The man who couldn't get hot chocolate in Bremen

'What," said I to Lorraine, "is the French word for a cook?" Lorraine and her Yankee husband share a table with us here at Peradventure Plaza Penultimate, and during every meal we have a French lesson. Her folks were Canadian and she speaks it some old good. Lorraine looked at the ceiling briefly and said, "I don't know."

Our senior residence contemplates finding a cook, so the word was needed, but I couldn't remember hearing it. True, I could have said "one who makes to cook." Talleyrand said if it isn't clear, it's not in French. But I guess French lacks a word for cook. Cuisinier ("kitchener") isn't adequate. Lorraine settled everything by saying the cook in her family was called Grandmother.

In 1953, I first visited Paris and learned that the French word for "weekend" is le weekend. In that post-war year, I was on a State Department mission to Germany that was so secret I never knew what it was. I had a week in Paris while my protocol caught up with me. American Express found me a pension a short walk from Place de l'Étoile. I settled in, and at once a tap came to my door. It was my chambermaid, who spoke my first words of welcome to the lovely City of Lights.

Now get this! She said, and I quote, "Bonjour. Bienvenu! On m'appelle Lili. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" Lili was Alsatian, competent in both tongues, but no English. Her greeting was meant as a kindly choice of languages. French or German, it made no difference to her. I answered, "Ein wenig."

The next morning, she came early with my croissants and cup of hot chocolate. She definitely said Schokolade, and I was to remember my Lili for that good German word.

Now let us skip to 1966, when my wife and I disported throughout Europe for some months in a VW Beetle we bought in Wolfsburg. We had arrived in the Grimm fairy-tale city-state of Bremen to lodge in the Hotel Bremer Hospiz, which is no longer there.

It had a fine dining room, and on our third or fourth evening in Bremen, an interesting couple took the table next to ours. I smiled and said, "Guten Abend!" They seemed bewildered, apprehensive, and he said, "Bonsoir." The dining room had only the four of us, and our waitress was their waitress, a yellow-headed young lady who tried her English on us with a classroom accent and some success.

We said nothing more to the French couple as we ate. But as our meals approached the end, a disturbance arose at the other table. The waitress was standing bewildered, and the French gentleman was on his feet, pointing at a plate and saying, "Non! Non! Non!"

The plate had a chocolate candy in a wrapper, what we in the States would call a Hershey bar. It was the German equivalent, a Suchard bar. The Frenchman definitely did not want a Suchard bar. The waitress was insistent that he had asked for it. The battle had begun. Instantly, I had a déjà vu of Lili in Paris, and everything was as clear as Talleyrand would have it.

I stepped over and quelled the fury. "The gentleman," I said, "wants a cup of hot Schokolade." She brought it forthwith, and we were at peace. The waitress and the Frenchman thanked me in two languages. All because of Lili in Paris so many years ago. You never know when the French word for "cook" will come in handy.

The Frenchman told me, as he took his Schokolade, that he was from Chartres, where he was custodian of the cathedral's stained glass. The blue glass of Chartres is famous worldwide, he said. He repaired and restored the glass as needed. He'd been invited to Bremen to look at the stained glass in the cathedral to see if it needed attention. He might be in Bremen for some time, and he was pleased to know how to order hot chocolate.

When we came to Chartres, he said, be sure to visit him, as he would be delighted to escort us to the cathedral. We did come to Chartres, in time, but we did not look him up.

Well, at Domrémy we had picked up the Joan of Arc story, and we traced her across France. We at last found her astride her horse at Orléans, and left her victorious. Soon we came to the cathedral at Amiens, where she sat beside the Dauphin when he fulfilled her purpose by being crowned Charles VII.

We had indeed heard of the magnificent blues of Chartres, but we were unready for the reds of Amiens. The red glass of Amiens is jubilant, warm, joyful, glad, inviting. It is a spectacle of beauty for the eye and a comfort to the heart. Then we came to Chartres.

The blue glass seemed melancholic to us, suggesting the gloom of the mortuary. So we didn't ask to find the custodian of the Chartres glass. To us, the rosy glass at Amiens reminds of the maid in her success, with none of the later dirty work befogging the happier story. Instead of funereal solemnity, the depressing blues of Chartres bring to mind no more than a man who couldn't get hot chocolate in Bremen.

Speaking of the French word for cook, the whole matter devolves into seeing what you see, and saying it your own way. Suum cuique, that is. While we were in Bremen, a boy from our consulate told us about a tourist lady from the States who visited the 12th-century cathedral, was abundantly impressed, and asked if the church was originally Protestant or Catholic. He said, "Yes, madam, it was."

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