Nlyart has been going to a lot of funerals lately. Yesterday it was my turn. It was for a woman I met almost thirty years ago and still sporadically met for lunch about once a year on average. These meetings continued mostly because of her unending loyalty and her always forgiving me for never calling. She was not one to hold a grudge or dwell on the negative or make people feel guilty. She had a zest for life and style – something people here call “Pfiff”. So every year on my birthday or December 24th, the phone would ring. This year, I noticed that there was no call and it worried me a little. I knew she had been sick. But life distracted me.
Two days ago, the one person we knew in common called and told me she had died and that the funeral was the following day. Feelings of guilt for not checking up on her washed over me and I was thankful there was still time for me to come to her one last time. To give her some flowers as a small return for the dozens of beautiful arrangements she had given me over the years.
We met in 1987 in a Berlitz classroom of all places. I had taken on some work there to tide me over till my real job at the university would begin. The system of the place was very rigid - it consisted of drilling the students one-on-one using a prescribed set of materials in an established order. In this way, the student could be trained intensively with constantly switching teachers. I would arrive at work, be handed a list of my students for that day including the last thing they had worked on. My job was to do the next thing in the manual - no exceptions.
The method had a few advantages - it got the students talking from the very first lesson and a certain kneejerk speaking ability developed, but it still struck me as learning by firing squad. (And then, there was the student who answered everything perfectly in the first of two lessons. During the break in between, he asked me ”What were we talking about in there?”) Clearly, it was not the right method for everyone. Being a profit-oriented business, however, they were more than happy to sell an expensive course to three middle-aged women whose first priority was to have fun. A few weeks into their course, it was clear that they weren’t having any fun. And they were getting pretty vocal about it. My boss asked me if I would teach their next lesson.
I walked into the classroom and introduced myself to the three students whom I would later nickname ”The Housewives” even though they were all working women. I let them vent their frustrations and then said I had no problem throwing away the book, doing something different. I ended up taking all the rest of their lessons in which I learned a lot of great recipes and cooking tips and they learned a little (kitchen) English. We laughed a lot.
When their Berlitz stint was over, I started giving them private lessons - first as a group and then eventually, only my friend remained. We introduced white wine spritzers to our lessons, then we relocated them to her favorite restaurant, the Hirschenwirt, and finally we gave up any pretense that English teaching or learning was going on. She introduced me to little bird lettuce salad with warm potatoes, garlic and pumpkinseed oil and to another definition of the word “Pfiff” a ridiculously small glass of beer. Every time she ordered one, I teased her, pointing out that the Pfiff really had no excuse for existing at all, being too big for sampling and too little for any other desired effect. She talked about her family and travels; I talked about my job and my daughters. We parted ways each time with some vague plans for a future pickling session (she made the best pickles!) – and the promise not to let so much time pass before we met again.
After I moved away from the city our lunches got less frequent, but the birthday phone calls came faithfully every year and once or twice even from me. The last time we talked we made plans to meet the following day, but when I called her the next morning, she didn’t answer. She was already in treatment at the time, so I sent her a text message saying she should call me when she felt better. From what I found out yesterday, she never really got better after that.
I was glad to see so many people at her funeral. And to hear the eulogy given by her nephew. It was actually just a long list of words that he associated with her. It included birthday calls, Hirschenwirt, laughter, pickles, loyalty and Pfiff.