Rick Steves’ Europe: After hours at a German Stammtisch

By Rick Steves
Appears in the Online Edition, March 2021.

As we’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s one of my favorite European memories from Germany — a reminder of the fun that awaits us at the other end of this crisis.

In Europe’s tourist towns, the best social moments combust after a long day of work, and after the guests say good night. In an Irish pub in Galway after closing, the door is locked and the musicians play on. On the Italian Riviera, the dishes are washed, the anchovies are eaten, and the guitars come out. And in small-town German hotels, the family and the hired help stow their workplace hierarchy with their aprons and take out a special bottle of wine.

During many visits to Rothenburg, Germany’s ultimate medieval town, I’ve sat down hurriedly at the Golden Rose restaurant to update my guidebook listing, then dashed away. Tonight, I’ve decided to sit down and simply relax with the Favetta family. We gather around the Stammtisch: the table you’ll find in most German bars and restaurants reserved for family, staff, and regulars. (An invitation to the Stammtisch is a good life goal.) Except for our candlelit table, the once-noisy restaurant is empty and dark.

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 those.”

I ask Henni if it’s not dangerous to generalize 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 says, making 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 and hooks her thumbs at her waist, while her index fingers do a jaunty little cancan dance.

“And what’s the sign for America?” I ask.

“The fat cat,” she says, propping up an imaginary big belly with her arms.

Her father, Rino, 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. Struggling with the word, he says, “anatomical snuffbox,” and snorts. With a quick sniff, 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 once-a-year flood. We Rothenburgers sit and wait for you to float by.”

“Like barnacles,” I add cheerfully.

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 high-top sneakers. Since she once had an American soldier for a boyfriend, her English is American. “Americans get 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.’”

The impromptu party continues as I learn that, even in the most touristy town in Germany, you can still make a genuine, cross-cultural connection. Sitting at the Stammtisch after hours, this conversation becomes my treasured souvenir.

(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, For the Love of Europe. You can email Rick at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)