‘Has he gotten to the verb yet?’ we asked Elizabeth.
We were listening to a speech at a birthday party for an old friend.
Alas, the speech was in German, a language we don’t speak. Still, we laughed at the jokes along with everyone else, just to be convivial.
All we know about German is that the verb often comes at the end. So, if you haven’t heard the verb, there’s more to come…
We don’t speak Portuguese either. But it is a Romance language. If you speak French or Spanish, you can read a Portuguese menu.
You still won’t understand the spoken language; it sounds more like Polish than French. But it is easy to communicate in a kind of Mediterranean ‘desperanto’…the waiters are used to it.
By the way, we invented ‘desperanto’ ourselves. Many years ago, we worked as a busboy in a clinic in Switzerland, where everyone in the kitchen seemed to hate everyone else.
The old cook was Italian; she detested the manager. The manager, a trim, tidy, almost sexy French woman of about 35, held everyone in contempt.
The dishwasher was Spanish; he made a rude gesture to the manager and the chef de cuisine whenever their backs were turned.
The rest of the staff were a mixture of Mediterranean misfits…none of whom seemed to speak the same language and none of whom were willing to speak with the others anyway.
Coming into this work environment, 19 years old, with a bare grasp of French and Spanish, we were the only one in the entire kitchen against whom the others held no grudge.
Soon, we were passing orders and information between them all…leaving us no alternative but to improvise a common tongue, the aforementioned ‘desperanto’ — a mush of vaguely Latinate words without verb tenses.
The lingo worked perfectly well for simple phrases — two pieces of toast… Where’s the butter?… She wants you to sweep the floor… Are there any clean spoons?… She says you’re fired…and so forth.
But it was entirely inappropriate for philosophical inquiries or political discussions and was, no doubt, abandoned immediately upon our departure.
Porto, Portugal, where we have just visited, is much like many cities of southern Europe.
It is sunny. Ancient. With stone walls, terraced fields, sidewalk dining, and vineyards and olive trees in the gardens.
Bonn, Germany — where our business partners have an office…and our next destination after Porto — is a whole ‘nuther thing.
30 degrees cooler. Rainy. Newer. With solid, Teutonic houses…and massive, modern apartment complexes made of concrete. Everyone speaks English, except the immigrants.
In Bonn, for example, many of shops and restaurants have signs in Arabic. And many of the people you see on the streets are from North Africa or the Levant.
Porto could have been almost anywhere in the south of Europe; Bonn could have been almost anywhere in the north.
Arriving in Germany, with its grey skies and damp streets, at first, we wanted to turn around and go back to Portugal. But then, there is something fetching about the soggy leaves and the cool nights of autumn.
The birthday party took place on a riverboat. About 150 people came on board — old…young…very young.
One cute little girl with curly red hair, about two years old, came clutching a worn-out but much loved stuffed bunny rabbit, which she refused to put down, even to give a hug to the guest of honour.
The party began with cocktails and speeches, settled onto cushy benches for a rich and abundant luncheon, which was flushed down with a lavage of German beer or wine…and followed by the most remarkable flourish of cakes and pies we have ever seen.
There were dozens of them…each one richer than the one before — cheesecakes…flans…mousses…strudels.
‘Go on, Hans…’ one of them kidded another… ‘if you gain a few pounds, no one will even notice.’
We tried several of them…and fell into a hazy trance from which we didn’t recover until we got to Paris the following day.
And while thus befuddled, on the train from Bonn to Paris on Sunday, we turned our attention back to our regular beat, money.
We fear we may have left you with a misimpression.
With the re-election of Shinzō Abe in Japan…the taming of Donald J Trump in America…and the continued presence of Mario ‘Whatever It Takes’ Draghi at the head of the Eurozone’s central bank, it looks as if the coast is clear for a huge, unstoppable spending-borrowing-pumping spree.
But not so fast. There’s a major slip ‘twixt this cup and the lip…more on that tomorrow.
Today, let’s finish our story…
In addition to the good food, good company, and good cheer in Bonn was some good entertainment. A church choir sang gospel songs, to which everyone clapped, some with a little northern European self-consciousness.
Then the Birthday Boy’s wife brought out bagpipes!
‘We took a trip to Scotland,’ her husband explained. ‘She was enchanted by the bagpipes. She came back here and learned to play them; the German version, that is.’
We didn’t know there was a German bagpipe. Neither do most Germans.
Up and down the Rhine we went…eating, drinking, chatting, and being entertained. It was a nice way to mark a 60th birthday.
And finally, as the sun set over the river…we bid farewell to our host…and walked up the gangplank.
It was then that tragedy struck.
A scream came from the boat behind us. Looking back, we saw the little girl with red hair in her father’s arms…
‘Ahhhh…aiyyyy…’ The poor little girl was inconsolable.
What was wrong?
‘Look, down there,’ said Elizabeth.
And there, in the cold, fast-flowing Rhine was a faded blue bunny, floating face down…and headed to the North Sea.
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