The commotion felt familiar, if not for the difference of six thousand miles and the topics at hand. Mr. Baumann, his wife Sara, their seven year-old daughter Denise, and I sat at a raucous table in the otherwise quiet traditional Austrian restaurant in Pinkafeld.
Mr. Baumann taught English for HTL Pinkafeld’s facility management department, and he stood out from his colleagues not only for his jolly belly but also for wearing Arsenal paraphernalia to work every Friday. Because he had lived in Great Britain as a foreign language assistant couple of decades ago, at school he either chided me for speaking “the inferior English” or handed me DVDs of Father Ted to watch as homework. Whenever we greeted each other in the hallways or in the teachers’ lounge, he smacked his broad, hairy hand onto his wrinkled forehead and bemoaned that I still spoke American English. In return, I had begun calling him a “cheeky nando” for the past couple of weeks, which was not a phrase he had encountered during his time in London and had shown to be successful in mildly upsetting him. Mr. Baumann swayed back and forth and alternately shifted his weight on his feet to convey distress, and it was during one of these recent moments of discomfort for him that he offered to buy me lunch. In return, he proposed, I would stop calling him a cheeky nando. I declined.
“Well, how about just lunch, then? On me, and no strings attached.” That I could agree to, so I did. He instructed me to meet him on Wednesday at the restaurant Szemes on Main Street between the school supplies store and the biker bar. “It’ll be on Martinitag, so we won’t have work. Oh, and you know what – I’ll bring my family along. You can meet them. It’ll be a blast.”
I arrived at Szemes right as Mr. Baumann, Sara, and Denise were getting out of their car in front of the restaurant. I introduced myself to Sara, whose slim body and curly blond hair were accompanied by a shrill voice, black-rimmed glasses, and caterpillar-sized lips. Denise, a chubby first grader with large, brown eyes that stared at me inquisitively, tugged the hem of her mother’s long dress and asked her in German if I was from China.
“Hi, my name is Hans. I’m not from China, but I am from California.” I stuck my hand out and smiled. Denise took a step back, giggled, and told me that my German sounded funny.
“Isn’t little Denise charming?” Mr. Baumann roared. “Come on, let’s get seated inside. There’s only so much small talk I can make when I know there’s a fantastic goose meal waiting for me.” Mr. Baumann pulled the restaurant door open, and we walked inside where a young, plump waitress seated us at a table in the back. Around us sat grey-haired elderly couples that spoke in pleasant whispers, their silverware clinking and clanking and making more noise than the patrons’ voices. Mr. Baumann ordered a wine for the adults and apple juice for Denise. When the waitress returned with our drinks, Mr. Baumann ordered roasted geese and red sauerkrauts for the table except for Denise.
“I want French fries,” she wailed. “Now!”
“And we’ll get you just that, pumpkin!” Beamed Mr. Baumann. “In the meantime, why don’t you go grab the colored pencils and paper from the other room and draw something for us like a good girl?” Sara rolled her eyes and downed half her glass in one gulp while Denise bounced out of her chair in excitement to collect her art supplies.
While we waited for our food, Mr. Baumann explained the Martinitag holiday in his thick, Burgenland accent, most of which I failed to understand. My interpretation of the lore behind Martinitag was that Saint Martin, for whom the holiday was named after, had given his cloak to a pauper and hid with the geese. Why Saint Martin hid with goose was a mystery, but I figured that the Burgenländers needed some excuse to eat geese and get plastered by 1 P.M. The restaurant’s customers eating and drinking and slurring their words nearby supported this theory.
Soon after our food arrived, however, Mr. Baumann and Sara began to bicker about Mr. Baumann’s cell phone usage, sparked by Mr. Baumann taking out his phone to photograph his meal.
“He’s addicted to his cell phone. Everywhere we go, anything we do, he always has to have his phone out.” Mrs. Baumann was talking to me but her gaze remained fixed on her husband, who swayed in his chair and laughed nervously in response to her accusations. “Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about! If you don’t have your phone out, you start shaking and scratching your neck.”
“Look, mommy, I drew Hans as a teapot!” Denise screamed in delight. She extended the paper over the bowl of sauerkraut in the middle of the table, and I noted that the teapot version of me had six vertical pairs of eyebrows and a pig’s nose, as well as a mane. I took the drawing from Denise’s outstretch arms, thanked her, folded the piece of paper, and slipped it into the back pocket of my jeans.
“That looked wonderful, sweetie,” Mr. Baumann complimented his daughter in German. “However, your mother is a bit busy yelling at daddy right now. Make sure to eat all of your fries, all right, honey?”
I attempted to divert the conversation away from the topic of cell phones by asking Mr. Baumann how his trip in the Czech Republic had been. Mr. Baumann had told me earlier last month how he and his Matura class were traveling to Prague and the medieval town of Czesky Kremlau in late October. Relieved, Mr. Baumann flashed a broad smile and was about to indulge me with the details of the trip until Sara put down her wine glass, placed her hands in her lap, and cleared her throat.
“Yes, dear?” Mr. Baumann had his phone in his hand again ready to show me photos from the trip.
“I’m sorry, Peter, but you were in Czesky Kremlau?” Sara spoke softly, and I decided now was a good time to chug my wine, signal our waitress to refill my glass, and focus on the roasted goose in front of me.
“Well, yes, Sara.” A moment of silence followed Mr. Baumann’s answer. Sara tilted her head back, narrowed her eyes, and cast her husband a glance that got him to start swaying again.
“You never told me that you were in Czesky Kremlau.” Mr. Baumann’s smile remained frozen on his face, but instead of excitement, terror replaced the look in his eyes.
“I, uh, I didn’t, dear?”
“No.” The waitress came over to our table to fill my glass, surveyed the situation without saying a word, and elected to pour me extra wine. I thanked her with facial expressions and a nod. “And? Did you have a good time? Czech women are quite beautiful, as you’re probably well aware.”
“My God, Sara, could we not do this right now?”
“Do what? We’re just chatting. How do you find your roasted goose, Hans? It’s fantastic, isn’t it?” I told her it was the best, goddamned roasted goose I had ever eaten, guzzled my second glass of wine, and lied to the Braumanns that I had a tutoring session that I had forgotten about in ten minutes. Neither Mr. Braumann nor Sara believed a word of it, but both stuck their hands, assured me that they understood completely, and spat out jumbled sentences about commitments and priorities and the weather. I thanked Mr. Braumann for the lunch, said bye to Denise, who ignored me, and walked out of the door.
Halfway to my dorm, the look on Mr. Braumann’s face as his wife confronted him about his trip sprang to my mind, and I pulled out the picture that Denise had drawn of me. After thinking about both images, I spent the rest of my walk back home laughing to myself.
Later that day, I received a text message from Mr. Baumann profusely apologizing about how lunch had turned out. I assured him that there was nothing to apologize about and reminded him that in my eyes he was still the cheekiest of all the cheeky nandos.