we had seen at lunch the day before, but much more elaborately presented. And with the expected carrots, aubergines, courgettes, picked cucumbers, and I can't even remember what else, there was a sweet relish of tomatoes with honey that I would love to be able to replicate. Then came enormous, and I mean enormous pottery platters piled high with fragrant djez makalli, the traditional slow-cooked chicken dish with preserved lemons and olives that I love so much. Right now I have an entirely invented version sitting on my stovetop (in the beautiful beanpot Vincent gave me for Christmas!), so if it turns out well I'll let you know.

I was lucky enough to be seated between Boyd and Pete, and across from my handsome husband who was seated next to Avery. Pete and I looked over, and he said something incredibly kind and moving about their relationship, how lucky they were to have each other, how having John in her life will make her a happy person. Mostly we sat quietly and discussed happiness. What does it require, how do you get it, how do you make relationships work with all the quirky personalities we all have, how the children we were became the adults we are. Pete is such a steady, trustworthy, yet gleefully irreverent person; he makes it perfectly possible to have a very deep and important conversation and yet at that same time be completely relaxed and happy. At some point someone clinked a wineglass and we sang "Happy Birthday" to Vincent, who tried to look annoyed and said, "You are all very, very bad." But he couldn't hide his smiles.

Finally, however, Avery began to flag (granted it was nearly midnight at the time, poor child), so she came and sat on my lap, trying to be comfortable. It didn't work. "Do you mind my being on your lap, Mummy?" "If you wiggle the whole time, yes!" I had to admit. John came over and said he would take her back and we'd meet up at the riad when dinner was finished (dessert had not even come! it was a truly gargantuan feast). So they headed out, and huge platters of... hmmm, what to call it? I must do some research. Basically it was giant, light, delicate, crunchy pastry covered with liquidy crystalline sugar. Like the pastry containing the chicken pie at lunch the day before, but just pastry. It crackled into triangular portions and I'm ashamed to say we all dug in, although we can't have been hungry by then. But it was sublime. Then coffees, and teas, and finally we all piled out of the restaurant and into several taxis and were sped home (much faster and less glamorous than horse-drawn carriages!).

Did I mention the riad doorbell? Would you believe me if I told you that when you press it, the sound of birds chirping rings inside? How does Brigitte tell the difference between the bell and the hundreds of real birds chirping in the bougainvillea in the courtyard? To amuse me Mike pressed it twice, and she came running, "on arrive, on arrive," and we all crowded into the dark vestibule. In the distance I could see... John, in Avery's lighted bedroom. At one a.m.? I confess that for a moment I had some "only a father would let the child get away with staying up any later!", when Avery came rushing out of her room. "We got lost! Nearly kidnapped! The taxi driver took us to El Dorado, and then when we finally got back, a drunk man tried to take us down a dark alleyway..." Poor John! And I could only imagine the state I would have been in if we got back and they weren't there. Oh dear. A fitting and dramatic end to quite the most sublimely decadent evening. Everyone called "good nights" and disappeared into the dark corners of the riad, John and I sang to Avery, and finally I curled up with a single-malt scotch and tried to read, but the dopey mystery I had chosen was totally eclipsed by all the images of the evening, images and flavours and songs and sleighbells. And friendship, old and new. Quite perfect.

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