I wrote this originally in March, 2015– it had been my intention to post it after talking to Dick, to make sure he was OK with what I’d said. As some of you will know, he died just after his 80th birhtday in August. We passed through again just after Christmas, so I thought I’d put this piece up.
Ruhe in Frieden, Uncle Dick. Rest in Peace.
We were in Florida last week, and stopped off for a visit with my wife’s aunt and uncle, whose house, surrounded by palms and scrubby pines, has several large rooms and an even larger swimming pool with a hot tub. Though they have lived in the area for over a decade, I wouldn’t say that they’ve gone native in any way (besides the nightly soaks in the hot tub), but scattered around the house are mementoes of their former life in the Northeast, and their lives even before that.
Uncle Dick is almost eighty, but seems no different than when I met first met him two decades ago. He was born in the German-speaking part of Slovakia in the 1930s, during the build-up to the Second World War, and feels a strong attachment to his heritage. “It’s like Quebec,” he told me. “Even though the rest of the country speaks one language and has one culture, we were completely part of another one.” One of the ways in which he expressed the pride he takes in his ethnic background is in collecting beer steins. There are quite a few of them around the house, on top of the kitchen cabinets, the bookcases, and on the window behind the TV.
I happened to take one of them down to look at. “That belonged to my father,” Dick said. As you can see, it’s a engraved pewter stein that comes with two little identical shot-cups. They could easily be over a cnetury old. On the back is a poem, which is illustrated on the front.
The verses are in fact the first stanza of a longer poem called Die Lindenwirten, “The Linden Hostess,” written by the nineteenth-century German poet, Rudolf Baumbach. In it, a young man addresses a barmaid about his lack of resources, and you can see him on the front of the stein holding up his empty sack, while an empty jug of wine sits on the table beside him. The barmaid, who urges him to leave the sack with her for credit and to continue drinking, can also be seen; later, at her urging, he leaves his walking-staff, coat, hat, and finally his heart. Above them can be seen the branches of a linden, among the most beloved of trees in Germany and Slovakia–indeed, on coins of Czechoslovakia the linden is prominently featured to represent the Slovaks.
Keinen Tropfen im Becher mehr
Und der Beutel schlaff und leer,
Lechzend Herz und Zunge,
Angetan hat’s mir dein Wein,
Deiner Äuglein heller Schein
Lindenwirtin, du junge!
Not a drop left in my cup
And my purse, spent and empty
A longing heart and a thirsting tongue
Your wine has done it to me
Your eyes shine brighter for me
Linden Hostess, young lady!
According to Wikipedia, “Baumbach was a poet of the breezy, vagabond school and wrote … many excellent drinking songs, among which Die Lindenwirtin (‘The Linden Hostess’) has endeared him to the German student world.” It’s easy to see a connection between The Linden Hostess and the popular 20’s operetta, The Student Prince, in which young prince Karl Franz enjoys his college days in Heidelberg in the company of other young rakes and the beautiful Kathie, the barmaid of the beer-garden. Of course, his father will die and, amid great melodrama, he’ll have to leave her behind to assume the throne. But first some great drinking sings will be sung, among them Gaudeamus Igitur and the ever-popular, Drink Drink Drink!. It would be fun to sing one of them holding Uncle Dick’s stein some day, overflowing with a foamy German beer.
Postscript. Of course, the real point of the Linden Hostess is to remind us to enjoy ourselves while we can. Concerns about money, about reputation, all worldly things– these pass away, like the leaves and lovely blossoms of the linden. There are things more lasting, like the palm or the pine, and even more enduring than those, like or the pewter cup or the poem of romantic love.
From from the 1954 movie of THE STUDENT PRINCE starring Edmund Purdom and Anne Blyth, with the voice of Mario Lanza: