Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Remembering a Special Word

There it was, spelled out in all its glory…
O-C-H-S-E-N-S-C-H-W-A-N-N-Z-S-U-P-P-E. I’d never seen a word like it.

At the end of my first day in Germany, August 1, 1962, I had changed into civvies and walked off base from Coleman Barracks, five miles outside Mannheim, to a modest country gasthaus at the end of a farm lane, just a few yards from the Rhine River.

From its position at the head of the menu and its final five letters, I figured OCHSENSCHWANNZSUPPE must be soup. But what kind? … I had no idea. When the waiter came to take my order, I wanted the word. I pointed to its 19 letters, spread out like a banner across the top of the left inside page of the speisencarte.

“Ja, ochsenschwannzsuppe?” he asked, pronouncing all five beautiful syllables slowly and clearly. I loved hearing the word; it was so exotic. It occurred to me that the only German word I knew for sure at that point was gesundheit.

“Ja” I replied, taking to the language with lust, “ochsenschwannzsuppe.”
I had made my first transaction in a foreign language although my pronunciation was risible.

The waiter seemed pleased, all affability, as though it were a triumph of understanding for both of us. Then, as so often occurs when only one of two speakers is native to a language, he was encouraged to go on and speak a few sentences, quickly, and replete with the gutturals I would come to love. I only understood, from the uptick in his voice, that he had ended with a question.

I decided to just say “Ja.” I’ve always been a culinary adventurer, able to eat anything, so it didn’t matter much to me what I had ordered. I could wait to find out.

But I hadn’t been able to wait to get out among the German people, to experience “exotic” after 23 years during which I’d never traveled further from my native New York City than Columbus, Ohio.

I had arrived only that morning, a newly minted ROTC Second Lieutenant, fresh from four serious party-hard years at Cornell University. Two months in Armor Officers’ Basic at Fort Knox, Kentucky, had hardly prepared me for the introduction to my platoon… four sergeants and eighteen enlisted men, who had lined up, chests out, in front of their shiny washed tanks with guns pointed to the sky, and saluted me only a few hours earlier. It felt strange to be addressed respectfully as “Lieutenant Mc Kay, Sir” when I still felt like Joe, the Phi Delta Theta social chairman.

As I signed the documents accepting responsibility for the inventory of five tanks, a 2 ½ ton truck, two jeeps, machine guns, and many hand weapons, a shiver passed through me. I realized that I might have to lead these men, on a minute’s notice, in our five brutish, rattling panzers to defend the West German border. Tensions were high since the Berlin Wall had gone up the previous summer.

Guaranteeing that plenty of vodka and grape juice for “purple passions” was on hand for a toga party, and that “Bobby and the Counts” showed up on time with their rockin’ guitars, suddenly seemed like a faraway life.

The ochsenschwannzsuppe arrived, incredibly hardy and incongruous on that warm summer day, a thick, dark brown concoction with bits of meat, more like gravy than soup, and incredibly delicious. What I had agreed to with my second “Ja” was a huge platter of varied, healthy-looking brotchen with pads of butter stacked neatly at one end, slices of golden cheese at the other, and a smaller plate with pickled beets, cauliflower, and onions. I gauged it was enough, no multiplying miracle necessary, to feed my whole platoon. And all of it, it turned out, was provided at no extra charge.

I walked out to that gasthaus many times during my two-year tour of duty and was always greeted with a big smile and a welcoming, ochsenschwannzsuppe? Before I returned to the States, I asked the waiter/owner for that menu because the word held such a special place in my life. It had prompted me to study German and I became quite fluent.

This memory came back recently as I was preparing a session on compound words for a “Crazy About Words” class I originated and teach in my community. I love the fact that languages stretch and adapt, through compounding, to express new concepts. I read that other Germanic languages compound by stringing out a single word endlessly (eriebnisgastronomisches restaurant is a “theme restaurant”) while we English speakers use open compounds like “oxtail soup.” I think that love was born when I first saw ochsenschwannzsuppe, and I thank all the oxen who have donated their tails to making this word so memorable.

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