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Photo by János Balázs

It was my last night in the lavish villa on the lake in Berlin-Wannsee where I had holed up for the winter. A noted Indian economist was scheduled to lecture on the underlying causes of the global financial crisis and its effects on the developing world. Call me an escapist, but I was not inclined to listen to the sad statistics. The world’s affairs would muddle on without me, I thought, intending to grab a quick bite and slip off unnoticed to attend to my packing.

Such dinners were always a festive affair, the guest list sprinkled with Berlin society. My tablemate to the left, the wife of the German theologian seated beside the Indian economist, was a tall, stately woman of late middle age, with prominent cheekbones, Prussian blue eyes, and tightly braided, blond hair, who wore her years like a string of pearls. Straight-backed, head held high, as if she were not seated at table, but rather astride a saddle, ears pricked for the sound of a hunting horn, she had what in former times would have been called an aristocratic bearing.

Socially maladroit and constitutionally incapable of making small talk, a tendency further aggravated by chronic insomnia, I either clam up on such occasions or put my foot in my mouth.

Prodding myself to say something before taking up knife and fork to dispatch the appetizer, two luscious-looking, seared sea scallops on a bed of wilted seaweed, I wished her, “Bon appéti...