In A German Pension
( Originally Published 1887 )
PENSION life is the general rule for foreigners on the Continent of Europe, and accordingly my first experience of German life was in a pension. It is a peculiar life, as interesting as novel. What a mingling of odd characters and varied histories ! We know nothing of the kind in the New World. Here life is plainer, simpler, and there is not the possibility of meeting at the table, in hall or salon, under the same roof, adventurers, mysterious beings, all those strange people with histories who start up everywhere in the crowded Old World. In Germany, as the land of students, the pensions are largely for these, with an occasional mingling of transient guests. In one family are artists, musicians, linguists, tourists, many nationalities. We have nothing in America corresponding to this pension life. With a more extended, less crowded country, so many students do not gather in one place, and the general traveller seeks a place where he may be perfectly independent, which one never can be in a pension. Private or independent life is wholly impossible, for the association of the members of the pension is necessarily close a family relation. In the first place, the rooms are all in connection ; for, in these immense buildings, each separate dwelling is upon one floor, apartments en suite, so that there are no halls or stairs to cut off communications. The pension is hotel, home, school combined, with peculiar aspects of each. There is one common salon, a common table where all dine together ; we must pass one another many times during the day, and altogether it is impossible to preserve any privacy or freedom of action. Add to this the natural German curiosity, the determination to find out all your affairs, and the customs which have grown up from ages of this feature of society, this pension life. i The pension madame has a responsibility aside from the domestic affairs of the establishment ; she is to see that all have proper advantages for study, especially in the language, to keep all acquainted with concerts, amusements, current events, and give directions as to sight-seeing. At the same time, she often in our pension, we think, too often takes to herself superior airs, and attempts to play the Schulmeisterin to her grown up pensioners, peculiarly trying this, to free born Americans.
On my arrival there were ten other pensioneren so there are eleven of us, all ladies. It is quite the custom to make this distinction, and these homes, for ladies alone, afford a safe and agreeable place for American girls in Europe. We are all students in this pension on Konigin Augusta Strasse, up four flights, all save one, an elderly lady from South Africa, the torment of each day's life. She will speak English. Now, we are all obliged to learn to understand and speak German as soon as possible. Our instruction is all in German, and much time is lost before we can obtain the full benefit of that for which we have come so far. Many avenues to pleasure and knowledge are opened by a familiarity with the language, otherwise closed. All lectures, lessons, discussions in public, sermons, theatres, conversation in society and the homes, all guides, all is in German, and much is lost when the language is not known. In America our study of modern languages is so feeble. True, we have little use for aught save English, and here there is daily contact with at least three languages, German, French, English, and a good sprinkling of Italian, Russian, Norwegian, and Polish. How the Germans study languages ! and how they manage to make use of opportunities for practice ! They aggravate us beyond expression. They seize every chance to use a foreigner. They will always answer us in English, broken as it may be, in spite of our frowns and indignant remonstrance.
" We have come too far to teach you English and give you the advantage!" With supreme indifference and persistence they continue to use the American for practice. Would that we had been as wise in America, where so large a German population offers fine opportunities for such practice. Germany would have revealed its treasures earlier and with far less labor.
So our first labor in Germany is to bend every energy to acquiring the language. Grammar and dictionary are faithful companions, and we strain our eyes to decipher every sign along the streets, and our ears to catch every scrap of conversation. It is the rule of the pension to speak nothing but German when the family is assembled. A little box for fines, fur den Armen, always present in Europe, is placed on the table, and for every English expression five pfennige must be dropped in. Now, the English are very proud of their speech, especially when Americans are near. American English is below par in Europe. How our blood has boiled many a time at the disparagement cast upon our English. Actually, a German who speaks broken English, if learned from an Englander, thinks he speaks purer Anglo-Saxon than an American. Our speech is even styled a different language the American language. " Why," said a German, in surprise, " I understand you as well as an Englander." This, however, is only one form of their ignorance with regard to America, and it is a prejudice for which the English people are partly responsible. It is simply incredible what profound ignorance exists about us. One lady, apparently intelligent and of a high class in society, upon my remarking that I was from the United States, asked me if the United States were in New York. Indians and Mormons are invariably mentioned as our close friends and fellow-citizens, and our madame remarked that I would scarcely want to go to see the Indians at the museum, as I saw Indians every day at home. Such ignorance seems inexcusable, yet it generally exists. So our lady from the Cape land, who is a born Englander, persists in vexing our spirits with a tongue we would gladly forget. What seems very remarkable, and yet is invariably the case, all the American girls find just such a person in every pension. In vain the Casse is placed near her. In vain she is told that German is the common language ; that some cannot understand English at all ; that we must learn the prevailing speech. An Englander yield ? No ! We can only groan inwardly.
This is especially trying to the spirit of our little violinist, a young girl from New Jersey, here for a three years course in violin study. She has a hard time, for the German masters are pitiless. They are exorbitant in the amount of work demanded, and inexorable in the perfection expected. The practice exacted is terrible. Music students have no easy life in Germany, particularly the Americans, accustomed to the courtesy of American professors, and who find also that beginning later in youth, as we do, it becomes almost impossible to enter the race with the Germans, who have been trained in music almost from babyhood. Our violin student must give each day to uninterrupted practice. From early morning the violin is heard, with its squeaks, wails, tremolos, and penetrating quavers. Mur-murs arise from the neighboring students, and the pension madame orders a few blankets or Roman rugs to be hung about the walls to deaden the sound, and the patient violinist continues to draw the bow to and fro hour after hour.
Well, if we pity the violinist standing for four or five hours with no rest, with chin, head, arms in the most trying position, what can we say of our commiseration for the poor piano student. From seven to nine hours a day at the instrument, with never-halting fingers, until, with back nearly broken and feeling quite so, fingers bruised, and head weary, she drags herself to a concert in the evening. There is no pity in the soul of the German master. His eyes are upon Art. She, also, is severe, unyielding. Human weakness, mortal frailty are not of her ken. Drop rather by the wayside than degrade or lower her by feeble, faltering effort. It is this severity of aim that makes the German masters seem cruel, yet this loyalty to art is the secret of their mastery. Their philosophy admits no sympathetic encouragement, no helpful sympathy ; it is push, drive, whip. The students real students are slaves. The discouragement's that fill the soul of the American student, the valley through which they must pass, we speak of those we have met, and that is quite a number, often make one call out to American girls to be content with mediocrity and home. Only the very highest genius is worth the bitter struggle. The sacrifice of home, friends, comfort, often health, is too much to lay on the altar of musical attainment or fame. A student coming from America does not know what is before her. Praised at home, until she believes she is gifted, she comes here, thinks she has only to mention her former teacher, of local celebrity, play a solo, and be welcomed. It is not so. After many attempts, she may have a hearing before the master, and he will probably refuse to take her as a pupil. The masters are autocrats, and money cannot bend them. If received as pupils, it is a thorny road. One young girl, quite gifted, known as a composer in musical circles, remained with Liszt a few weeks. She had come over the ocean to be his pupil, and, although she loved and honored him, she left him and came to Berlin, to the leader here, Scharwenka, saying, " The Master asked too much. I could not stand it." Stern as the masters are, the pupils are devoted to them, and search the city for their favorite flowers, and vie with each other in the beauty of their offerings. But, aside from the instruction and inspiration of these men of genius, there are wonderful opportunities for the study of classical music. The opera is superb, and, then, think of ochestra concerts every evening for the insignificant sum of eighteen cents! Great composers themselves are frequently present. Rubinstein, Brahms, Hartmann, Clara Schumann, Von Bόlow, and the violinist Joachim are often heard. One fact is evident, that for music to be studied professionally, the natural brightness of the American can never take the place of the technique, acquired only by years of severe discipline ; for the study of music for appreciation, here is the place, and even the non-musical person may learn the style and pecularities of the composers from the constant attention at the concerts. You can readily see how the Germans love music, for in addition to the Opera House, the Sing Academy, the many gardens, two large orchestras Bilse's and the Philharmonic keep up concerts every night, and the halls are always filled and crowded. The people sit about the tables, have the beer brought to them, the men smoke their pipes and cigars, and the women knit. On Tuesday night Symphony night no smoking is allowed, and it is the favorite night for Americans.
Our painters in the pension do not find their path strewn with roses. Our two artists are Norwegians, with the rose-leaf complexion, golden hair, delicate blond beauty, soft ways, and gentle voices of the dwellers of the rough coasts of Norway. They study with Gussow, the celebrated artist here. Quite a number of girls go to him, work in his atelier, on models which he gives them, and receive occasional directions from him. The instruction is meagre, and the fee is sixty marks (fifteen dollars) a month, yet they say those few minutes when he condescends to notice a girl are worth much in the advice and inspiration. The students stand at the easels, palette in hand, for hours, no resting nor sitting ; and then drag their weary limbs up the many, many stairs to the pension home, and throw themselves on the bed, nearly dead with weariness. The pianos, violins, singing are hard on their strained nerves, but where is the remedy ? The people of Berlin have tried to secure a law to limit the hours of practising, but, with the desire to keep it an art and musical centre, the move would be disastrous. At any rate, we have peace at night. While the Americans in private families think it abominable that the great city is kept as a seminary, the great hall doors locked, hall lights out, pianos closed at ten every night, still we in the pension are glad of the regulation. Some of our artist friends, not so far advanced, go to the art school in the Victoria Lyceum. This is a school founded by Miss Archer, under the patronage of the Crown Princess, for the higher education of woman. There is the regular course of instruction, the lecture course, and the art course. The Americans in the art course say that the sketching and nature studies, the department they especially wish to learn, is not so fine here as at the Cooper Union in New York or the Philadelphia and Cincinnati art schools. The pupils do not receive so much individual attention, nor is there so much original work. We cannot judge of this, but there is no doubt that in some directions we are in advance, for we see no such sketches as in our Harper or Century, and no such gems as our holiday illustrated books. For painting, of course, the opportunities here are wonderful, for here are the masterpieces, and the study by school, masters, or works can be carried on to perfection. We can-not but wish that a gallery of good copies existed in America, where our talented artists could study. It is this study, this familiarity with genius and great works, that we lack. True, copies would fail to breathe the soul of the original, still they would educate and create a love and knowledge of art which is now feeble and limited among our people. We are many times hurt at the contemptuous way in which the Europeans speak of the American ignorance of art. One episode I shall never forget ; coming so early in my European experience, it was a double shock. In a large German company this story was told as an illustration of our art ideas : A wealthy gentleman in New York had built a fine house, fitted it out in elegance, and then sent for an artist, and re-quested him to furnish the room with pictures that would harmonize in color with the carpets and appointments. Burning with indignation I related the story to one of the American artists. Instead of finding equal indignation, she spoke from her own experience of a similar case ; her uncle, a Philadelphia millionnaire, who, when his new home was finished, measured the sizes of the various spaces where pictures were needed, bought handsome frames of the correct measurement, and then filled them with chromos !
And I they call me the student of Wissenschaft. I have entered the Victoria Lyceum as a pupil, to study the German methods of instruction, particularly in Latin. The German language, too, is an aim, for only in the land of the German can it be learned ; only there can the pronunciation become as firm as crystal, as lasting as diamonds, and as smooth as melted gold. But even a student of Wissenschaft finds heavy tasks here. Think of three of Horace's Odes to be committed in perfect rhythm, and four to be prepared for translation, all for one lesson! or three pages of Tacitus ! Then the Professor gives long involved German sentences and demands an immediate translation into Latin. The four German girls in the class respond promptly, but the American, still struggling with the German meaning, shakes her head. The Professor looks over his gold glasses, and, in most withering tones, cries, "Ist es mug lish?" I never had a better teacher. He is Dr. Richter, one of the finest scholars of Germany, and his Latin books are in use in all the schools. A foreigner in this study is rare, and he seems to take special care with me, a kindness I had no reason to expect. He says he has had one American pupil before, a lady in Indiana, whom, of course, he expected me to know. It. is hard for him to understand the difficulty of using a double translation, as I must in the class. He wants the Latin put directly into German, whereas I must know it in English first and then comes the more difficult task. It will take time to meet his expectation of a single translation. He was much interested in hearing about Dr. Sauveur's Natural Method. He himself unites with it a simple grammatical instruction. I would call Dr. Richter's progressive rather than natural, and yet it is natural in its steps, and makes the language a growth until fully and rationally acquired, far more agreeable and successful than the terrible grammatical drill in common use in many of our home schools. I attend three of his classes, to see his full method in the regular progress from beginners to readers. The teaching is magnificent, and when the hour is over the brain is weary. The Professor asked me to write the lesson, and he would correct, something he does not do with the regular pupils, and a great kindness. I have worked six hours on a lesson, with not the faintest hope in the end that it would be right, yet the " musikers " practice as long, and the artists stand longer at the easel, and I consider my art as worthy of labor as theirs, although Latin for a woman is not popular. One of my classmates is afraid to tell her relatives that she studies Latin, and they are under the impression that she attends the Lyceum for Italian. With the men, Latin is almost a living language ; taught from earliest childhood, and so thoroughly for many years, it is no bugbear in school life, and they do not bear away from the school a confused jumble of rules, a smattering of literature, and an utter impossibility to read at sight and to form elegant sentences. A Latin word supplies a hesitancy many a time ; our doctor on the steamer supplemented his faltering English with his ready Latin.
There are also several German girls with us from the neighboring towns attending school in Berlin. There is nothing of the romping, frolic-some American girl in them. They are models of propriety ; make their little courtesies (sort of a quick bob up and down called a knixchen) at the proper times, never lean back in their chairs, are dreadfully afraid of boys, and very curious concerning this unknown quantity. It is amazing, all they have read. One is only sixteen, yet she has read the Iliad, Odyssey, AEneid, the Greek tragedies, in German, of course, as girls seldom study Latin or Greek. French and English are familiar to them, and their knowledge of the modern languages and the literature of each is exasperatingly marvellous. However, we have one compensation. We would be wholly ashamed of their smattering of mathematics, science, and geography. Of America all they know is New York. America means New York. Sometimes we can scarcely keep our patience. We of the United States are credited with all the evils done on the Western Continent, and are called to account for murders in Chili, and reproached with the bankruptcy in Buenos Ayres. Mormons, Indians, octoroons, negroes, bears and wolves seem to make up our population with a plentiful sprinkling of gold. It would be fun to know just exactly the chimera in the brain of a German which represents America to him. Some of us carry little maps of the United States in our pockets, and constitute ourselves peregrinatory teachers and sow the good seed as we go.
One of these German students is a little girl of thirteen, and by having a German child in the house we learn many of the customs of the people, revealing themselves as delightful surprises. Mariechen has come to Berlin to receive catechetical instructions previous to her confirmation. Her name is Marie, but she is called " Mariechen," the "chen" being a diminutive, added to names as a term of endearment to make them pet names. A different being is this little German girl from the American miss of thirteen. Our bright, dashing independence, with bangs and bangles and flying ribbons, freedom and will speaking in every movement, a contrast to the little plain German child with smooth shining hair, simple garments, quiet, timid ways and ready sacrifice of will. One morning we entered the Speise-saal (dining-room), and there stood a table covered with a glistening white cloth, looped with vines, ferns laid about the edge, brightened here and there with roses. In the centre was the great feature a Birthday Cake. And such a Birthday Cake ! an American child never even dreamed of such a Birthday Cake ! It is an immense round, snowy cake, and about it, burning, thirteen little colored candles, in the middle of it a larger taper, called the Lebens Licht the light of life, the life-candle. Such a cake is generally present on birthdays, and each year another candle is added. The cake, as all the fine cake, is somewhat like our jelly cake, with a soft icing, decorated in various ways on top, usually with conserved fruit. The icing of this Torte, is of marzipan, rubbed almonds and powdered sugar.
The Birthday Cake first fixed our attention, and then, after this surprise, we noted various other things upon the table. There were little gifts, a hymn-book, a prayer-book, some crocheted lace for collar and cuffs, a picture of Luther, an amber pin, a bracelet of garnet beads, all simple little things, not apt to spoil a child. While we were thus admiring, Mariechen entered. An air of expectancy, a mingled shyness and eagerness, which her naturalness could not hide, revealed how much the occasion meant to her, yet how unlike the impetuous, impulsive enjoyment of the American girl ! And how unlike her, too, she now, before even resting her eyes upon the tempting table, shakes hands with each one present, dropping the little "knix" in acknowledgment of the congratulations. Then the presents, and the beginning of a happy day for the child, and the whole house is steeped in smiles and happiness. It is so throughout Germany on the Birthday. The person whose natal day it is is called the " Birthday Child," without regard to age, and every one is bound to make the day happy for the " Child," and the old man, or old woman, because a child again. It is a beautiful thing, this re-living childhood for one day every year.
When Mariechen has formally examined her gifts, no wild American glee, we all sit down to breakfast. Before her place is a coffee cake (a sweetened bread, baked in earthen moulds), which she cuts and passes around. A great day it must be to displace the customary rolls, and a holiday spirit is at once imparted by this departure. A bunch of flowers is at her plate. A German festival cannot be without flowers. While at breakfast, the door-bell rings, and there is a shower of letters and pretty cards for the Birthday Child. The postman and telegraph messenger vie with each other on this day, for all the relatives and friends send good-wishes. It is astonishing how everybody remembers everybody's birthday, and how no one is forgot-ten or forgets. In fact, each individual has a birthday-book in which to keep account of these days, and the little book warns as a friend's birthday draws near. Expensive presents are seldom given, a card, a letter, a bunch of flowers, a plant, merely as a token of remembrance. It seems, however, that this does sometimes be-come a burden. Our little violinist was met by her professor, on going to her lesson one day, with the earnest exclamation, " I must go to America!" To all her questioning there was the .one response, a sad shaking of the head, and the mournful conclusion, "I must go to America!" I-le finally explained that (as he is a popular musician) he had so many friends, his wife so many, his daughter so many, that it took his whole income to keep up the birthday gifts ; and, to save himself from final starvation, he had concluded it would be best to go to America ! There are various reasons in the settling of this new country, probably none as unique as this!
During the day, friends call, bringing a bunch of flowers, a pot of heather, or, perhaps, the delicately lovely Alpine violet. The Birthday Cake is cut, and the guests enjoy it with a glass of wine, or "Bowie," wherewith they drink to the health and prosperity of the " Child." The dinner is extra, too. There is chocolate soup with whipped cream on the top, and as dessert the cake, with wine, when all rise, and, after clinking glasses, drink to the future of Mariechen. As we were only pensioners and strangers, we felt sorry for Mariechen that her cake must disappear in this manner, and a doubt exists in our mind as to the similar acquiescence on the part of an American girl to have her cake devoured thus.
Altogether, the German Birthday is a happy home festival : brothers, sisters, parents, children delight to make it so. Often charming surprises are prepared ; the children will learn a drama for papa's birthday, one may write a poem, one learn a French or English recitation, or a little one will secretly practise a piece of music, and perform it as a gift to mamma. We were de-lighted with the celebration of court preacher Frommel's birthday. Each child brought a " gift of talent." One son offered several of his own musical compositions, charming songs, and the sisters illustrated them by tableaux-vivants. Another son came a long distance with his gift of song and poetry, sung magnificently, and all were happy in the father's happiness. Could anything be more really acceptable to a parent's heart than such a gift from the children, of their own talent, of their best, part of their own inner, higher, nobler selves, what better or more beautiful to lay at a parent's feet? Is there not in this something infinitely higher than the exchange of the most costly gifts of material wealth, which, after all, can never be our best, because not of the heart ?