Women play poker - Frau Maria Schmidt
My suitcase wasn’t on the carousel when we arrived in Munich. Everyone else got their bags, but mine wasn’t there. “I’ll stay with Patti,” my roommate Elizabeth offered, and before I knew it, everyone else in our college semester abroad group left us standing in the airport, filling out lost luggage forms. I told the group leader I was sure we could find our way to our host family’s house.
We completed the paperwork and decided we should call the woman we would be spending the semester with, to get her advice on the best way to get to her place.
“SCHMIDT!” the female voice barked on the other end of the phone after the fourth ring. I sat, speechless for a moment. “Uh, Frau Schmidt?” I asked tentatively. “JA!” the voice said loudly, followed by a torrent of words I couldn’t hope to understand. At the next pause, I explained who I was. “SPRECHEN SIE DEUTSCH?” she asked suddenly. “Ich spreche nur ein wenig Deutsch,” I stammered. What she said next—in German—floored me: “Yes, you speak German. From now on, I will only speak in German to you. Understand?” She couldn't have known that I had effectively used up the entirety of my conversational German already.
“Ja,” I said quietly, scared to death by the force of the Germanic wind that had just blown over me. She let loose with a stream of instructions on getting to her house—buses and trains and walking—I listened for three or four minutes. “Danke schoen,” I said at the end of the complicated and long directions. I turned to Elizabeth. “Let’s take a cab,” I said.
True to her word, Frau Schmidt never spoke a word of English to me for the next four months. She was a beautiful and formidable woman, with white hair swept up on top of her head, with cheekbones so sharp and with skin so translucent.
Frau Schmidt owned the Otto Steuben Restaurant at Gabelsberger 24 in Munich. [If anyone reading this lives in Munich, I’d love to know if it’s still there.] And wasn’t that the perfect street name, a remembrancer of Herr Doktor Gabelsberger who invented the seemingly incomprehensible German shorthand, swoops and curls of language I couldn’t grasp any more than I could hold on to meaning in the barrage of consonants I heard daily from Frau Schmidt.
She scared all the other students on the trip with her brusqueness, but cooked a huge American Thanksgiving dinner for all of us that fall. “MACHT DAS LICHT AUS!” she would yell to Elizabeth and me if she came into our apartment and a light was on in a room we weren’t inhabiting at that very moment. Her restaurant was on the ground floor of an apartment building and we stayed in one apartment while she lived in another, an apartment I can’t recall ever seeing while there.
The restaurant was a popular place, packed to the gills at all times of the day and night, and Frau Schmidt determined early on that the very best way for me to practice German was to wait tables in the restaurant. I learned how to ask for people’s orders in perfect German. The problem was that once I shut up and they started telling me what they wanted, I had no idea what they were saying. So I would write the only thing I knew on the order pad, over and over and over again: Zweimal eier mit kartoffeln. Two fried eggs over potatoes.
The first few times entire tables received the same dish, there was lots of incomprehensible yelling and flailing of arms and sputtering and free beer to placate the masses. Then it became a game. People would ask to sit at my tables, so they could prove to their friends that the crazy orange-haired American really did give everyone the same dish, regardless of what they had ordered. Soon it was like a little kartoffeln cult had formed.
Frau Schmidt would stand in the kitchen and smile, then sternly change her smile into a frown when she saw me coming toward her, telling me I was going to bankrupt her rare potato collection.
I started getting up very early to go downstairs at 5:30 a.m. to peel potatoes for the restaurant. The first few days, Frau Schmidt turned me away. “What do you know about potatoes?” she said gruffly, motioning for me to go. But I kept showing up and soon we fell into a rhythm, the two of us, peeling potatoes quietly side by side for an hour each morning before she would motion for me to sit down for breakfast while she continued working.
I had to take the GRE exams that fall, a Saturday trek that would have to start at 3:00 a.m. in order to take buses, trains, and walk to the U.S. Army base where the test was being given. Imagine my surprise to find Frau Schmidt in the darkened restaurant with breakfast ready for me. “Magic potatoes for you,” she said, smiling. We sat together as I ate, quietly talking as we both woke up. “Good luck on your exam,” she said as I left, holding out in front of her a paper bag for me to take on my journey.
When I got on the train, I opened the bag to find a beautiful lunch she had prepared for me, with a note in her shaky hand in English: “This will give you much energy for your brain.”
One evening, Elizabeth and I walked back to our place from the Frauenkirche very late at night, surprised to find a light on in the Otto Steuben. Just one light, above a large table near the back of the restaurant. “I wonder what’s going on,” I said. We stopped to look. There sat a table full of old German men, sleeves rolled up and their elbows on the table, each holding a hand of playing cards. Shouts and whoops filtered out into the street. Large steins of beer were raised and swayed back and forth in their laughter. And there, standing just under the green lamp in her white apron, glowing white skin, and white hair, was Frau Schmidt, dealing cards like a Vegas shark, a slight smile on her face.
My mother came to travel with me the last weeks of my stay in Germany. My father had recently died and I thought it would be good for her to get away. Having not traveled overseas before, I marveled that she made her way there alone, through customs in Dusseldorf, and on to Munich in blinding snow. When I got back to Gabelsberger Strasse with her—taking buses, trains, and walking—Frau Schmidt was there to meet her. For the first time in four months, she spoke English, feeding my mother potatoes and regaling her with stories of my stay there in mock frustration—“she still messes up the people’s orders,” “she is a big nuisance early in the morning.”
Only when I left to deliver my tables full of zweimal eier mit kartoffeln did she tell my mother quietly that she loved me like a granddaughter.