by Dianna Flett
Christmas in Germany is a magical time. There are Christmas shops called Christkindlmarkts set up in the city centers of the larger cities. From November till just before Christmas the markets are filled with ornaments and holiday foods that make them a cherished addition to the season. You stroll from one merchant stall to the next with warm wine and sweet cinnamon roasted almonds while the stall owners tempt you with their wares. I’ve never once been to a market that I haven’t walked away filled with the holiday spirit.
In the 1990s my husband and I were living in Frankfurt, Germany. It was the holiday season and we had a Saturday with nothing scheduled so we decided to go into town, stroll the market and find a gasthaus (local restaurant) in the city center for lunch. The Gasthauses were packed with holiday shoppers. We went from one to the next and couldn’t find a table with two open chairs. We were making one final attempt at a larger gasthaus in the center of Frankfurt. It too was packed and we were about to leave when the Fraulein (waitress) motioned us toward a table that, while relatively empty, was reserved for the locals and regulars.
Most German restaurants have a reserved table, especially those in the town centers. It is called the Stammtisch. It is improper to take a seat there yourself even if the seats at the table are the only ones left. There was one man sitting at the Stammtisch table reading a paper. Our waitress motioned us to come over to it and sit down and the man reading the paper glanced up and nodded. We used our best German to greet him.
The inside of the gasthaus was very traditional. It was a mesmerizing space full of dark wood, and beautiful carvings along the walls, booths, and tables. From this favored table we looked out of smaller paned windows facing the city center, (imagine a window from the Leaky Cauldron if you are a Harry Potter fan). Soon after we ordered a Glühwein (hot spiced wine) the seats at the table began to fill up with regulars making their way from the market. They were full of the holiday spirit, very inviting and before we knew it food, beer, laughter and cognac started coming to the table and was shared freely. War stories flowed in both German and English, and of course all of the older men at the table explained that they fought the Russians during WWII. Rarely did we meet an old soldier in Germany who talked of fighting the Americans.
Steve and I sat for hours eating and drinking with our new friends. Then it dawned on me: we had nowhere near the amount of Deutschmarks we would need to pay for our portion of what we’d just enjoyed. At that time you couldn’t just pull out a debit card and pay. There were no ATMs or money machines to access and we started to panic a bit. How embarrassing to not be able to satisfy our debt after laughing, singing, and connecting with our host nation tablemates.
We started pulling together what money we had and pondered how we could meet our obligation. We asked the waitress for our bill and when the waitress brought it to us, the bill showed only the two spiced wines we’d ordered hours before. She nodded toward the man across the table who had been sitting there reading his paper as we arrived. He smiled and lifted his glass. He was the restaurant’s owner.
Steve and I began to protest that we couldn’t possibly accept such a kind offer. Then the owner asked us something I still think about routinely.
He looked at us both and in heavily accented English asked, “Why would you question good fortune?”
I think about that moment often. I think about the man’s generosity, his smile, his nod and his lesson. Now I accept kindness with grace and show kindness without expectation of return. I no longer protest when a friend or colleague offers to pick up lunch, or buy me a coffee. I know it makes them feel good to extend the kindness and I, in turn, remember to not question good fortune.
*Dedicated to my friend Denise…thank you for showing kindness to the world.