Toasting the Diplomat Musicians

The Vienna Review Gate Crasher tests out his diplomatic skills at an embassy gathering

Ambassador John McGregor’s exquisite piano playing echoes in my mind as we pass the Karlskirche to the French Embassy on Schwarzenbergplatz. We’ve just been to the annual “Ambassadors in Concert” at the Musikverein and, as we stroll along, my friend and I hotly debate the varied skills of diplomats and friends on the programme, among them the startling virtuosity of the former British envoy.

Thanks to my date, entrée to the former Palais Metternich is no problem. A slight, elderly man is standing in the entrance hall greeting the guests. This is surely the host himself.

“How do you do, Mon Excellence?’” The French Ambassador’s smile freezes and he turns away. At this awkward juncture to the great crisis of European debt, there is clearly no place for Anglo-Saxon facetiousness. I pad along the crimson pile, awed by the enormous portraits hanging on either side. “A David?” I casually ask the black-tied butler who has noiselessly appeared by my side. “Ah, non monsieur,” he says, shaking his head with heavy regret.

Well, I never believed the stories anyway: another faux pas – I seem to amass them these days, even with the girls, I ruefully smile, as two scent-laden septuagenarians go chugging past. On to the claret and the haute cuisine.

“There is a queue,” says a very tall bespectacled man severely, peering down at me.

“Ah,” I reply. He is right: I had inadvertently pushed in. A straddle of gently murmuring guests is stretching half way around the octagonal hall. Queues at an embassy buffet?

The gentleman carefully examines my get-up and seeing my patent leather shoes and sumptuous Royal Artillery cummerbund hastens to correct his earlier tone. “It is a wonderful occasion, isn’t it?” he adds, contorting his face into a sickly grin. A superior personage, he now decides. “Were you one of the performers?” he asks eyeing my tux. I smile, knowingly. I’m not even on the invitation list.

Suddenly the room begins to reverberate with a breathless howling. The echo of faint voices halts and the guests, as though by tacit agreement, put aside their small-talk and stare.

In the corner, standing defiant, is a group of three elegant black women on either side of a short, thick-set man who is speaking with a tipsy grin spread across a glistening face. He stops talking and the three ladies in unison toss their heads back and emit a wave of guffaws even more exuberant than the last. The all-too-proper audience watch alarmed and frowning, and begin to voice hushed disapproval: I know which side I am on. I stride up to them.

“You know where I can get a drink?” If anyone knows, surely these irresistible creatures. “Usually there’s a waiter at every elbow…”

“Hey man. We thought you were the waiter!” bellowed the heavy-set guy through a thick Texan drawl, gesturing at my outfit. The ladies meet this witticism with predictable glee.

“Are you joking? They ran out of wine half an hour ago,” says one of the women, “…and they’re saving the champagne for later!” I examined the almost bare food and wine table.

“There ain’t nothing but bread and cheese!” says the Texan with disgust, looking around just to make certain.
 Some guests have apparently begun to fend for themselves, and one guest has started helping himself to the champagne: Why didn’t I think of that?

An immaculately dressed man floats seamlessly across the carpet behind the drinks table. His thick-rimmed glasses, designer stubble and lithe frame spell trouble: He must be at least a 2nd Secretary. The cavalry has been sent in…

The Texan is oblivious. “I’ve got it! The Frenchies are goin’ broke!” he chuckles to himself. “They’re goin’ broke!” More laughter. This is better than a bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges.

On my way out, I pass the decimated buffet. “And they ran out of wine…,” a sour-faced woman is hissing. I think back to their sanctimonious disapproval of the Americans.

Maybe La France en Autriche has a point: Why waste money on this rabble?

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