Year of Grace, Day 66. Repeating history, Part 1

Bad Honnef is a charming little town across the Rhine from Bonn, and the other day M and I had late lunch at a Mexican restaurant called Ayuntamiento. It is a bit risky in these backwaters to try exotic cuisine, as you never know whether what you get will be the real thing, or just an approximation, and not even a close one at that. The menu had the usual burritos and enchiladas, which I didn’t even glance at, but one entry further on – pavo en pibil – caught my eye. But the German linguistic transfiguration of the original “turkey” into “chicken” (Hähnchen) hinted at similar sleight-of-hand techniques in the cooking of this Yucatecan specialty. Pibil is the Mexican equivalent of the Pacific Islander’s underground oven cookery, and common to both, the most popular ingredient is the pig (perhaps a relict from prehistoric voyages across the Pacific between South America and the Pacific Islands? — a hypothesis that ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl espoused and risked his life proving, by sailing on a balsa log raft). Authentic cochinita pibil is a suckling pig or parts thereof marinated in sour orange juice, garlic, and various spices, and coloured reddish orange with annatto seeds before being wrapped in banana leaves to bake in an underground oven to a tender succulence that threatens to fall off the bone. Right!! Where in the heart of the Rhineland (Mittelrhein) can one find someone who would cook in this traditional Yucatecan manner? The Slow Food Movement is quite active in Bonn, but I doubt there are practitioners of this pan-Pacific style of slow cooking. Even in the Yucatan it is a dying art. I rest my case. So we had camarones a la plancha for starters and a mixed carne asada. To our great surprise, both were made really well, with a fine attention to pink moistness in the diverse grilled meats and seared, nicely seasoned prawns. The service was also particularly attentive, and when I asked for a hot fresh lemon juice with rum (which was not on the menu), the waitress assured me they would make it, and when it came lukewarm, she graciously brought it back piping hot. It was quite a cold day, much colder than in Bonn and I needed to thaw a bit. Perhaps, given that those two trial dishes were excellent, we might even try the chicken en pibil for next time.

We were not far from Königswinter where M’s very good friend A lives, and we decided to surprise the family. “Give them a call first,” suggested M. Which turned out to be wise, as just as I called saying we were on our way to see them, A said they were just then at the opposite side of the Rhine close to our house as well. Synchronicity and telepathy? He said he had left something for us. After taking his children ice skating near the university and some mulled wine at the Christmas market, we called it a night. And there by the door was A’s present — a bag with a bottle of wine and a book. Ever the generous and thoughtful friend is A.

And last night I decided to investigate the thick book — Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy. It was only when I began to read it that I realized I now had in my hands the book that A had offered me to read much earlier. It was the retelling of the Dreyfus affair – the scandal of injustice toward a Jewish army officer in the 19th century that rocked French society. I had refused to read it at the height of the Gaza War. Having read Dreyfus’s own account of his cruel exile alone on Devil’s Island years back, I did not wish to depress myself any further, and told A so.

But last night, the prospect of a new book was too tempting and I began. Intending to read just a few pages until I became drowsy, I found myself reading it halfway through. I was saddened, as I’d expected, at the recounting of this gross injustice. And I could not help comparing that to what is happening now, wherein instead of just one country, France or Germany, the Dreyfus affair and the vilification of Jews that led to the final solution of the Holocaust are being repeated on a global scale. Jews are once again subjected to verbal abuse and physical assault, often fatal. There is a double standard and a jaundiced eye prevailing worldwide where Jews or Israel or Israelis are involved. With this depressing thought of our species’ inhumanity to a minority — our very own kind — I went to sleep.

Despite this, I had colourful and pleasant dreams, which surprised me, and for which I am thankful this morning. In my dreams I was buying fresh crabs at a market, always a delightful prospect. There was also a discussion about a tetraploid mango – no doubt inspired by a conversation with M after dinner while eating our dessert of Jaffa Sweetie. I had thought it might be a hybrid of pomelo and orange – the pomelo providing the yellowish green rind and the orange donating genes for sweetness and fine pulp. M had opined it was most likely a cross between pomelo and grapefruit.

Those dreams have lightened my heart and mind, despite the melancholy aroused by Harris’s book. I am grateful for dear, close friends like A, who is such a warm- and kind-hearted person and equally so is his wife D.

I am also so thankfully relieved that the crow is back on its perch on the fir, though it was not there when my eyes searched for it all of yesterday. I had been worried that the magpie — that avian thief —  roosting on the birch nearby, had something to do with it or its nest. M said that was unlikely because magpies are terrified of crows.

I shall read the book to the end of course, having started it. In his preface, Harris writes: “This book aims to use the techniques of a novel to retell the true story of the Dreyfus affair, perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history….” He goes on: “None of the characters … even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs…actually happened in real life.”

I am grateful for writers like Harris who, by their popularization of historical events, can rouse me, and hopefully other readers, into a sad realization of history repeating itself in our time.