The train lurched, almost throwing me off my seat, and harshly waking me up. I had a pounding headache and badly needed a drink. Everything was spinning, even while I was lying down. My chin rested on something sticky, I recoiled in disgust and got up after all. I felt the stain with my hand, I must have drooled on the seat cushion while I slept. I wiped my mouth and took in my surroundings. The doors of the train were open and blowing in the cold night air. I had no idea where I was. There were no passengers I could ask in the train wagon and no one was standing on the platform. I was alone. I looked under the seat for my shoes but didn’t find them. Some fucker must have stolen them. Great. I tried checking my phone for the time, but it was out of charge. Even better. I got up and walked onto the platform in my socks, looking for a sign or something that would tell me where I was or where the train was going. There was a metal pane, about 60 feet away, with bleached-out letters on it. I walked up to it trying to make out the writing, but it was illegible. There was a V or an N at the beginning and a bunch of small letters in the middle, maybe a few L’s and I’s. I heard a ding behind me and saw the train doors beginning to close. “No, No, No, Fuck, No!” I yelled sprinting back before the train could leave without me, but I was too slow to even wedge my hand into the door. “Fuck, Shit, Ass, Piss-shitting Cunt of a Whore…” I yelled and gave the departing train a solid kick. I didn’t make a dent but almost broke my foot in half, cursing even more.
It took me a while to calm down, but I had all the time in the world, while I was waiting for another train to show up. After half an hour of my feet getting colder, I figured I might as well explore the station. Maybe I would find someone who could help me or at least a bathroom where I could get a sip of water. If I got lucky, a kiosk might be in there that sold beer. I could kill for a drink right about now. I trudged towards the station building. It was open, but the lights were out and there was not a soul in sight. I looked around the empty station, but there was not much to be found. A bakery, a newsstand, a kiosk, and a bathroom, all of them locked up. There were a few benches you could sit on inside and it was a little less cold here. I considered spending the night inside until the trains were riding again when I spotted a dim light in front of the station through one of the windows.
The main entrance of the station led out onto a small town plaza, as deserted as everything else around here. The light I had seen through the window belonged to something that looked like a small hot dog van from a distance, and there seemed to be a vendor standing in it. I wondered why you would run a snack wagon in the middle of nowhere late at night without any customers to be found in a five-mile radius, but I wasn’t going to complain. I was cold, shoeless, lost, and hungover, but I was about to get a fucking drink and that would make everything so much better. As I came closer I could read the sign on the side of the van, it said “Mercurio’s Midnight Eatery” in large golden letters woven into each other and, slightly smaller below that: “Fine Dining at Affordable Prices”. The man standing behind the counter wore a sharp tailor-made suit, perfectly ironed, without the slightest crinkle, and a bowler hat. His most remarkable feature though was a perfectly-trimmed and waxed mustache in the middle of an otherwise clean-shaven face. He looked less like a hot dog vendor and more like the stage master of a burlesque show from a century ago. I didn’t let any of that weirdness deter me though, I was a man on a mission.
“Aehm… Hi.” I said, my voice a little hoarse.
“Good evening sir, how may I serve you?” he asked in a butter-smooth baritone. He even acted like a waiter at a fine dining restaurant. Somehow the weirdo made me feel a little shabby. Being called ‘dear sir’ felt like it had a hint of sarcasm to it. My suit had seen better days and my socks were drenched in rainwater and dirt.
“Hey, aehm… you sell any beer?” I croaked.
“I’m afraid not sir, we only have the dish of the evening, accompanied by a light refreshment,” he answered, either not noticing or expertly overlooking my disheveled appearance.
“What’s the light refreshment?” I asked, not ready to give up hope just yet.
“I’m afraid I cannot tell you, sir, it is a surprise menu.”
“Do people usually pay for a meal without knowing what they’re going to get?”
“Some of them do,” answered the man with a thin smile.
I pointedly looked around the deserted plaza. “You know, I don’t mean to tell you how to run your business, clearly you’re doing well, but people usually want to know what they are paying for.”
“Duly noted sir, we thank you for your generous advice.” From anyone else, this remark might have come across as a little cocky, but from the tone of his voice and his demeanor, I almost believed he was grateful for my comment.
“You know what, never mind. How much?”
“How much would you like to pay?”
“Oh, for the love of…” I sighed. I just wanted a beer, not a hipster dining experience, but I was out of options. I retrieved a random crumpled-up bill from my pocket and slammed it on the counter. “There. Is that enough?”
“Thank you kindly, sir, please take a seat.” the strange man said, grabbed the bill, and let it disappear below the counter.
I noticed too late that I’d just given him fifty Euros and it didn’t look like I was getting any change. I mentally multiplied the chance that I was getting scammed by 10. Whatever the refreshment was, it’d better be served in a golden cup and be worth the money. I climbed up onto one of the two vacant barstools mounted to the outside of the van and watched the man as he went into the back and got to work on an in-built stove. The loon had even put on an apron and a chef’s hat in the split second I had not looked right at him.
“Listen, if you could just give me the drink now and serve the food later…” I yelled over the hissing of steam and the clattering of a pan, but he didn’t hear me or chose to ignore me. I couldn’t see what he was doing, the view to the stove was obstructed by his torso, so I just sat still and did nothing for a couple of minutes, while my socks dripped onto the ground and my headache pounded away.
Finally, the man took off his apron and ridiculous hat with a flourish, turned around, and proudly presented a steaming greyish-red goo on a plastic plate and cup with clear liquid in it. “Voilà!”, he exclaimed, “The dish of the evening is served: Anchois à la Framboise. And as a special refreshment, a glass of fresh sparkling water.” I sat slack-jawed. My french was a little rusty, so I thought I mistranslated Anchovies with Raspberries, but the goo on my plate did look a whole lot like exactly that. I’d just paid fifty Euros for a sip of water and an inedible atrocity. I wondered if there was a camera crew hidden away somewhere nearby, about to jump out and tell me which prank show I would soon appear in. There were a million insults coursing through my head as the waiter looked at me with an expectant smile, but I kept my mouth shut, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. Instead, I grabbed the plastic cup and took a sip.
The water hit my parched throat and I only realized then how thirsty, how truly thirsty I’d been. The water was fresh and clear, the bubbles gently tickling my tongue and washing away a bad taste in my mouth that I had stopped noticing long ago. My headache dialed down by a few degrees, and my wet feet felt oddly comfortable. I felt like I could think straight for the first time in a long time. Water is life, I thought and a smile spread across my face. I felt ravenously hungry, the drink had woken my appetite. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, only drunk myself into oblivion since the late afternoon. I grabbed the plastic fork that had been provided and shoveled a large bite into my mouth…
In 1785, Friedrich Schiller, one of the greatest poets in European history, would write a poem titled “Ode to Joy”. Only a few people would read it and it would remain in obscurity for several decades, while Schiller rose to ever-increasing levels of fame. Schiller would die at the age of 45, not knowing that one of his greatest works was yet to be completed. Seventeen years after his death, Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest composers in European history would begin work on his ninth symphony. It would take him several years. As for the lyrics of the fourth movement, Beethoven chose Schiller’s poem. Even though Schiller was long gone, his work transcended the barriers of life and death and he collaborated with Beethoven to produce one of the greatest pieces of art the world would ever hear. In 1825, the ninth symphony was ready to be performed for the very first time.
The Wiener Knabenchor, a prestigious choir where every spot was fiercely competed over, even though its oldest members were only at the tender age of thirteen, would perform this song in Vienna, for those lucky few who could afford a ticket to the Wiener Opernhaus. After the first three movements of the symphony, which had already left the audience gasping, the choir stepped on stage.
There was a moment of silence, in which you could have heard a needle drop. Then, the conductor raised up his arms and the orchestra and choir blasted the audience with an unbridled expression of joy so pure and absolute it was inescapable. Many of the audience forgot to breathe, some suffered seizures, and others fainted in their seats. The song would continue for a couple of verses, then the choir and orchestra fell silent, and one of the boys, the best among them, equally admired and envied by the rest, stepped forward. He opened up and sang a single verse on his own, making a sound so tender and pure, it could not possibly belong to this world. Tears rolled in the audience, and every soul clung to his lips, no matter how often they had already heard his performance. He finished his verse, the room fell quiet for a second and then exploded, the whole choir and orchestra setting back in at once. The final verse was over too quickly. In the ensuing silence, people were left in a daze. There was no applause only stunned silence. To some of them, the experience would be too overwhelming to fathom and they would later be diagnosed with short-term amnesia. Others would become addicts, spending their every penny to visit the Opernhaus as often as they could and living out their days in a stupor, waiting, until they could hear the final movement of the ninth symphony only one more time.
I am telling you about this, because when I tasted “Anchois à la Framboise”, there was nothing in the culinary world that could compare to it. I could not describe the delicious assault on my senses, the saltiness of the anchovies mixing so perfectly with the sweetness of the raspberry, by just comparing it to any other meal or using the known culinary vocabulary. ‘delicious’ is not a word that would adequately describe it. None of my words could do it justice, only this one song could possibly express how a single bite of it tasted. I was floating, I was dreaming. All I had ever felt and ever would feel climaxed in this one point in time, in this one dish I would have paid the world for but got for a single worthless bill from my pocket.
I don’t know what happened after I finished my meal. I was found weeks later in another country wearing rags, emaciated and catatonic, with tears in my eyes and a blissful smile on my face. They stuck me in a looney bin for about half a year, where my memory and other mental faculties began to come back in small fragments. In the beginning, I spent my time tied down to a bed, screaming for Anchois à la Framboise, for just one more bite. Nobody had an idea what to do with me and it took them a while to find out my identity from the missing person reports. When I was stable enough, to be trusted around others again, I still had to be fed intravenously for a while because I could not swallow anything, it just didn’t seem like food to me. To this day, there is nothing that doesn’t taste like ash. My favorite cognac turns bland and tasteless in my mouth, which I’m not too broken up about because I lost the taste for all other booze as well. Since that night I’ve never really wanted anything other than water, I’m about as interested in a glass of beer as a five-year-old would be in french philosophy. My wife is talking to me again and I even get to see my children. They like me much better since I lost my mind and got it back. Especially since I’m sober now. Maybe they’ll even start trusting me again at some point and allow me to make up for all the small and large pains I inflicted on them over the years.
I still sometimes lie awake at night, dreaming of that midnight dinner. Sometimes I go out to a 24h-market and buy a box of raspberries and a can of anchovies. I tell myself that it’s the last time every time when I stand in my kitchen at three a.m. and try another foul mix that tastes nothing like Anchois à la Framboise. If only I could have seen what the cook was doing, had had the presence of mind to ask for a recipe, or had been able to read the name of the train station. My therapist tells me that the dish never was real and that I had suffered a seizure and hallucinated it. I agree with him and tell him that he is right, but I know he isn’t. I just know. Somewhere out there, there is a man serving Anchois à la Framboise.