It’s really mystifying how Aachen could once have been such an important city. Charlemagne, Holy Roman Empire, coronation place of kings, and all of that in a city without a river. I am only here for a few days, not enough to ascertain whether the nonexistence of a waterway has negative effects on Aacheners’ romanticism, but I can imagine that the lack of opportunity to stroll up and down along something that flows straight into the Baltic or the Black Sea, totally and obviously unencumbered and unimpressed by sorrows, plans, dreams and other pranks played on humans, may not be conducive to a healthy state of mind and heart.
The proud citizens of Aachen claim to have a stream, at least. As I walked into the street where it allegedly flows, I didn’t recognize anything at first, then I had to laugh. A trickle like a sewage channel runs between road and sidewalk to somewhere, but into no sea. No wonder that the Romans felt superior over the Germans as soon as they saw this.
Along this wannabe-Venice, there is Café Einstein, which appeared just in time to provide some rest for my feet which had become exhausted on a German-Belgian-Dutch cross-border walk. And the name of the establishment promises a meeting of geniuses and intellectuals. At least it’s none of those annoying bars meting out unsolicited ultrasound treatment, with the sounds being all the louder for their askewness. Rather, it is one where patrons are having a beer at unstable tables, discussing everything from Aachen’s woeful absence from the Bundesliga to the role of tuberculosis in Soviet literature.
At another table outside of the café, there sat a lady, also alone, and ordered a cup of tea. That was a quite comprehensible request, for temperatures had dropped noticeably that last evening in July. The otherwise ubiquitous moaning about the weather only failed to materialize because in the weeks prior, Central Europeans had felt that global warming would not only turn out to be lethal for people on some islands off the coast of Bangladesh, which, if we are honest, most people in this country aren’t really concerned about, but that it now dares to become inconvenient to them as well.
Maybe the lady also felt a bit chilly because she was only wearing a dress, a very elegant one, not obtrusive at all, but all the more attractive. She looked like an actress, but she wasn’t, at least not a well-known one, because if I had ever seen her, I would have memorized her name to watch everything that she had played, even if it was vampire films or a doctor series, although I would, without knowing her, have deemed that to be below her dignity.
She was dressed in black, so maybe she had just been widowed, although she was not of the typical age for widows, but rather stood in the prime of life. Probably, her husband had just been shot and she had to spontaneously spend the evening outside while the blood stains in the apartment were being quickly painted over. But I would never find out, because it was obvious that I couldn’t address her, wearing hiking boots and an unironed shirt.
Only now, writing down what happend days ago, but which hasn’t left my memory since, I notice that she did not practice the infuriating habit, recently en vogue, of ordering something which sounds as complicated as possible, is imagined as mightily individual, and pretending to be suave, like “cherry blossom tea with ginger salt, but in a ceramic pot please, and with an infusion time of exactly three and a half minutes”. No, she had simply ordered “a cup of tea”. Nonetheless, the waitress tartly declined that wish.
“I have already cleaned the coffee machine.”
Why this is done hours before closing the restaurant can probably only be understood by people in a mostly beer-consuming country. The connection between the coffee machine having fallen victim to excessive cleaning mania and a cup of tea, however, cannot be understood by anyone.
Even the uncomplicated customer tried again, very unobtrusively, as if to imply – certainly against better knowledge – that she may have expressed herself in an ambiguous manner.
“Oh, I didn’t want any coffee. Just a cup of tea.“
Now, the server, who preferred not to serve, explained why this was absolutely not an option.
“The water for the tea runs through the same machine, you understand? This is not possible anymore today.” She had become surly, maybe upon reflecting, while on the subject of water, how beautiful it would be to live by the Rhine or the Volga.
“This is Germany,” I thought. A country where professional waitresses who probably had to undergo a three-year training, pass exams and acquire diplomas, don’t realize anymore that putting a pot with water on the stove would suffice, and that nobody needs to push buttons of a complicated and overly expensive machinery. Or who don’t understand that even a recently cleaned machine doesn’t get soiled by boiling water, quite the contrary, it may become even cleaner. And why does a tavern not buy an electric kettle for a few euros? Every student has one in their room.
I felt sorry for the lady who was not served anything hot. She didn’t allow her discontent to show, which once more signaled her cosmopolitanism, for I was sure that someone of that appearance and effect did not come from here, but probably from Paris, from Milano or out of a fairy tale. But as our eyes met, just once, but in such a momentous manner, she emitted a brief smile, appreciating the absurdity of the situation, which electrified me so much that I needed no more tea to get warm and no more coffee to stay awake. She was really extremely enchanting, but she carried her beauty with a nonchalance as if she simply woke up that perfect every morning. And these dark eyes – but wait, you actually wanted to learn more about tea.
Tea is really the most simple thing in the world: hot water and a teabag. I have prepared it high in the mountains, on a fire. One of the first things you learn in prison is to build an immersion heater from wires to boil water. Railway carriages have a samovar dispensing hot water at all times. Even in Vorkuta, there was tea.
Since then, I have to think of the unknown lady each time I prepare myself a cup of tea. And soon, it will be autumn.