Club Rothenburg, Part II
The English Conversation Club
To catch up on what happened in Part I, take a look at our July Travel News.
By Rick Steves
Several hours later, I meander deep into the pub through candlelit clouds of smoke. The weinstube shimmers with old-time ambiance as locals enjoy their once-a-week excuse to get together, drink, and practice their fanciest English on each other and on visiting tourists.
|German beer is frothy, as are the mouth's of locals when Rick strolls into town.|
I squeeze a three-legged stool up to a table already crowded with Annaliese, her family, and five or six other Rothenburg merchants.
"Did you like Las Vegas?" the man with the silent-movie mustache asks.
Crinkling her nose, the round woman with road map cheeks answers. "My daughter, she vin forty dollars in cents. Two bottles full. Then she lost every bit of it again. It is Lost Wages. Full power twenty-four hours."
Noticing me, the Lost Wages woman squints her eyes, rubs her temples, and says, "The beer in Vegas, it is not good. I had four days long a strong headache. No Weizen. I like our fizzy wheat beer better."
Tall glasses of beer multiply and tangle the table as Annaliese expertly networks. Introducing me to her son, Frankie, she says, "He was born in 1946. To celebrate the American army, I named him after Frank Sinatra. Frankie boy was on our radio all day long in 1946."
Another tourist wanders by and Annaliese pulls a schneeball (the local powdered doughnut-like "snowball") from a bag. She raises a cloud of powdered sugar as she pokes at the name on the now-empty bag. "Friedel is the bakery I explained you about," she says. "They make the best schneeball. I like it better than your American doughnut. Everyday, Frankie and I eat one. But only at this bakery."
She shoves a big doughy ball my way and asks, "You like to eat this?"
I break off a little chunk. "Only a teeny-weeny bisschen."
For four years, Annaliese has playfully tried to get me to write good things about schneeballs. I put schneeballs (which originated as a way to get more mileage out of leftover dough in a hungrier age) in that category of penitential foods like lutefisk whose only purpose is to help younger people remember the suffering of their parents. Nowadays these historic pastries are pitched to the tourists in caramel, chocolate, and flavors unknown in feudal times.
This "conversation club" is a traveler's jackpot exactly what I seek out in writing my guidebooks. But even here, the business metabolism of Rothenburg is cranked up. With double the tourists but triple the shops, local businesspeople now trip over themselves to woo me.
Margarite, from the art shop on the market square, pulls out her old-time Rothenburg etchings. Dragging the top of her well-filled dirndl across the table to slip her business card under my mug of beer, she reminds me that tourists who drop in get a free shot of schnapps.
Rolf, a Friar Tuck of a man who runs the Peking Dragon restaurant with his petite Chinese wife, brings me another beer and says, "Our restaurant is just behind St. Jacob's church. You must come by tomorrow for lunch. For you, sir, it costs no money."
Getting this VIP treatment poisons my experience, making it different from that of my readers. It's bad for research. It seems the entire community of shopkeepers knows I'm in town. Ironically, as they scramble for a plug in my guidebook, they are souring me on a town I want to like. I need air.
"See you later, alligator," the merchants sing in unison as I pull on my coat.
"After a while, crocodile," I reply, forcing a grin. Leaving them belly-laughing as if they've never heard the phrase before, I hit the streets. I head away from the market square and find myself alone with Rothenburg.
The winds of history polish half-timbered gables. I follow the centuries-old grooves of horsecarts down to the castle garden. From a distance, the roars of laughter tumbling like waves out of biergartens and over the ramparts sound as medieval as they do modern.
Sitting in a mossy niche in the town wall, I finger the ancient stonework. I slowly pan across the town and survey the perfectly preserved, spiny rooftops. I aim my imaginary arrow into the dark forest that surrounds the city. Even today, it feels good to be within these protective walls.
|Cobblestone streets and flower boxes are everywhere. So are the tourists.|
Rothenburg is best at night, when the tour bus parking lot is empty. With the big tour groups gone, the locals unless they're hitting up a travel writer welcome the few independent travelers who remain as part of the party rather than part of the economy.
As nine o'clock approaches, I join a gang waiting on the town square for the night watchman's tour to begin. Half the group is carrying my guidebook. Fans of my TV show recognize me. As if hiding shy and self-conscious stalkers, video cameras catch me from an angle. Someone says, "So, he's a real person."
Suddenly I can empathize with my TV cameraman. He can't understand why people are so interested in him and his big camera when they are standing before some of the greatest sights of Europe. Surrounded by Europe's finest medieval walled city on a starry night, I don't want to be noticed.
Rothenburg has never depressed me until this visit. I love the place, but so does everybody else. Millions of people can love a TV show and not ruin it. But the charm of a small medieval wondertown is a consumable, and there's only so much to go around. My Rothenburg is being loved to death. But it's not "my" Rothenburg. And I'm part of the problem.
Tourists jostle to see the city hall's glockenspiel reenact Rothenburg's famous Thirty Years' War story. In 1631, the mayor drank three liters of wine in a single gulp to save the town from rape, pillage, and plunder. Deep down inside, tourists must know it's a lie. But they assemble here at nine each night and stare at the city hall. As the window overlooking the square pops open, so do the mouths of a hundred tourists. The wooden mayor slowly picks up the huge goblet, cocks his head back, and drinks.
So what? Of course, the big gulp is just a legend. But because I'm feeling wounded by the insincere friendliness of the merchants at the conversation club, I'm thinking hard about honesty. Around the floodlit market square, plaster is peeled back to reveal a humble half-timbered past. But the only thing old about Rothenburg's "oldest house" is its foundation. Fake and imported "rustic" Christmas knickknacks taunt more than twinkle. And Swiss Army knives on performance-enhancing electricity dance in shop windows.
I don't want to see traveling seekers, the last hurrah of the Romantic Age, become traveling shoppers.