Tübingen Tale

Since this month's lead article by Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer is about Tübingen, there is a story that bears repeating. It concerns a visit we made there some 20 years ago.

On our first trip to Germany in the mid-70s and not knowing a word of German, we found ourselves in Tübingen staring uncomprehendingly at a menu in a restaurant where no one spoke English. Matjesfilet Hamburger Art sounded like beef. It turned out, of course, to be several cold, whole herring tail, eyes, gills, the works, resting on a few lettuce leaves. For a while we sat looking at it and wishing we could pull a lever that would drop us through a trap door out of our embarrassment. Cold fish was not what we had in mind for dinner.

Gathering our courage, we tried to explain to the gracious woman server that we had made a terrible mistake, there was nothing wrong with the fish but we wanted to order something else and would, of course, pay for both meals. That we didn't want the fish she understood. The rest, however, didn't get across. With apologies, she removed the fish and headed for the kitchen. About halfway there she met the cook, a woman I still see in bad dreams. She was huge, not fat, more along the lines of an NFL linebacker: rangy and rawboned; mobile, agile and about to become hostile. The sort of woman whose workday begins at 5 a.m. in the kitchen and ends late at night with a few beers at a back table in her restaurant. A cigarette hung from one side of her mouth and a hank of hair fell over her sturdy brow. As the full impact of the servers message the Americans don't want (or don't like) the Matjesfilet slowly dawned, she began to direct poisonous glances our way. Desperately wanting to get across the message that we accepted full responsibility and expected to pay for both meals, I left my chair and moved toward the two women.

Some travel lessons are learned hard. The chapter on never rejecting anything a German woman cooks was one of them. Frau linebacker straightened to her full six-feet, two-inches and brushed the hair from her eyes with one hand. With the other she pointed her cigarette in my direction and roared approximately:

Wenn Sie in Deutschland sind, sollten Sie Deutsch sprechen!! (When you are in Germany, speak German.)

I slunk back to the table, feeling very much the ugly American. Plates of hot food arrived. We ate quickly, paid and left. The bill, despite our protests, did not include a charge for the Matjesfilet Hamburger Art. RHB

November 1997