Coffee in Vienna
This winter, I took a train to Vienna and spent several days visiting its cafés. Typically, I would wake up, amble to a coffee house, and linger over a mélange. Sometimes, the morning would bend toward the afternoon. It was easy to spend hours inside a place like Café Sperl and not notice the time. I read my book, perused the papers, and sipped my coffee, emerging as invigorated as if I had eaten my fill at a breakfast buffet.
These Old World urban temples seem to offer space and time in spades, something so rare these days. The soaring rooms make you feel like you’re just part of the scenery, in a comforting way. You are never cramped or pushed up against other customers. In Vienna, I learned the word Gemütlichkeit. The word sounds like a broken washing machine, but it actually refers to a space where people can be themselves: a refuge of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer.
Inside these coffee palaces—some of which, like Café Griensteidl, have scarcely changed in 200 years—you feel like you can put the world on pause as you watch the morning light shift through ecru curtains.
I had come from Istanbul, and the bond between the two cities and coffee was not lost on me. Had it not been for the Ottoman siege over 300 years ago, coffee would not have arrived here as early as it did. The Turks were repelled from the city’s gates in 1683, leaving behind several bags of mysterious beans. Nobody knew what they were—except for one man who had spent time in Arabia, who recognized their aroma and saved them from the fire. So, the legend goes, Vienna’s glorious coffee houses were born.
Today, they are listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, though they seemed quite tangible to me. The marble tabletops, the tiled floors, the sheen on the wood bar, the porcelain coffee cups: all spoke of a very concrete and all but bygone world.
The waiters are mostly men of a certain age, tall, in snappy bowties. They never hurry, but swish your order to your table with a solemn mien that seems to convey deep respect for your choice to be there. Newspapers are bound on long, wooden holders. I had forgotten that reading an actual newspaper was such a tactile experience: the rustling of the big pages, the ink that stains your fingertips.
Babette Tischleder writes in her book The Literary Life of Things about the durability of objects, and how culture is dependent on the context and continuity of things in order to exist. There is wonder in the relationship between human lives and the material world that often outlasts us. It is this reification inside Vienna’s cafes that makes them so remarkable but not museum-like: they are still functioning as they ever have, with people coming and going, smoking, eating, and talking.