'Happy Thanksgiving!" exclaimed I with appropriate exuberance, for it was Thanksgiving Day. I recall it was a Thursday in November and we were at the Hotel Stern in Waiblingen, Germany. The hotel is gone, victim of municipal face-lifting soon after we departed. But I hope you will find the rest of Waiblingen as we left it, a comfortable Swabian village in Neckar Valley a few kilometers from busy Stuttgart, an unlikely place for two happy visitors to be thinking of turkey and all the fixin's.
We would be on the telephone at three hours the next morning to swap holiday greetings with our family back home in Maine, where the time difference would make it 9 in the evening, just after a turkey feast without us. Now it was Morgenfrüh in Waiblingen, and we would breakfast with hard rolls and four-minute eggs with Frau Besitzerein, who never heard of the Pilgrim Fathers or pumpkin pie. Did anyone else ever wonder about the European four-minute egg?
Back in Maine, where our hens labored for us, it took four minutes to boil a four-minute egg. But in Europe, you may ask for a four-minute egg, and the waiter says "certainly" and sets it before you at once. There it is, in perfect four-minute consistency, and he hasn't been gone 10 seconds.
Morning after morning, as we visited 10 countries, I asked about this and got no answer. One waiter said, "I'll ask the cook," and then we found that he was the cook.
At Waiblingen, our landlady was pretty, blonde, affable, a mite plump, and a war widow. At the dining room door we exchanged "good morning," shook hands in the continental way, and I said that back home today was Thanksgiving.
"Ah, Ja!" she said. "Dankfest; I've heard of that. Everybody in America eats turkey!" After a pause she said, "I have never seen a turkey."
So we chatted, and she sat with us, as we were her only breakfast guests. She translated the Schiller verse over the dining-room door: "Order with a smile, and the world will laugh with you also." She promised to be up at 3 a.m., to make sure our telephone call to America went smoothly.
We had bought a car in Germany, and our tour was at our pace without reservations ahead. We avoided tourist traps, and found each evening a small family-run hotel off the beaten path, always saying as we signed in, "Overnight, but we'll stay longer if you wish." Our French was good and our German adequate; that helps. When we couldn't make our wishes known, somebody would ask if we spoke English. Except in England; we never found out what the English speak.
Thus it was on Thanksgiving morning in Waiblingen, but our youngsters back home were still abed and the gobbler was yet to go in the oven. We told our landlady that the turkey had been suggested for our national bird, but the eagle had won. After breakfast we walked about Waiblingen and found some of the shops already had Christmas displays in their windows, one of them was a toy electric train
It was a German passenger train, and midway it had the little red dining car that goes with every German train and is forever remembered by all tourists who partake. I'd have bought the train for our son, except that he'd owned his Lionel train since his first Christmas. We left the little train as we found it, going around and around an Advent wreath.
Then we found a grocery "super" store that had opened for its first day. New World groceries had come to Germany. We stepped in, shaking hands with the proud owner, and found just what we wanted. In the center of the American-style store was a frozen-food case with a half-dozen turkeys, each in a plastic bag drawn tight by vacuum and frozen hard as a grindstone.
Ours was not to reason how or why, and we took the biggest tom back to the Hotel Stern to let the landlady gaze on something she'd never seen before. "Hier," I said, "gibt es ein echter amerikanischer Truthahn!" The solid thing fell on the table like a ton of bricks.
She said, "Tso!" That's about all there was to it. She had no idea about preparing a roasting bird of that size, and we didn't stay to show her. We never saw the turkey again. I surmise she thawed Tom and cooked him in pieces stovetop, and wondered further about foolish Americans. We went out again to see some more of Waiblingen. I bought a hat, my wife bought something, and we came back to Hotel Stern to find a note on our door: Please at 15 Hours, Dankfest Chicken.
We arrived to find a table set with the lady's own china, not hotel dishes. There were three places. I called her gnädige Frau and kissed her hand as if I'd done it many times to many Frauen. She asked me to offer a blessing. I recited the Selkirk Grace of Robert Burns; I felt there couldn't be a more appropriate time and place.
Then Herr Ober (the waiter!) came from the kitchen with a platter of fried chicken and all the fixings, and we ate Thanksgiving dinner in Waiblingen with our landlady. For dessert we had Black Forest cake instead of pumpkin pie. We didn't mention the frozen turkey; neither did our gracious hostess.
And at 3 o'clock the next morning, our phone call to Maine rang on the precise second. Our youngsters told us they missed us at dinner and asked how we made out so far from home.