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Night on the Town in the Beer Halls of Heidelberg

July 05, 1987|JOHN McCAFFERTY | McCafferty is a Times copy editor.

HEIDELBERG, West Germany — I didn't really expect to find dueling societies from the University of Heidelberg hoisting their steins at the Red Ox. But I also wasn't ready for what I did see: tables full of American tourists, mostly the older women of a tour group, swinging beer mugs over their tables and lustily singing: "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah . . . Someone's in the kitchen I know-ow-ow-ow. . . ."

A large German man banged away on the piano, a small upright that reverberated nicely from the wooden wall behind it and the concrete floor underneath it. A low ceiling added to the wash of music over us as we stepped in out of the rain. "Someone's in the kitchen with Di . . . nahhhhhhhh . . . ."

A young man in the group grinningly motioned to us to join them, perhaps needing some male support amid all this female energy. "Strummin' on the ol' banjo. . . ." A cheer went up and all applauded the pianist.

Welcome to Heidelberg. It wasn't "The Student Prince," but it wasn't bad. There was considerable Gemutlichkeit in the air and the sturdy Fraulein who waited on tables quickly seated us and took our order. A trio from Tennessee joined us, and then a quartet from Japan.

I told the fellow from Tennessee that I couldn't help but think of the Big War (he was old enough to have been in it) as we Americans drank with Japanese people in a German place.

"You know," he said, "I was just thinking the same thing." It's no doubt a common thought. He then recounted some history of the area, and how Heidelberg had been spared by the Allies, except for a bridge. (We had read the same tourist literature.)

It was pleasant sitting there at tables carved with a thousand initials, some said to go back to the days when all the singers and songs were German. My German professor said drinking and singing were such steadfast and well-coordinated efforts that the students placed songbooks on wire racks to keep them out of the beer that sloshed along the table tops. "Eins, zwei, drei, vier, lift your stein and drink your beer. . . ."

Overhead hung the horn mugs of important people--long curving ox horns that could hold at least a liter of beer. The smoke-darkened, hand-carved wooden walls were adorned with pictures of fraternities and other historical photographs, trophies, swords and guns.

'Student Prince' Days

A rotund, smiling gentleman from the Isle of Man, now a language teacher at the university here, showed up and began singing a German song as soon as he had sat down across from us and introduced himself. He sang so exuberantly that I thought he was going to ask for free drinks in return, but it turned out that he was a regular customer and just liked the atmosphere, the singing and, of course, the beer.

The piano player left and the teacher suggested we follow him next door to Seppl's, the other pub left over from Heidelberg's romantic "Student Prince" days. (The piano player alternated, playing for both establishments.)

"They really get kind of crazy at Seppl's as the evening wears on," the teacher said.

He was right.

We went next door and found the same general atmosphere and decorations, but much more noise and more whitecaps of beer sloshing from half-liter mugs as the Frauleins hurried by.

We gathered that the boys in the corner were U.S. servicemen. They were raucously attempting to chug-a-lug their beers--not remarkable for young drinkers, except that the beer came in glasses shaped like a woman's boot that held 2.5 liters each. The sturdy heads of foam rose up like white stockings over the golden brew. It was a spectacular serving, and we knew we had come to the definitive German Biergarten .

International Flavor

The boys (two turned out to be from Redondo Beach) were lustily singing: "Almost Heaven, West Virginia-a-a-a-a, Blue Ridge Moun . . . tains, Shenandoah Ri-i-ver-r-r-r. . . ."

The music got ever louder and the pianist went ever further from Heidelberg. When he got to Zorba's theme, I had to break into a Greek dance. A group of tipsy German tourists joined in and we lurched madly about the room as the crowd urged us on with rhythmic clapping and stomping.

Seppl's . . . Heidelberg . . . B-17 bombers . . . Greek tavernas. Somehow it all started making sense, so I knew it was time to go home.

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