The German village of Waiblingen is in the Neckar Valley of Swabia, near Stuttgart. We celebrated a Thanksgiving there in successful manner, and I bought a Swabian hat.
This was more than 30 years ago, and my hat is as good as new, with oxidized silver ornaments on the band and a goat's whisker sticking up. I wear a hat infrequently, being a cap man, so it gets little wear and bides in a dust-proof box on the closet shelf with an annual outing at Dankfest to remind us of the good time we had in its place of origin. It is not a small matter for an Amerikaner to purchase a hat in Germany.
Stepping into a haberdashery in that country lays you liable to a high-society decorum and the entire transaction calls for stately dignity unknown, as far as I know, in our hurry-up American states. That I needed a new hat crept up on me. I had a hat with me on our trip, but it was faded and glum. I also had several caps that advertised the Red Sox, Blatchford's Calf Meal, and Mailhot's Best Sausage. I had the hat along for dress-up.
But we were doing more dress-up than at home, and my crummy farm-context hat was wearing out. In Waiblingen there was a men's clothing store on the main street with an attractive display of hats in the show window.
The sign above said Erwin Winter. Mr. Winter had just the model I wanted perched on a dummy in the center of his display, a dark-gray felt with narrow brim in the prevailing Swabian style. I wanted that hat.
But I was aware from earlier purchases that entering a German quality store is an experience of fastidious decorum, like a wedding at Westminster Abbey, and certainly nothing to be undertaken by an uncouth foreigner.
I went to our hotel, put on a somber necktie, cleaned my nails, practiced a few umlauts, sponged my money, and went back to do business with HerrWinter, the hatter. I approached the front door with confidence and a purposeful pace. The door, as I expected, was opened for me from the inside by a comely young lady with smart attire and sensible shoes. She held out her hand and said, "Welcome, sir, please step in!"
I shook hands with her, asked how it was going, and as I passed she closed the door. Ahead of me, now, were three other stylishly garbed females, and we shook hands and inquired of this and that. When we all assumed the correct posture, one of them asked if they might be of service.
The Swabian cadence is interesting German, I suppose partway 'twixt the flat north German and the Bavarian dialects, and I was listening carefully. I said, "Danke, Ich möchte einen Hut."
"Ja, ja, einen Hut!" they chanted, and I thought they might go into a dance, like the Rockettes. Instead, one at a time, they went to bring a hat, and then they stood in line, one hat apiece, and I was to try them on for size.
The next step was to find my style and color. I remember a troupe of Bulgarian jugglers I saw once at Boston's Scollay Square. They had a hurricane of flower vases, dishes, footstools, and all manner of things to throw, and it was a wonderful act. But nowhere near so well done as these Fräuleins with my choice of hats. And polite with soft bittes and entschuldigens.
After so much of this I was able to get my Yankee German into gear, and I bowed as if balancing my partner in "The Lady of the Lake." I said, "Schaufenster!" The hat I wanted was in the show window.
At this, the back hatch of the window was opened, a lady stepped through, and she brought the hat out, or, I guess, in. It was my size, too. The ladies agreed it was just right on me. We all shook hands again and I endorsed a traveler's check.
At the conclusion of our crass monetary exchange, one of the ladies fitted my new hat to my head. Then they all stood back, looked at me in awe, and held their hands up in a Lillian Gish gesture of admiration. They escorted me to the door, and after we shook hands and wished a round robin of Auf wiedersehens, one of them held the front door open while I went out.
I had merely bought a new hat, but my exit was as triumphant as if I'd just been knighted at Buckminster.
My wife was waiting for me on the sidewalk. "What in the world took you so long?" she asked. I said, "It's a mail-order joint for Sears, and they had to send to Chicago."
I have tried, but I well know few Ausländer will understand my enthusiasms about buying a hat in Waiblingen. I've heard of nothing to equal it.
The pomp, the circumstance, the effusive and complete welcome, the sincerity of every word, and a handsome hat besides, right color and size, and set upon my eager brow by caring hands. What in the world took me so long?
"Tomorrow is Thanksgiving," I offered to my wife, who said my new hat was becoming.
That evening, back at the Hotel Stern, I told the same to our landlady. "Yes," she said, "I've heard about your Dankfest. Everybody on Amerika eats turkey! I have never seen a turkey."
My Swabian hat serves me well. I don't wear it often, but it is always ready to go. And on or off, it reminds me well that a turkey is not essential to gratitude. In Waiblingen I saw a sign in a hat store: "When you smile, the world smiles back." It was in German, but what difference does that make?