There is something futile about breakfast meetings. Breakfast ought to be where you dissipate the irrationality of dream-life and find your way back to a clear view of the things you care about in the waking world. Alcoholic memoirs are full of where-the-hell-am-I stories, some funny (“I seem to have woken up with this tattoo . . .”) and some terrifying (“I seem to have woken up with my hands caked in blood . . .”). They appeal to readers because every waking, even on the best of days, is a where-the-hell-am-I story. It is not a time when you want to be among people who don’t love you.
When you’re traveling on business, though, you don’t have all the time in the world. In a short week, turning breakfasts into meetings is a way to talk to, say, 16 people instead of 12. Last week I scheduled a breakfast with a woman who is one of the most insightful essayists in Germany. I woke up in the bleak Berlin pre-dawn and walked through the mostly empty streets to meet her at the Café Einstein on Unter den Linden.
I asked for a glass of water, taking care not to replicate one of the worst German blunders I ever made, when a waitress mistook my order of Wasser mit Sprudel (“sparkling water”) for Wasser mit Strudel, the meaning of which you can probably guess (“I seem to have woken up with strudel all over the table . . .”). It was not my all-time-worst mistake in German. That honor belongs to the memorable taxi ride when, meaning to ask the driver whether Germans were content with the administration (die Verwaltung), I wound up asking whether they had a high opinion of rape (die Vergewaltigung). As Mrs. Malaprop once said, men can be such Bavarians.
I was early to Einstein, because I didn’t want to leave my insightful essayist waiting. She had mistaken the week of our meeting and come on Tuesday a week before, emailing me frantically for half an hour while I was snoring six time zones away. It must have been embarrassing. Einstein is a snug, intimate place where politicians and journalists meet. In front of a bunch of her colleagues, she must have looked confused and discomposed.
But now Insightful herself was late, and it was I who was discomposed. The table she had reserved for us was in the best room and, befitting her importance, a table for four. The restaurant was mobbed, and this back room, the real sanctum, was chock-a-block. There were parties of six jammed shoulder-to-shoulder around other tables, and in the booths people were practically in each other’s laps. Meanwhile, there was I, all alone with my newspapers spread out and my measly glass of water while a crowd of ministers, multinational executives, and millionaire tourists waited at the entrance to the room. And, since Germans consider any room heated to less than 88 degrees “drafty,” there was sweat beading on their brows and dripping onto their clothes.
It occurred to me that possibly Insightful was waiting for me at the front of the restaurant. But how to get there? In an age of terrorism it is hard to keep an eye on two parts of any establishment. If you take your briefcase with you, the waiters will think you’re leaving and give away the table. If you leave it behind, your fellow patrons will think you’re trying to blow them up. I chose to leave the briefcase and elbow my way through all the sweaty people to the front. Nothing. It had been a while since I’d been stood up for anything. When I finally gave up on Insightful, gathering my newspapers and books, a party of six descended like looters on my table, rattling furniture as they came.
Later in the day, Insightful asked me to meet her at 5 for an early dinner and treated me to it. She was pleasant, informative, and apologetic. There used to be a term for what she had done—she had flaked out. Today the word “flake” gets used to describe the absent-minded or the self-consciously eccentric: nose-ring people, sneakers-with-a-business-suit people, two-different-colored-sox people. But, really, a flake is a person who behaves erratically, leaving you uncertain whether to respond with anger (at someone who is taking advantage) or commiseration (at someone who is a bit lost). As we’d say in German, I had been the victim of an Ausflake, not an Aufstand. Although I think I’ll double-check the dictionary before I repeat that to a taxi driver.