Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cymbals and pinwheels

At 9 o'clock on Sunday morning I heard the fanfare, loud and slightly wonky. It was coming closer.

They were back.

The Complesso Bandistico Italiano was marching along St. Viateur in honour of San Marziale.

I first heard them on my very first morning at the corner of St. Viateur almost 20 years ago after a long hot day of moving and a late night of unpacking. As it was then, the recurring crash of early-morning cymbals and the honking brass remained impossible to ignore.

Back then I looked out my window and saw a band made up of old men in uniform, with gold braid on their hats. The trumpet and trombone players had music clipped to their horns. Where did they come from? What were they doing here? And how much longer were they going to be making this noise?

While I still don't know all the answers, over the years I became familiar with the festival of San Marziale, the patron saint of Isca Sullo Ionio, the Calabrian birthplace of many Italian Montrealers who originally settled in Mile End, and then moved north to St. Leonard and Laval.

I learned that the early morning marching band was a prelude to the disco hits and Italian classics that another band would blast out from the stage on my corner. The decibel level of their renditions of "I Will Survive" and "Volare" was floor-shaking and ear-splitting, even with all my doors and windows closed.

There was always a ceremony in Italian for the saint, a blessing by the priest; folk dancing, and free pasta cooked up in huge vats on the patio of Café Olimpico.

The morning after San Marziale the street would be adrift with saintly raffle tickets that losers tossed to the wind late at night, once the winners of bikes and trips to Italy had been announced.

I turned into Old Sneep, the grumpy lemon-sucking character in the children's book Lentil who frowns on the festivity of a marching band. In my case, it was the throbbing sound system of the Italian wedding band that made me ornery. I would slam out of my door during "Dancing Queen," stepping impatiently around the families sitting on my steps eating pasta. I'd escape to a movie, careful not to come home until it was all over. Sometimes I went out of town to avoid the whole thing.

But this year, as I ate breakfast and heard the first faint oompah-pah it was different. My two-year-old daughter looked at me and said: "I want to go see the music."

So we went. There was a day-long spectacle on our doorstep, the perfect way to occupy a toddler from morning until night.

Was it just me, or was the disco band less deafening than usual? When we came inside for a break, I sang along to "Besame Mucho" and "Guantanamera." It was just one day, after all, why be annoyed?

We went back outside and in a thick cloud of smoke in front of The Social Club, we got a grilled Italian sausage. We ran into all kinds of neighbours and friends. We watched the final round of the marching band and then clapped and waved a pinwheel as kids whirled through Italian folk dances in bright vests and skirts.

The night was warm and gusty – made for pinwheels – and the street looked different. For a moment, old Italians had taken back the neighbourhood. They sat in lawn chairs, and observed the festivities, outnumbering groovy young Mile Enders.

As it grew dark and her bedtime came and went, Amelia kept looking at me. "Not go inside! Not go home!" she insisted, as if I were about to whisk her away from all the fun.

She was right, I might have, except there was no point trying to go to sleep at our place.

We lined up for the last batch of free penne with tomato sauce at 10:30. We ate it on a neighbour's dim stoop, half-way down the block where things were a little quieter.

Full of late-night pasta, she fell asleep during the raffle, the last event of the evening.

The next morning when we looked out the window, the Fernand Femia electricians were already pulling down the festive strings of coloured flags and lights. The Ville de Montreal was hauling away the portable stage. Festa di San Marziale, finito for another year.

I had a newfound appreciation for the marching band and blaring disco tunes, for the lights and crowds and vats of pasta. So the morning after felt a little like the day the Christmas decorations come down, the end of something special.