The first weekend in August was Mathew and Lena’s visit. Let me give you a little background about who these people are. Lena and I met in St. Petersburg…in a four-hour queue. A month later, we made a memorable train trip to Murmansk, an Arctic city of 200,000 or so that we found in my Lonely Planet. It looked rather close on the map, however, we had a memorable conversation when we looked at the train tickets.
“Something’s wrong here…”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the dates. This is not a four-hour train trip; it’s twenty-eight hours one way!”
Not a big deal actually, it saved us one night’s stay in our two-star hotel. We did end up spending two and a half calendar days in a train in order to see a puppet show, a crafts fair and a war memorial and be able to tell our parents that we’d been above the Arctic Circle. But fun nonetheless.
And spontaneous. That is the way Lena operates. She appeared on Skype for the first time in three years awhile back, and emailed me not long after. “When can we come?” she said, “we” being her and her new husband.
That scene probably brings to mind a giddy, jumpy, 18-year-old, but no, Lena is a doctoral student, older, smarter and more serious about most things than me. She just has a delightful spontaneous streak.
I picked a weekend and, bang, they came indeed. They arrived on a Friday and I came to collect them at Bern Belp airport, probably the tiniest airport in any world capital. Lena and I immediately picked up the loose ends of a conversation we had begun three years ago about travel, current events, feminist philosophy and chocolate. We went to my place and lingered, gigglingly, over the cooking of vegetable fried rice, because each of us had our own individual idea of how to cook fried rice! The mélange of methods, though, turned out fine. Although I suppose everything tastes fine when fried eggs and enough soy sauce are involved. We’d invited my friend Antoine, a guy from Congo-Kinshasa who lives in Fribourg, but he suddenly stopped returning my text messages and never did show up. More on that later.
They went back to the inn they had chosen with the cozy double room, the free neverending coffee (fantastic for both of them) and the motherly German landlady (who added pumpernickel bread to the breakfast tray after learning about Lena’s wheat allergy, and offered me a coffee on two occasions even though I was not a guest).
The next day we took a walk around Bern with all the standard tourist sights included- the botanical garden, the bridges over the Aare, the Merkur chocolate shop, the Munster, Marktgasse, Stauffacher’s Bookshop, Helvetiaplatz, the Altes Tramdepot, the bear pits. Mathew bought us some fantastic burritos in Marktgasse. Lena and I, of course, went bug-eyed from the moment we smelled the inside of Merkur with its nutty slabs of chocolate in various shades and its big knobbly truffles laid out like jewelry. We bought a quarter pound (or whatever the metric equivalent is, it’s two in the morning for heavens sake) and sat in the park and, one by one, finished off our treasures. Honey, caramel, amaretto, cappuccino, nougat…
While we were at the botanical gardens, Antoine called. It turned out he had driven in from Fribourg and found my place, but his phone had run out of batteries before he could call and tell me he was out front.
“You could have done it the old fashioned way and rung the doorbell,” I said.
“Bu my phone didn’t work!”
“But what does that have to do with ringing the doorbell?”
“My phone didn’t work!”
“But what does that have to do with–”
As some might say, epic communication fail.
We actually did a lot. Mathew, a softspoken computer scientist who is a damned good amateur photographer and has a damned good amateur photographer type camera, snapped rolls of pictures of plants at the botanical gardens, bears at the bear pits…and just of Lena and I making faces. We climbed the Munster cathedral tower and looked out over the whole of Bern while Mathew, a former church bell ringer, told us about the properties of this that and the other bell.
That evening for dinner I felt the need for something a bit special. I had invited Antoine and Irina, and of course Mathew and Lena. I was hosting a dinner party for five, and I needed a little magic. Enter Salim, who gave me instructions over the phone for making yassa. He laughed at first (“YOU’RE going to make Senegalese food?”) but was sweet enough to give me step by step instructions. I bought the wrong kind of the second to last ingredient, bouillon, and I think in my stress I forgot the last ingredient, “un peu de magie,” entirely. So it wasn’t quite yassa, but it was a perfectly edible rice dish with chicken, onions and two different kinds of red peppers. Then I realized the actual dilemma.
Antoine speaks no English.
Irina speaks no French.
Antoine and Mathew speak no Russian.
Mathew and I understand German, but don’t speak it.
Sweet party gods, we had four lovely guests, good food, a pleasant selection of both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks– but no common language!
We settled on alternating between a sort of pidgin German and an unwieldy method of trying to do simultaneous interpretation of oneself while alternating between any of the four languages. By the end of it we had not talked about anything of earth-shattering significance, but Antoine’s new dream was to “go in Ecosse and try this haggis” and we all five of us had split our sides laughing. Antoine, Irina and I went out dancing after that and despite the fact that it was a sweaty, mediocre bar, had a lovely time.
To be continued…