It was Saturday afternoon in Baltimore's Little Italy. The pace was slow. The mood was Mediterranean. From a corner table in Germano's restaurant on High Street came the sound of people speaking German.
"Nein! Nein! Nein!" said Gabriele Link. She was objecting to something one of her fellow lunchers had said. It might have been Harry M. Brundick's account of the time he escorted a fraulein down Baltimore Street and learned the German word for pawnshop. Or perhaps it was Aldona Vanderlain, Tom Hasler and John Geldmacher recounting the time a German sailor visited the group wearing his dress white uniform and ended up in his underwear. The group ignored Ms. Link's objections and the stream of talk, and the flow of wine continued.
So it went in the free-wheeling, high-spirited gathering of the Saturday afternoon of the German-speaking lunch bunch. They interrupt each other and finish each other's stories. They act like old friends because they are. They have been meeting for lunch for virtually every Saturday for the last 15 years. One reason they started their informal group -- so informal that it has no name -- was to make studying German fun. The size of the lunch group ranges from six people on a normal Saturday, to the crowd of 14 who showed up for the group's 15th anniversary party in June.
Before their casual lunch, most of the group attends German classes taught at Zion Church of Baltimore in City Hall Plaza. The first lunch meeting came about because group members needed to recover after struggling with a class on Faust.
The German speakers ended up in the Italian restaurant because the restaurant was close to the class site and because Brundick was a friend of Germano Fabiani, owner of the restaurant then called Trattoria Petrucci. For the group's anniversary last June, Germano, as Fabiani is known to the group, served it from the same menu used when the group first met. Chicken cacciatore was $4.95, fettuccine Alfredo was $3.50, linguine with mussels was $4.50.
While the group eventually gets around to eating, mostly they talk. Members say it's common for the lunch sessions to last three or four hours. On some occasions, Ms. Link said, they have talked right up to 6 o'clock, when the dinner crowd arrived at the restaurant.
They sit at the same table and have a regular waiter. Lately, the waiter has been Justin Bowlus. "They teach me a a few German words each Saturday," Bowlus said.
The lunch group has guests, some planned, some impromptu. Brundick told, for example, of how one Saturday he met a fraulein from Bavaria while riding the subway into Baltimore from Reisterstown. Brundick struck up a conversation in German with the young woman and invited her to join the group for lunch. She accepted, and as the two walked to restaurant, they walked along the stretch of Baltimore street known as The Block. It was here, Brundick said that he learned a new word, Leihhaus. It means pawnshop.
At mention of "Leihhaus," Ms. Link shook her head. Since she is the only member of the group who was born in Germany and since she teaches German at Zion and at Baltimore's Berlitz Language Center, she is the authority on proper usage. Lowell Thompson, another group member, said the German dictionary he carried said that "leihhaus" was the word for pawnshop. But Ms. Link said "It is archaic." She preferred "pfandleihe." But the group liked Brundick's story so much they stuck to "leihhaus."
The group also had a variety of explanations for how the German sailor who visited them ended up in his underwear. The central points were that he was one of four visiting sailors from the ship Gorch Fock, docked in Baltimore harbor. He had arrived for lunch wearing his dress white uniform. During the lunch some red Italian wine was spilled on the sailor's uniform. The stained sailor and the rest of the group moved to a Federal Hill apartment, where the sailor took off his uniform to have it washed. Then, clad only his bikini briefs, the German sailor led a session about life in east and west Germany.
Not only did his discussion group keep going, it picked up a few new members, including a neighbor who had brought over an iron to help press the sailor's uniform, and an archbishop, who happened to be visiting the neighbor who owned the iron.
It was, Ms. Vanderlain recalled, one of the lunch group's better meetings.