Wednesday, 11 February 2015

VI. Luncheons on the Grass

Another picturesque slice of Berlinese life (with yet another portrait of someone we won't ever run into again!).
I grew accustomed to putting measurement conversions and other specific translation points in brackets, but they can move elsewhere if someone finds them too irreverent.

It is a well-known fact that the shortest summers are the hottest, and this excess of heat must be the cause for the violence of storms in the Northern regions. Indeed, it was in Berlin that I witnessed the most terrible I ever saw. Thunder and bolts crashed uninterrupted for four hours. I do not know how many times lightning struck, but it caused significant damage in seventeen different places. Nine people were killed, and outside of the Brandenburg Gate, people flocked to see two handsome trees that had been split open by lightning, from roots to top, and whose wood, bark, branches and leaves had turned blood red.
The French part of our circle, that is, about sixty people, had gathered on that day for a picnic in a castle’s garden, where the storm took us by surprise around four o’clock. The rain was so abundant from the onset that all we could do was hurry and take shelter in a beautiful orangery, located on a patio, which acted as a summer parlour amidst the gardens. At the height of the storm, a M. Charpentier, a batty and witty Frenchman, the same who, as he arrived one day at my mother’s house covered in mud, excused himself by saying that he had run into a Kircheisen, the name of the police president, which he used to refer to all the mud piles which this president should have cleared off; the same who shouted: “What sort of cuisine is this, serving only cold soup1, raw meat and cooked lettuce!”, this M. Charpentier, wanting to entertain the frightened ladies who cried or prayed to God, climbed on some chairs and improvised a homily, which would have amused his audience in other times, but this time, it went unheeded. Having failed in his first attempt, M. Charpentier wanted to convince them that the storm would end soon; he opened the door of the orangery to have a better view of the horizon, but just then, ten lighting bolts flashed and it looked as though the orangery had caught on fire. The most remarkable aspect of this scene was the scream which all the ladies let out in unison, and their spontaneity as they fell to their knees2.
For my part, I was not afraid. I have always loved storms, and since they are very violent in Berlin, I could not ask for anything better. When they broke out at night, I never failed to run out from my bed, to sneak into a large attic and, from there, to enjoy the sight of the lighting bolts striking the crosses and weathercocks topping the churches’ roofs; nothing could bring me to renounce this entertainment, neither my parents’ scolding when they caught me, nor a thunderbolt that almost blinded me.
Coming back to our picnics, we had another that became quite remarkable, courtesy of a jest of the same Charpentier. In such events, everyone brings their own dish, and generally, they try to bring something no one else has thought about, wrongfully surrounding it with mystery. The day before the set date, or even before, this original Charpentier came to see all those who were expected at the party and sounded them out on what they would bring. Whatever they answered, he replied: “Do not bring this, this is Mme ...’s dish; but here is something no one will have thought about and which should please everyone: a suckling pig.” Thus we had sixteen suckling pigs, and it was quite comical to hear everyone’s exclamations for each new piglet they unwrapped.
I remember another dinner at Charlottenburg, at Mme Schmitz’s. It was her name day, but she had told her husband that she did not want to celebrate it on this year, and that if he still wanted to bring a few people over from Berlin, he should limit himself to one carriage’s worth of guests.
Consequently, only one carriage arrived; it did not enter the courtyard, but placed itself obliquely in such a way that only one door was visible, and Mme Schmitz saw forty-two people successively stepping down from it, wishing her a happy name day and staying for dinner. After the sixth person, Mme Schmitz started laughing; after the seventh, she protested, even more so after the eighth person came in; after the ninth, she understood the secret behind this pleasantry, which was completed by the next arrivals.
As for this lady’s husband, I have much to tell about him, at least about his extraordinary physique.
When he came to Berlin for the first time, the carriage in which he travelled along with another young man, which was not robust enough for its charge, broke down a few miles away from the city. They were in a hurry to arrive; but it was a Sunday; the workers were resting. To get them out of this embarrassing situation, Schmitz’s travelling companion came to see the workers he needed and told them in a very mysterious tone: “I come to present the King with a giant aged only ten. I cannot allow him to be seen on the road; but if you repair the carriage which broke down under his weight, I will show him to you.” All the workers hurried to see young Schmitz stepping down as nimbly as a ten-year-old child, although he was actually eighteen or twenty, and already stood at six feet tall [French feet, obviously, around 6’5’’ or 1m95].
At twenty, he stood at six feet two inches [2m]. Given his girth, he did not look colossal; but as soon as he stood next to someone else, his appearance almost seemed frightening.
He soon required special stockings, gloves, hats and even carriages. I remember that one evening, in Charlottenburg, wanting to finish a card game with M. de Morinval and my father and to ease transportation arrangements, he lent his carriage to someone else, reserving himself a place in M. de Morinval’s; but when came the time to leave, the Big Schmitz (as he was known) could not enter this carriage in any position he tried. After all manners of attempts, he had to resign himself, and M. de Morinval’s carriage left empty while a servant went to fetch one of the Big Schmitz’s four-horse carriages; meanwhile, they came back inside for a new game.
All houses where he was a regular guest had special chairs for him; anything else would break under his weight. I saw one of those in my father’s parlour, and one in the dining-room. During meals, he had to be in a corner, otherwise his gut kept him too far away from the table. He also had to sit next to the most voracious eaters and drinkers, for next to ordinary guests, he was ashamed at the amount of food he consumed; and indeed, if there were thirty different dishes, he took a share of all thirty of them and could sit down and eat for three or four hours3.
This huge man was also prodigiously strong; one evening as he dined at my father’s house, I saw him making the second heaviest guest sit on his hand, whose proportions were not so different from a chair’s, and carrying him through the whole parlour with his arm extended. When I left Berlin, the unfortunate Big Schmitz had grown so heavy that he needed several servants to get in and out of bed; he required four just to turn around.
Had he been poor, a man like him would have been extremely unhappy; but even with his considerable wealth, his was not an enviable fate. He married a short, thin and delicate woman, and they had no children.

1In Berlin, during the hottest days of the year, in 1784, they still used to serve cold soup for supper, sometimes made out of beer, sometimes out of rice and lemonade, sometimes made of Champagne wine with sugared toasts. What he referred to as raw meat was smoked beef from Hamburg, and the cooked lettuce was stewed chicory.
2The day ended on a much merrier note, at least for most of the guests. Around eight o’clock, the rain had almost stopped; the storm still roared, but in the distance; night was falling, and we were four leagues away from Berlin. Thus we considered leaving; but the question was how. The carriages could not come close to the orangery; they were four hundred paces away, and this interval, like the rest of the gardens, was under several inches of water. After a few failed attempts, it was decided that the men would carry the ladies and children. Not all the men had Atlas’ strength, some of the ladies would have given trouble even to Hercules, and, despite all the precautions taken, some carriers slipped and fell, and these falls were all the more comical to the spectators as they were unpleasant for their victims.
3This Big Schmitz had a very tall and fat sister, although she was nothing compared to her brother; she remained single. Having retired in a country house which I think was three miles away from Berlin, she once put a basket containing sixty-four hard-boiled eggs as part of her provisions. Finding herself alone and bored, she started eating one egg, then a second one; and she liked them so much that at the end of her journey, she had eaten the sixty-four eggs in a row, without drinking; she did not even fall ill.

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