Steeped in German by Edna Ferber
I am living in a little private hotel just across from the court house
square with its scarlet geraniums and its pretty fountain. The house
is filled with German civil engineers, mechanical engineers, and Herr
Professors from the German academy. On Sunday mornings we have
Pfannkuchen with currant jelly, and the Herr Professors come down to
breakfast in fearful flappy German slippers. I'm the only creature in
the place that isn't just over from Germany. Even the dog is a
dachshund. It is so unbelievable that every day or two I go down to
Wisconsin Street and gaze at the stars and stripes floating from the
government building, in order to convince myself that this is America.
It needs only a Kaiser or so, and a bit of Unter den Linden to be
The little private hotel is kept by Herr and Frau Knapf. After one has
seen them, one quite understands why the place is steeped in a German
atmosphere up to the eyebrows.
I never would have found it myself. It was Doctor von Gerhard who had
suggested Knapf's and who had paved the way for my coming here.
"You will find it quite unlike anything you have ever tried before,"
he had warned me. "Very German it is, and very, very clean, and most
inexpensive. Also I think you will find material there—how is it you
call it?—copy, yes? Well, there should be copy in plenty; and types!
But you shall see."
From the moment I rang the Knapf door-bell I saw. The dapper, cheerful
Herr Knapf, wearing a disappointed Kaiser Wilhelm mustache, opened the
door. I scarcely had begun to make my wishes known when he interrupted
with a large wave of the hand, and an elaborate German bow.
"Ach, yes! You would be the lady of whom the Herr Doktor has spoken.
Gewiss Frau Orme, not? But so a young lady I did not expect to see. A
room we have saved for you—aber wunderhübsch. It makes me much
pleasure to show. Folgen Sie mir, bitte."
"You—speak English?" I faltered with visions of my evenings spent in
expressing myself in the sign language.
"English? But yes. Here in Milwaukee it gives aber mostly German. And
then, too, I have been only twenty years in this country. And always
in Milwaukee. Here is it gemütlich—and mostly it gives German."
I tried not to look frightened, and followed him up to the—"but
wonderfully beautiful" room. To my joy I found it high-ceilinged,
airy, and huge, with a vault of a clothes closet bristling with hooks,
and boasting an unbelievable number of shelves. My trunk was swallowed
up in it. Never in all my boarding-house experience have I seen such a
room nor such a closet. The closet must have been built for a bride's
trousseau in the days of hoop-skirts and scuttle bonnets. There was a
separate and distinct hook for each and every one of my most obscure
garments. I tried to spread them out. I used two hooks to every
petticoat, and three for my kimono, and when I had finished there were
rows of hooks to spare. Tiers of shelves yawned for the hat-boxes
which I possessed not. Bluebeard's wives could have held a family
reunion in that closet and invited all of Solomon's spouses. Finally,
in desperation, I gathered all my poor garments together and hung them
in a social bunch on the hooks nearest the door. How I should have
loved to show that closet to a select circle of New York
After wrestling in vain with the forest of hooks, I turned my
attention to my room. I yanked a towel thing off the center table and
replaced it with a scarf that Peter had picked up in the Orient. I set
up my typewriter in a corner near a window and dug a gay cushion or
two and a chafing-dish out of my trunk. I distributed photographs of
Norah and Max and the Spalpeens separately, in couples, and in groups.
Then I bounced up and down in a huge yellow brocade chair and found it
unbelievably comfortable. Of course, I reflected, after the big
veranda, and the tree at Norah's, and the leather-cushioned comfort of
her library, and the charming tones of her Oriental rugs and
"Oh, stop your carping, Dawn!" I told myself. "You can't expect
charming tones and Oriental doo-dads and apple trees in a German
boarding house. Anyhow there's running water in the room. For general
utility purposes that's better than a pink prayer rug."
There was a time when I thought that it was the luxuries that made
life worth living. That was in the old Bohemian days.
"Necessities!" I used to laugh, "Pooh! Who cares about necessities.
What if the dishpan does leak? It is the luxuries that count."
Bohemia and luxuries! Half a dozen lean, boarding-house years have
steered me safely past that. After such a course in common sense you
don't stand back and examine the pictures of a pink Moses in a nest of
purple bull-rushes, or complain because the bureau does not harmonize
with the wall paper. Neither do you criticize the blue and saffron
roses that form the rug pattern. 'Deedy not! Instead you warily punch
the mattress to see if it is rock-stuffed, and you snoop into the
clothes closet; you inquire the distance to the nearest bath room, and
whether the payments are weekly or monthly, and if there is a baby in
the room next door. Oh, there's nothing like living in a
boarding-house for cultivating the materialistic side.
But I was to find that here at Knapf's things were quite different.
Not only was Ernest von Gerhard right in saying it was "very German,
and very, very clean;" he recognized good copy when he saw it. Types!
I never dreamed that such faces existed outside of the old German
woodcuts that one sees illustrating time-yellowed books.
I had thought myself hardened to strange boarding-house dining rooms,
with their batteries of cold, critical women's eyes. I had learned to
walk unruffled in the face of the most carping, suspicious and the
fishiest of these batteries. Therefore, on my first day at Knapf's, I
went down to dinner in the evening, quite composed and secure in the
knowledge that my collar was clean and that there was no flaw to find
in the fit of my skirt in the back.
As I opened the door of my room I heard sounds as of a violent
altercation in progress downstairs. I leaned over the balusters and
listened. The sounds rose and fell, swelled and boomed. They were
German sounds that started in the throat, gutturally, and spluttered
their way up. They were sounds such as I had not heard since the night
I was sent to cover a Socialist meeting in New York. I tip-toed down
stairs, although I might have fallen down and landed with a thud
without being heard. The din came from the direction of the
dining-room. Well, come what might, I would not falter. After all, it
could not be worse than the awful time when I had helped cover the
teamsters' strike. I peered into the dining-room.
The thunder of conversation went on as before. But there was no blood
shed. Nothing but men and women sitting at small tables, eating and
talking. When I say eating and talking, I do not mean that those acts
were carried on separately. Not at all. The eating and talking went on
simultaneously, neither interrupting the other. A fork full of food
and a mouthful of ten-syllabled German words met, wrestled, and passed
one another, unscathed. I stood in the doorway, fascinated until Herr
Knapf spied me, took a nimble skip in my direction, twisted the
discouraged mustaches into temporary sprightliness, and waved me
toward a table in the center of the room.
Then a frightful thing happened. When I think of it now I turn cold.
The battery was not that of women's eyes, but that of men's. And
conversation ceased! The uproar and the booming of vowels was hushed.
The silence was appalling. I looked up in horror to find that what
seemed to be millions of staring blue eyes were fixed on me. The
stillness was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Such men!
Immediately I dubbed them the aborigines, and prayed that I might
find adjectives with which to describe their foreheads.
It appeared that the aborigines were especially favored in that they
were all placed at one long, untidy table at the head of the room. The
rest of us sat at small tables. Later I learned that they were all
engineers. At meals they discuss engineering problems in the most
awe-inspiring German. After supper they smoke impossible German pipes
and dozens of cigarettes. They have bulging, knobby foreheads and
bristling pompadours, and some of the rawest of them wear wild-looking
beards, and thick spectacles, and cravats and trousers that Lew Fields
never even dreamed of. They are all graduates of high-sounding foreign
universities and are horribly learned and brilliant, but they are the
worst mannered lot I ever saw.
In the silence that followed my entrance a red-cheeked maid approached
me and asked what I would have for supper. Supper? I asked. Was not
dinner served in the evening? The aborigines nudged each other and
sniggered like fiendish little school-boys.
The red-cheeked maid looked at me pityingly. Dinner was served in the
middle of the day, natürlich. For supper there was Wienerschnitzel and
kalter Aufschnitt, also Kartoffelsalat, and fresh Kaffeekuchen.
The room hung breathless on my decision. I wrestled with a horrible
desire to shriek and run. Instead I managed to mumble an order. The
aborigines turned to one another inquiringly.
"Was hat sie gesagt?" they asked. "What did she say?" Whereupon they
fell to discussing my hair and teeth and eyes and complexion in German
as crammed with adjectives as was the rye bread over which I was
choking, with caraway. The entire table watched me with wide-eyed,
unabashed interest while I ate, and I advanced by quick stages from
red-faced confusion to purple mirth. It appeared that my presence was
the ground for a heavy German joke in connection with the youngest of
the aborigines. He was a very plump and greasy looking aborigine with
a doll-like rosiness of cheek and a scared and bristling pompadour and
very small pig-eyes. The other aborigines clapped him on the back and
"Ai Fritz! Jetzt brauchst du nicht zu weinen! Deine Lena war aber
nicht so huebsch, eh?"
Later I learned that Fritz was the newest arrival and that since
coming to this country he had been rather low in spirits in
consequence of a certain flaxen-haired Lena whom he had left behind in
An examination of the dining room and its other occupants served to
keep my mind off the hateful long table. The dining room was a double
one, the floor carpetless and clean. There was a little platform at
one end with hardy-looking plants in pots near the windows. The wall
was ornamented with very German pictures of very plump, bare-armed
German girls being chucked under the chin by very dashing mustachioed
German lieutenants. It was all very bare, and strange and foreign to
my eyes and yet there was something bright and comfortable about it. I
felt that I was going to like it, aborigines and all.
After my first letter home Norah wrote frantically, demanding to know
if I was the only woman in the house. I calmed her fears by assuring
her that, while the men were interesting and ugly with the fascinating
ugliness of a bulldog, the women were crushed looking and
uninteresting and wore hopeless hats. I have written Norah and Max
reams about this household, from the aborigines to Minna, who tidies
my room and serves my meals, and admires my clothes. Minna is related
to Frau Knapf, whom I have never seen. Minna is inordinately fond of
dress, and her remarks anent my own garments are apt to be a trifle
disconcerting, especially when she intersperses her recital of dinner
dishes with admiring adjectives directed at my blouse or hat. Thus:
"Wir haben roast beef, und sparribs mit sauerkraut, und schicken—ach
wie schoen, Frau Orme! Aber ganz pracchtvoll?" Her eyes and hands are
raised toward heaven.
"What's prachtful?" I ask, startled. "The chicken?"
"Nein; your waist. Selbst gemacht?"
I am even becoming hardened to the manners of the aborigines. It used
to fuss me to death to meet one of them in the halls. They always
stopped short, brought heels together with a click, bent stiffly from
the waist, and thundered: "Nabben', Fräulein!"
I have learned to take the salutation quite calmly, and even the
wildest, most spectacled and knobby-browed aborigine cannot startle
me. Nonchalantly I reply, "Nabben'," and wish Norah could but see me
in the act.
When I told Ernst von Gerhard about them, he laughed a little and
shrugged his shoulders and said:
"Na, you should not look so young, and so pretty, and so unmarried. In
Germany a married woman brushes her hair quite smoothly back, and pins
it in a hard knob. And she knows nothing of such bewildering collars
and fluffy frilled things in the front of the blouse. How do you call