Definition: Stammtisch - a table reserved for regular customers.
My first experience with a Stammtisch was a personal embarrassment. It was 1965 and I had just arrived in Germany for a three-year tour of duty with the US Air Force, without knowing a word of the language and never having been in Europe before. Soon after arriving we went out to dinner at a local restaurant. The waiter was busy elsewhere so we just picked a table that was empty to sit at that was near the back of the restaurant. We had no more than seated ourselves when the waiter bustled up, very agitated, and told us "Nein, nein. Hier is nur für der Stammtisch!"
I looked at him with a puzzled look on my face. "Sorry, but I don't speak German," I said.
He replied in English "This is a special table. I have a better table for you over there." He moved us to another table and brought our menus, and we ordered. We knew we had done something wrong but didn't have a clue what it was. About mid-way through our meal Germans started coming in by ones and twos and headed directly for the table we had been shooed away from. It was then I noticed a card on it that said "Stammtisch." Everyone was welcomed by the waiter and ordered beer and schnapps. Soon they were all engaged in lively discussion. We left the restaurant shaking our heads in puzzlement about what had happened and what "Stammtisch" meant.
That experience as much as any drove my determination to learn the language and the customs of the country that was going to be my home for the next few years. I took two years of German through the local branch of the University of Maryland while I was there, and gained enough fluency so that I could carry on a simple conversation with my neighbors and could order a beer with the best of them.
And I learned that a Stammtisch is a table reserved for regular customers who gather on certain days of the week to talk, play cards, or hold meetings. The custom is not confined to Germany. Wherever there are German speakers there are informal gatherings where they can casually speak German to keep their language skills from growing rusty, and to share ideas, poetry, or literature. Much like the regular meetings of the Rotary or the Kiwanis, the Stammtisch gatherings are often at a favorite café or meeting hall where a spot is reserved for them.
I had forgotten about Stammtisch until a few weeks ago when a group of us were gathered at the home of some friends in Sweden to share Christmas cookies and glühwein. We were swapping yarns about living in Germany, and I made the observation how rusty my language skills had become. Kathy Huchthausen suggested that we should get together once and awhile to talk German. I asked, "Do you mean at some sort of class?"
"No, nothing as organized as that. Just an informal gathering where we can speak German and sharpen our language skills," she said.
"Like at a Stammtisch," her husband Peter suggested, explaining what the term meant.
We liked the idea, and made plans to start a local Stammtisch in the area. I found that the Stammtisch is a longstanding custom not only in Germany but all over the States as well. For example, people have been gathering regularly for a Stammtisch at the Café Royal in New York City for more than 25 years. The San Francisco Bay Area German Stammtish is even older and has its own website, and the Alemannia Society of Charlotte, NC, even has joint visits with a sister city in Germany. The Charlotte Stammtisch invites everyone to its, including those who grew up with German as their mother tongue and others who learned it as a second language. They open their doors to "Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Americans, British, Dutch, Argentineans, and other Citizens of the World."
Our local Maine Stammtisch was going to be much more humble. I called and made arrangements for a room at the Bridgton Community Center for Friday, January 14, 2005. We put notices in the local papers and posted flyers around town. Everyone called friends who they thought might be interested. We had no idea how many would show up, and were pleasantly surprised when thirteen people gathered for the first Stammtisch on a cold, snowy evening.
There were those who had been born in Germany and Austria and had learned the language as children. There were others, like myself, who had tried to learn it as an adult. We spent the first evening talking about ourselves and how we had learned the language, and in the course of our conversations also learned how well (or if) we had command of it. I had to strain to understand all that was being said, but found that I could interpret about 2/3 of it. My own attempts at speaking were painful, but the group was understanding and helped me along when I couldn't remember the right word or phrase in German. There are a lot of words and grammar buried deep in my head, and hopefully with a little prompting and practice I'll be able to bring them to my tongue so I can use them.
The stories people told were fascinating, from Kathy's experiences learning German at the prestigious Goethe Institute and then living in Europe, to some of the native-born Germans and Austrians who had lived through World War II there and the terrible post-war years as refugees.
The Bridgton Stammtisch will meet again on Friday, January 28, 2005 at the Community Center, and twice a month thereafter. The table is open to all, no matter what their German language skills are, and everyone is invited. If you are interested in joining the group, or have questions, please call (207-787-2730) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
This article was edited and published in the Portland Press Herald on January 27, 2005 under the title "Interest in speaking German leads to new Stammtisch".