Three Days in Germany
To Henri Poincaré art and science were much the same,
from all possible combinations we choose what to put in
and what to leave out, picking a perfect flower from a wet
bouquet. I wanted to call this report Three German Tales
but they’re all one story. It was raining the second day
Professor and Madame went from Frankfurt to Heidelberg
by train, a light drizzle falling against their first class windows.
Thirty years had passed since he last came here
in order to teach U.S. Army doctors about the brain.
Age had converted him from one end of the bed
to the other. On the street it was hard for his ankle
to walk the cobbles; everywhere else he looked for flat paving
stones but at the ruined castle in the side of the mountain
it was hard to step care-free. Clouds came
and stayed, the trees on the Philosopher’s Walk glowed green.
Near the mouth of the courtyard a plaque he couldn’t read—
probably said ‘here stood Goethe watching the moon dizzy
with love.’ And across the broken stones the Weinstube
restaurant where once he ate wild boar from the Black Forest
covered in almonds and ox-tail soup with passion.
The day before the castle the Professor and his wife
went to the Städel in Frankfurt, going floor to floor, stopped dead
by an unknown Flemish Master and a Bellini Madonna painted
Venetian blue. It was his father’s birthday but no longer necessary
to call. At last they stood before Tischbein’s famous portrait of Goethe
reclining in the Roman compagna like a courtier, wearing
an enormous black hat, a pigeon-gray smock and two left-footed shoes.
Did the great brain forget to properly dress the morning he posed
or is it true poets are bent in a way only their painter can guess?
There the Professor stood dreaming of apfel beignets floating
in crème anglais—powdered sugar and cinnamon crisped around
the cold heart of the fruit. This fabled desert from his last visit
thirty years ago, a treat invented in Heidelberg and never repeated,
mourned and searched for like that cake in Combray.
The day after the castle, they walk along the Hauptstrasse
to the Hotel Ritter where people claim to have invented apfel beignets.
No one in the Professor’s family believes such a glory exists
in a country not fabled for its cuisine but Madame insists
he shall taste it again. The waiter at the Ritter speaks of change
in the kitchen: they no longer make it, only apple strudel.
It’s as if a great tenor had left the stage. On the train back
the couple sits in a private compartment with plush velour,
parti-colored seats, and arm rests as thick as his thigh.
The other four places remain unoccupied. There’s no service
and all the announcements are in German.
The train curves out in front of their eyes, inscribes a turn
with its great length; Madame sits as silent as Ingrid Bergman,
the Professor pretending he’s a spy like Cary Grant
stares down the tracks where the gray trains still run on time.
That evening the barman at their hotel talks the chef into making them
apfel beignets. The waiter’s French but dressed like a floor manager
at Fortnum & Mason. Since London he’s lived in Frankfurt thirty years
but will retire to an island on the Bay of Biscay where he can fish
and drink red wine the rest of his days. The Professor takes a bite
and nods to his wife. You can imagine the taste, exactly the same.