BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Once a month, like clockwork, Frank Lahde heads to Right Brain Brewery for some beer and friendly conversation — in German.
The occasion is a “Stammtisch,” both an informal group meeting held on a regular basis by the German Club of Traverse City and the table reserved for the group. The concept and term for Stammtisch originated in Germany, where a table in a pub or restaurant often is reserved for regular customers.
“Our intent is during the whole meeting to speak nothing but German,” said Lahde, of Traverse City, who hopes to expand the club to include German visitors and advanced German students. “We talk about things in our own lives or things that are going on around us. We try to stay away from U.S. politics and religion. We want to make it a friendly group.”
The group is one of at least two international “clubs” in Traverse City, including “C.I.A.O. al Villaggio,” a cultural Italian American organization that meets at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. While that group is organized around Italian lessons offered by native Italian Barbara Baggi, the German Club formed as a way to practice and enjoy conversational German after a popular “Ultimate” German course at Northwestern Michigan College was discontinued.
“When the teacher got sick and stopped teaching for a while, the group decided to continue getting together and liked the idea of Stammtisch,” Lahde said. They started meeting monthly at Horizon Books beginning in January, then decided to move their get-togethers to a local brewery to make it more authentic.
Now the friends gather on the third Thursday of every month at a quiet corner table marked by a German flag. Some, like Lahde, are native German speakers who want to exercise and enjoy their mother tongue. Others want to practice and improve their language skills in anticipation of travel to Germany.
Those just learning the language can participate to their ability or simply listen.
Lahde was born in Germany and spoke German at home even after his family moved to the U.S. when he was 11. Now in his 70s, and with fewer opportunities to speak the language, he decided to brush up on his skills in order to more fully enjoy the internationally known Oberammergau Passion Play. The play is performed every 10 years in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau.
“I thought I better take some German classes because the play is performed in German. So I took lessons for a year and a half before the play and then continued because I intended to go to Germany often,” said Lahde, who has cousins in Germany and attended a Lahde family reunion there.
Kristine Seelye majored in German in college and did a summer exchange program in Germany.
“When I got married I wanted my husband to meet my host family and we started traveling to Germany,” said Seelye, a singer-pianist and former Traverse City Central High School German teacher. “Then we thought it would be nice to find a German language school for my husband, Eric, and found one in Bamberg, Germany, called Treffpunkt Spachinstitut. Now we have an apartment in Bamberg and live there half the year and half the year in Petoskey.”
It was Kristine and her father Don Seelye, of Charlevoix, who first discussed the idea of starting a Stammtisch in northern Michigan. Inspired by Kristine’s travels in Germany, Don studied German at NMC and in Bamberg and experienced for himself Treffpunkt Spachinstitut’s version of the get-together around a local pub table to drink beer and visit.
Barbara Baggi taught Italian at NMC for five semesters while studying there for a business administration degree. After taking an internship with The Minervini Group, redevelopers of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, she was invited to teach language classes there.
Now her school year students — level I, or basic, and level II, or “piu, a bit more” — meet once a week for lessons and once a month for Italian movie nights, evolving into more of a cultural group. There’s even a summer bocce tournament and picnic, complete with Italian folk music.
“They love it,” said Baggi, of the movie nights, which include a potluck and an Italian DVD, with English subtitles, ordered directly from Italy and played on a multi-region DVD player. “I usually have between 30 and 60 people.”
Baggie, who moved to Traverse City from Gorizia in northeast Italy, said many joined the group as a way to connect with their Italian heritage.
“If you look at their last names, many are Italian,” she said. “I think they have a very strong connection to their heritage. They still cook the same. What happened when their ancestors came here is they brought their traditions. They still have them. They’re very tightly connected.”
Rose Hollander isn’t Italian, but she plans to visit Rome this summer while on her way to visit her stepson in Istanbul, Turkey.
“I’m taking Italian, knowing I want to travel to Italy,” said Hollander, of Suttons Bay. “It’s really helpful to know a bit, at least to read a sign. Even if I didn’t have a trip in mind it might not be a bad idea to learn a new language. I think there is something to be said about learning new skills as you age. Our brains can keep improving and we can slow down aging. And this area has become such a mecca for travelers from different places.”
A newly certified chef, Hollander said she also has a “great foodie interest” in Italy. Eventually she hopes to study the food culture of Rome and to cook for fellows of the city’s American Academy.
“It’s a wonderful, old, venerable institution that invites Americans who have achieved a certain level in the arts,” she said.