Brought Together By Dessert
A STORY in the paper says a motorist had trouble finding the beach because of a faulty map. The story suggests the map was probably like one that Columbus used. Except, of course, that Columbus used charts, and they were much more sophisticated than you might think.
I've seen some of the charts available to Columbus, and that puts me in mind of Dominique Beaulieu, whose romance I assisted some years ago. I met `Minick in the library of the University of Freiburg, where he was having trouble speaking French to a German attendant. One thing led to another, and I invited `Minick and his Alsatian girlfriend to take supper with me at a Freiburg restaurant that was famous for its inedible cake. You can see how Columbus comes to mind.
Dominique, as is his invented name, turned out to be a French-speaking Acadian from Maine's St. John Valley, a native-born United States citizen attached, at that time, to one of the missions connected with our occupation of Germany. His native tongue was the 300-year-old French of Canada's first settlers from Europe - not all the dispersed Acadians of Grand Pre went to Louisiana with Evangeline Bellefontaine. His girlfriend was on the staff of the French consulate, and it also turned out that he had nearly as much trouble speaking French to her as he had with German to the librarian. Which does make sense.
The girlfriend, being from Alsace, was bilingual in French and German, and `Minick, being from the valley, was competent in French and English. Their problem was being separated by their common French. She told me, ``He speaks like Montaigne.'' As he should. Acadian French has had no dealings with France since the days of Montaigne, and in that respect is older than the French of ``habitant'' Canada.
The early cabins of the ``colons'' had lofts for ``upstairs,'' and the word ``staircase'' never came to America with those settlers. They gained a loft by a ladder, and in our valley today the French word for a ladder is often the French word for a flight of stairs. The three of us had a most pleasant supper, and in a small way I felt I had helped love along in a time of need.
The cake helped. This restaurant was removed in the postwar reconstruction of Freiburg, but at the time had a standing offer about the cake. Having eaten a meal, it would cost you nothing if you could struggle down the dessert cake, and so plentiful was the meal, and so formidable the cake, that few who attempted the one after the other succeeded.
That lovely evening, holding hands with the young lady, whose invented name escapes me now, `Minick decided he would attempt the cake. I remember the young lady withdrew her hands to clap them with encouragement, and then replaced them across the table in front of me. I assured `Minick I had money enough to pay l'addition. It mattered not if he finished his gateau or not. Very erudite evening.
I never saw either of them again, although I had an announcement of their wedding, and for several Christmases thereafter I had cards. I went back to the library the next day and the attendant, who was also Alsatian and bilingual, asked me what kind of French my friend was attempting. So I had a good look at the charts by which Columbus undoubtedly sailed to the West Indies, and I looked through the magnifying lens that was poised over the glass case to emphasize the signature, ``Amerigo.'' Charts in the days of Columbus were well made, and those of Vespucci amazingly complete. We have some right to assume that Columbus knew very well where he was going.
Dominique failed on his cake. Less than halfway through, he pushed the plate away and gave up.
``That's all?'' the young lady asked. Clearly disappointed with her beau, considering that everybody in the restaurant had been watching him, she turned to our waiter and asked for the cake. Dominique and I, and everybody else, sat and watched her polish it off. Every shred.
The headwaiter came with a receipt in full for her supper, a gold card lettered with her name and the date. She bowed at well-wishers and smiled a bit too much. Dominique said nothing until we parted by the restaurant exit, and then he thanked me for supper and said good night. I walked one way to my pension, and `Minick and his love, hand in hand, strolled off in the other.