Toronto Daily Star/September 5, 1922
Oberprechtal-in-the-Black-Forest.-We came slipping and sliding down the steep, rocky trail through the shadowed light of the pine trees and out into the glaring clearing where a sawmill and a white plaster gasthaus baked in the sun.
A German police dog barked at us, a man stuck his head out of the door of the gasthaus and looked at us. We were not sure this was the place we had been sent to, so we walked a little way down the road that ran through the clearing to see if there was another inn in sight. There was nothing but the valley, the white road, the river and the steep wooded hills. We had been walking since early in the morning and we were hungry.
Inside the inn Bill Bird and I found the proprietor and his wife sitting at a table eating soup.
“Please can we get two double rooms?” Bill asked.
The proprietor’s wife started to answer and the proprietor glared at her while onion soup dribbled through his mustache.
“You can’t get rooms here today or tomorrow or any other time, Auslanders,” he snarled.
“Herr Trinckler in Triberg recommended us to come here for the fishing,” Bill said, trying to mollify him.
“Trinckler ?” His lower lip reached up and swept a ration of onion soup out of his mustache. “Trinckler, eh? Trinckler is not the man who runs this place.” He went back to the soup.
Bill and I each had a wife out in the clearing. Said wives had begun to be hungry about four miles back on the trail over the mountain. I, myself, was so hungry that my stomach was beginning to rumble and turn over on itself. Bill is built on the lean and graceful lines of an early Italian primitive. Any food he eats shows up on him at once like an ostrich swallowing a baseball. He looked leaner than ever. So we were very polite.
“We are very hungry,” Bill said, and I can state he looked it. “How far is the next gasthaus ?”
The proprietor pounded on the table. “You’ll have to find that out for yourselves.”
We found it at the end of four miles of hot, white road and it wasn’t much to look at. Like most Schwarzwald inns it was named Gasthaus zum Roessle or Inn of the Pony. The pony is the favorite symbol of the Black Forest innkeeper but there are plenty of Adlers (Eagles) and Sonnes (Suns).
All these inns are white-plastered and clean-looking outside and uniformly neat and dirty inside. The sheets are short, the featherbeds are lumpy and the mattresses are bright red, the beer is good, the wine is bad, dinner is at noon, you have to select your piece of black bread carefully to make sure you are missing a sour one, the proprietor never understands what you say, his wife twists her apron strings and shakes her head, there are workmen with their suspenders over their undershirts eating hunks of black bread they carve off a loaf with a pocket knife and wash down with sour wine, the beams of the ceiling are dark and smoky, chickens scratch in the front yard and the manure pile smokes below the bedroom windows.
The particular pony inn we stopped at had all these attributes and a few more. It had a good meal of fried veal, potatoes, lettuce salad and apple pie, served by the proprietor who looked as stolid as an ox and sometimes stopped with a plate of soup in his hand to stare vacantly out of the window. His wife had a face like a camel. That particular lift of the head and look of utter stupidity that belongs only to the bactrian and the South German peasant woman.
It was a hot day outside but the inn was cool and dim and we ate a big dinner with our rucksacks piled in a corner. A table of Germans in the corner kept glancing over at us. When we were on the second bottle of beer and the last of the washbowl full of salad, a tall, dark-haired woman came over to our table and asked if we were not speaking English.
That was hard to answer and it developed that she was an American singer studying opera in Berlin. She looked about forty-five, but like all good singers she had at last discovered that all her life she had been on the wrong track, had been the victim of bad teachers and now she was at last on the right track. Elsa Sembry was teaching her and she was really teaching her. It was Sembry’s great secret. Something about the glottis or epiglottis. I could not make out quite which. But it makes all the difference in the world. You depress one and elevate the other and that is all there is to it.
Mrs. Hemingway and Mrs. Bird went upstairs into one of the little whitewashed rooms to go to sleep on the squeaky beds after their fifteenmile walk, Mrs. Hemingway’s and Mrs. Bird’s walk, not the bed’s walk; and Bill and I went on down the road to find the town of Oberprechtal and try to get fishing licenses. We were sitting in front of the Gasthaus zur Sonne engaged in an intense conversation with the proprietor, which was proceeding very well as long as I kept my German out of it, when the singer appeared. She was carrying a notebook under her arm. She was in a confiding mood.
Her voice, it seemed–you understand she was telling us all this in the absolutely impersonal manner with which all singers discuss their voices–was a coloratura soprano that had been favorably compared with Melba’s and Patti’s.
“Gatti-Casazza said I needed just a little more seasoning,” she explained. “That’s why I’m here. But you ought to hear me trill”-she trilled softly and through her nose-“I never thought much of Galli-Curci. She’s not really a singer, you know. Listen to this.” She trilled again, a little louder and a little more through her nose. I was impressed. I had never heard anyone trill so softly through their nose or so loudly and clearly through their nose. It was an experience.
She then told us that Mary Garden could not sing, that Yvonne Gall was a bum, that T etrazzini was a washout, that Mabel Garrison was a flat tire. After demolishing these imposters she again spoke in a cool impersonal manner of her own indistinguishability from Patti and Melba. We then went back up the road to our inn.
At dinner that night we ran into our second example of German nastiness-and there have only been two examples encountered in two weeks in the Black Forest. The trip isn’t over yet but those are plenty.
Our table was set for five, the singer had joined us, and when we came into the dining room of the inn to sit down we found there were two blond-haired Germans sitting at the end of the table placed very close to ours. To avoid disturbing them, my wife walked all the way around the table. They then changed their seats and Mrs. Bird had to walk all the way around the other side of the table. While we were eating, they kept up a fire of comment in German on us Auslanders. Then they got up to go. They started to come past our end of the table and I stood up and moved my chair forward to let them by. The space was too narrow.
There was a perfectly clear way for them to get out around the other end of the table.
Instead, they grabbed my chair and pushed it. I stood up and let them through, •and have regretted it ever since.
Early in married life I discovered that the secret of marital happiness did not lie in engaging in brawls in a public house.
“We are Germans,” announced one of the two, sneeringly.
“Du bist ein schweinhund,” which was undoubtedly ungrammatical but seemed understandable. Bill grabbed a bottle by the neck. It looked like the beginning of an international incident.
They stood in the door a minute, but the odds evidently looked too even and workingmen at the next table seemed to be siding with us.
“Schieber!” one of them said, looking up at the two sport-clothed, round heads in the door. “Schieber” means profiteer.
The door closed. They went out.
“If only I could speak German,” I lamented. It is bad to possess a fairly extensive vocabulary and to have a feeling to be dumb when someone is cursing you out.
“Do you know what you ought to have said to them?” said the singer in an instructive manner. “You ought to have asked them, ‘Who won the war?’ Or have said, ‘Yes, it is easy to ee that you are Germans.’ I wish that I had thought to say the things I thought of.”
That continued for some time. Then she began to trill. She trilled a great many operas while we sat in the smoky i 1111. However, that night we all went out walking up the road between the black pine hills with a thin fingernail paring of a moon in the sky, and the singer stepped in a puddle. The next morning the singer had a hoarse voice and she couldn’t sing very well. But she did the best she could at demonstrating the use of glottis to Mrs. Bird and the rest of us all went fishing.
(Source: Dateline: Toronto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985)
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