I’m thoroughly enjoying a cup of cocoa made by an excellent friend, warmly mulling another cocoa and another excellent friend.
C and I met at the American school in Cairo, Egypt, in the mid-1970’s, and I share this story with her kind permission. I had just moved there and she had just come over from the German school, where she had spent her first five years of school. Her mother was English, a working artist, and her father was American — although his English accent seemed slightly stronger than his wife’s – teaching drama and English at the University.
C told me something which, in this era of rising intolerance and martial rage, gets more interesting all the time…
At the German school, they had cocoa with their morning break. At that time, at least, German children took their cocoa without sugar – more like coffee, really, but milkier and easier on the adrenals. But, every day at 10:30, one of the staff would bring out, on a little silver salver, a sugar bowl and a small spoon, just for the one child who was used to having her cocoa sweet.
It’s a simple story with a lot behind it.
This was less than 30 years after Germany had succumbed to two bitter defeats — an internal one, when they collectively gave in to a meme of hatred and intolerance; and an external one, where they were eventually crushed — despite superior technology and better training — in an epic war.
We lived in a country that had been one of the pivotal battle-grounds of that war. Think of Rommel, the Desert Fox, or google El Alamein.
This one child was the product of their two most bitter recent enemies. And they were both nuns and teachers, second only to nurses in their capacity for passive-aggressiveness, suppressed rage and murder with a smile.
The way they handled it was this: they taught her the same, scolded her the same, cared for her the same, made accommodations as she learned the language but expected her to finish her homework — and, every day, brought sugar on a little silver salver just for her, so she could mix exactly the right amount of sweetness into her cocoa.
It could have been seen as coddling, and there’s no question that C enjoyed the little feeling of specialness. It could have been seen to spoil her. Instead, it was a demonstration of — well — not just tolerance, not just accommodation, but of real graciousness and decency, a touch of comfort in a foreign environment, and a tiny gift of autonomy inside the regimented life of a strict school.
As it turns out, it was a lesson well learned, because C has always been one of the most gracious and utterly decent people I’ve ever met, while being wholly individual.
She’s also the most adept amateur historian I’ve ever even heard of, one who shows the real sensitivity and love in the word “amateur.” Hard not to be, growing up in such a place, with parents grabbing at life with both hands, as hers did.
But it’s hard for me not to think of an intelligent, middle-aged Teuton with an excellent memory, bringing a little Anglo girl sugar on a salver, without any fuss… and wonder what that added to the mix.
I sit here, wreathed in gentle steam, and wonder what it would take to share my cocoa with all this anguished world. It would be a better place indeed.
And I’d be happy to bring sugar on a salver to anyone who likes it.