On a train ride through Germany recently, a middle-aged woman seated across from us inquired where we were from. We took a deep breath.
"A place called Buffalo," we replied. "It's in New York. Not the city, but the state. Buffalo is up near Canada, about . . ." We were cut short.
"Ach, Buffalo!" cried the woman, delighted. She lifted her eyes and recited: "Die 'Schwalbe' fliegt uber den Eriesee . . .' " (The 'Swallow' sails over Lake Erie . . .) After recovering from the shock of actually meeting someone from Buffalo, she explained that the city's name was emblazoned in the memory of every German of her generation through a ballad learned by heart in school. The poem by the 19th century German, Theodor Fontane, chronicles the heroism of the title figure, John Maynard, who ran a passenger ship from Detroit to Buffalo.
"That was so hard to pronounce," the woman recalled. " 'From Dee-troy-eet to Boo-fah-low.' "
As the 'Swallow' neared the shores of Buffalo one fateful day, fire broke out on deck. Maynard lost his life ensuring the safety of his passengers. All of Buffalo turned out for his funeral, so the poem goes, and he lies buried here to this day, with an epitaph from his grateful passengers: "He died for us, our love his only reward."
Well, that and bringing Boo-fah-low's name to Germany.