Sunday, September 13, 2009

Das smokybackroom

There is almost no place in the world where I will tolerate cigarette smoke, much less pay to be there, but the Cafe Hawelka close to the towering St. Stephens Cathedral is an exception. Built in 1939, the patio looks much like any other nice European cafe, but its inside that you get the real experience. Withered old men, stately matrons and ambitious young men in crisp shirts all sit at old tables positioned perilously close together and order coffee off of a non-existent menu. This is a place where you need to know your coffee and, according to my travel guide, simply ordering coffee will offend the waiter. They have cake, only one kind as I was told when I asked for a menu, but it's very good.

What I like most about the Cafe Hawelka, its history and rustic furniture aside, is that it is far-removed from the coffee shops of North America, where coffee is presented in myriad forms, but never as a dark, bitter drink to be enjoyed in calm, or against the backdrop of pleasant German conversation. Instead, you have floral colours, fruity drinks, a cheerful atmosphere and adult contemporary music. At the Cafe Hawelka, the waiters are polite, but brusque, and without any pretensions. As a bonus, the smoke and sub-standard lighting inside obscures your vision of any tourists who might wander in off a heavily touristed pedestrian street nearby.

I very strongly regret not having spent more time in Vienna. Two days were just enough time to catch my breath from the train ride, eat meals, visit the museum displaying the crown jewels of the Habsburg dynasty, visit their summer palace, the St. Stephens Cathedral, and spend a couple of hours at a cafe. This left a long list of museums, art galleries, and even the state opera, worth visiting if only just to get inside the building.

At the social experiment site-cum-hostel, I met a Chinese and a Dutch girl who study in the United Kingdom. In the case of the Dutch girl, she had lived her entire life outside of the Netherlands (largely in developing countries), but remained a Dutch citizen. Meeting someone who had similarly complicated and varying answers to the question "where are you from?", not to mention shameful struggles with their native language, was very entertaining.

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