It was 1988, the summer of my eighteenth year. The location: south of Salzburg, Austria, in the mountain village of Rauris. It had been a long day, traveling with my German host family from Nûrnberg down through southern Germany and northern Austria, on our way to Italy. Especially with multiple stops along the way for a brief walk, a nice lunch at an outdoor café in Salzburg, a quick trip into an especially characteristic Baroque church or exceptionally old museum or fortress. I was taking in the overwhelmingness of the architecture, the bloody AGE of everything, which was at least 500 years older than anything anywhere near where I lived. My senses were dulled by their constant assault, a breathtaking church here, a quaint babbling brook there, mountains and valleys and verdant green and luscious red and stark white and age-old gray. I was tired. Unable to find the hotel we had reserved in this tiny burg, we were taken in by an old farm woman for the night.
Erich and Ursula climbed the creaky stairs before us, honoring their cultural obligation to view the accommodations first and then proclaim them magnificent. With our belongings neatly arranged in a corner, we descended the old staircase into the foyer of the farmhouse. The woman, in her full skirts and kerchief, briefly came out. Erich asked where a hungry family might find a warm meal in the vicinity, and we were told we could go about 5 miles up into the hills on a winding road, and find a low-slung thatched roofed structure that is a pub and restaurant. Starving, we got into the car and headed up. It was getting close to twilight, and the sky was clear. The four of us walked in. First Erich and Ursula, they are both internists with a shared practice. He is Prussian, not typically German looking. Round, with a big belly built over the years from sausage and ice cream. Ursula has remained trim, impeccably dressed in only Jilsander, with silver hair cut in a professional bob. Christine, whom we all call Miki, goes next. She resembles her father, but with dark brown, thick, full hair, falling to her shoulder. Yet trim, like her mother. And then I brought up the rear. My hair was long, curly, and blonde. On my face sits a button nose at the end of an almost absent bridge, full lips, and graygreenblue eyes. Although I am short, I do not resemble these people at all.
We survey the room. On the left toward the back, three older women sit in a wooden nook booth, deep in conversation. They are not dressed modernly at all. Directly ahead, about four or five older men occupy a thick slab of a wooden table, smoking cigars and drinking frothy pints of various pale beers. In front of them is a game of some sort – cards or dominoes, I am not sure. On the right, at a cozy two-top, a couple in their mid-40’s dine quietly. There are a handful of other thick wooden slab tables in the room, and a long bar. Erich chooses a small table almost exactly in the center. He despises being seated near the kitchen, near the front door, near the restroom. He is equidistant from everything. We sit down.
A man in his late 40’s, maybe early 50’s brings us menus. We discuss the options on the menu and this dish that I cannot stand – it is meatloaf with a fried egg in the middle, that when cut into a meatloaf slab, looks like a big eyeball staring up from the plate. Eggs are vile, I say. Everyone laughs. We make our selections. To call the man who takes our order a waiter would be an insult. It seems to me that he owns this restaurant, or perhaps many in his family do. The other patrons all appear to be acquainted, in the way that most people in small towns at least in passing know each other. Everyone seems to take turns eavesdropping into our conversation or sneaking glances at us while continuing their activities. Fresh blood, fresh conversations in the room, fresh accents leaving everyone to wonder where we are from. Although we are conversing in German, it isn’t in Austrian dialect, so it is obvious we are foreigners. I feel like I’m keeping up with the conversation well, having spent four weeks with this family the previous summer, and having taken 3 years of German in high school.
I am answering one of Erich’s thousands of questions about my life. He never mentions America, just questions me about my school, my friends, my house. What’s it like? Erich is always curious to learn about everything. Miki is quiet, occasionally Ursula will interject a comment here and there. Most of our conversations consist of Erich either teaching me about whatever is around me, telling me stories about the war or his childhood or German history, or asking me questions about a fascinating place he has never visited, Texas.
As I am talking, the man brings our soup and drinks to the table. As we are in the thick of a conversation about something we have seen today, the man puts a hand on my shoulder and says, “You sound like you’re from the south.” He looks right at me. I am surprised, because I think he ought to be speaking to Erich. But he’s speaking to me. I am amazed that this man is able to know that I’m from the South when I’m a) speaking German and b) I have only lived in Texas at this point for about 3 years. Previously, I lived in Iowa, and I like to think I haven’t picked up much southern drawl. I say, “Yes, I am from the south. Austin.” He gives me a quizzical look. “Not familiar… what is it near?” I tell him “it’s right in the center. It’s the capital. South of Dallas…?” Still nothing. I say, “Surely, you have heard of Dallas, Texas. Television? Dallas?” He looks at me incredulously and says, “You’re from Texas? You’re American? I thought you were from Bavaria. Southern GERMANY. You do not sound American to me.” I tell him I am. “But you live in Germany now?” Nope. “Your parents are German and you spoke German in your family?” Nope. “HOW did I learn German, and especially without an American accent?” I tell him that I learned it in school and I mimic what I hear. Several others also comment, they cannot believe I am American. I do not look American. I do not sound American. I must have German heritage. I tell them I have a grandmother who was born in America to emigrated German parents. Though I never knew her. She was dead long before my father met my mother. “Incredible,” they tell me. As though this is unheard of. They tell me they do not often meet Americans who speak German, let alone speak it well. I am beaming. Proudly. Because I have evidently mastered this language well enough to be mistaken for German. I am 12 shades of red and there is a smile on my face from one ear to the other.