In Europe the best social moments combust after a long day of work, and after the normal guests say “ciao.” It happens in a pub after hours in Galway when the door is locked and the musicians play on. It’s on the Italian Riviera when the anchovies are eaten, the dishes are washed, and the guitars come out. And in small-town German hotels when a family and the hired help stow their workplace hierarchy with their aprons and take out a special bottle of wine.
For ten years of annual visits to Rothenburg — Germany’s ultimate medieval town — I’ve sat down hurriedly at a Golden Rose restaurant table to update my guidebook listing, then dashed. Tonight I sit down to simply relax with the Favetta family. Except for our candlelit table, the once noisy restaurant is empty and dark. We gather around the Stammtisch. A good goal for a traveler is to be invited to the Stammtisch — the table you’ll find in most German bars and restaurants reserved for family, staff, and regulars.
Well into our second glass of wine, we indulge in the sport many in the tourist business enjoy — cultural puzzles. The daughter Henni asks me, “Why can’t Americans eat with a knife? You cut things with your fork.” I confess I know nothing about holding silverware. And just to hit a Yankee when he’s down, she adds, “And you people love to drink plain water — we call this water the American Champagne. But you never eat liver or blood sausage. The Japanese love these.”
I ask Henni if it’s not dangerous to make generalizations about other cultures. She says, “Even deaf people generalize.”
When I ask how, she explains with the help of her hands. “In international sign language ‘Germany’ is my finger pointing up from my head.” She makes a fist-and-finger Prussian helmet. ‘France’ is this wavy little mustache,” she continues, wiggling a finger across her upper lip. “And ‘Russia’ is the Cossack dancer.” Henni bounces on her chair while her fingers do a tiny cancan dance from her hips.
“And what’s the sign for America?” I ask.
“The fat cat,” she says, propping up a rotund belly with her arms.
Her father, Rino — whose English is worse than my German — struggles to follow the animated discussion. Whenever the conversation reaches a spirited tempo, he jumps in, brings it to a screeching halt, and sends it in a completely new direction.
Pretending to add to Henni’s thoughts, he leans over to me. As if a magician sharing a secret, he holds his hand palm down in front of my face. Stretching his thumb high and out, he forms a small bay in the top of his hand. Peppering in a little snuff tobacco, he announces, “Snoof tobak.”
With Henni’s help, Rino clarifies it, saying, “the anatomical snuffbox,” and snorts. I try it and it works.
As noses wiggle, I ask Henni if living in a tourist fantasy-town gets old. “I will live and die in Rothenburg,” she answers. “Teenagers here dream of leaving Rothenburg. One by one they try the big city — Munich or Nürnberg — and they come home. Summer is action time. Winter is quiet. The tourists, they come like a big one-time-in-a-year flood. We Rothenburgers sit and wait for you to float by.”
“Like barnacles,” I add cheerfully, even though I figure that word is not in Henni’s English vocabulary.
Henni looks at me like I just burped. “People who live here have magic vision,” she says. “If we want to, we can see no tourists and only local people. Rothenburg is a village. We know everyone.”
Henni’s sister Fernanda bops in wearing fine new American hightops. Since she once had an American soldier for a boyfriend, her English is American. “Americans are getting fashion,” she says. “But your really fat women wear shorts. I saw the biggest people in my life in the States.”
As the family agrees, Henni says, “And they wear tight T-shirts!”
Rino empties his tall glass of beer, licks his foamy upper lip, and adds, “The big German women wear the Ein-Mann-Zelt.”
I look to Henni, who translates, “One-man tent.”
When I counter, “But fat German men have skinny legs,” the entire family laughs.
“Beer bellies,” Henni says. “German men say a man without a belly isn’t a man. A German saying is, ‘Better to have a big belly from drinking than a broken back from working.’”
That impromptu party went on and on as I learned that, even in the most touristy town in Germany, you can sit at the Stammtisch after hours for a conversation that becomes a treasured souvenir.