It starts like a fairy tale. Once, there was a girl. She was staying in New York for some time, which she considered a great privilege. One day it was raining cats and dogs, so the girl was looking for a shelter. It took her a long time to find one, but then she saw the sign “Starbucks”. Well, this girl was me. On that day I was looking for a shelter as well as a cozy place to relax – in other words, I was searching for a typical coffee house like the ones I frequently go to when I am in Vienna.
The myth of the coffee house is very typical of Vienna – in this town you associate coffee houses with coziness, people reading newspapers and waiters who look like remnants of the time when Austria was still a monarchy. If you go to one of the many coffee houses in Vienna, you truly feel as if you have stepped back in time: You are surrounded by red plush, very high windows and breathtaking chandeliers. You can spend hours at this place, reading different types of newspapers and relishing one of nearly 20 different types of coffee. You may order “Gebaeck” (which means pastry) – for example the Wiener Kipferl (a Viennese version of the French croissant), the “Kaisersemmerl” (emperor roll) or even the Wiener Sachertorte (a kind of chocolate cake usually served with whipped cream) – the recipe is, like that of Coca-Cola, a well-kept national secret. Anyway, tasting these specialities, you feel like in heaven.
So far the myth. Do these traditions still exist? Is it still possible to meet a waiter who politely opens the door for you and casts a spell on women’s hearts by kissing their hands? Of course waiters in tailcoats still exist, but only for the countless tourists. Starbucks is in many ways different from the typical Viennese coffee house, but this is not always negative. At Starbucks in New York you can find people from all classes, a well-paid manager as well as a poor homeless woman. The clientele is nearly the same in Vienna (apart from the homeless woman – you won’t find her in an Austrian coffee house). There is one question I always ask myself: Why does the waiter treat the old man much better than me and my colleagues from university? Do we look like bilkers? Well, Maybe so, because the old man is served immediately, while we only get a very disparaging glance from the waiter. You can see it in his expression that he would rather be at home, sitting in front of the TV and drinking beer than serving people.
Another sacrilege comes to mind: I remember sitting next to a man at Starbucks who was having a very loud conversation with his girlfriend. In Viennese coffee houses it is considered impolite to speak in a loud voice. If a group of people have some fun and burst out laughing, it could very well happen that some people look at you indignantly, others may shake their heads and it might also happen that the waiter rather rudely admonishes you or even asks you to leave. Loud laughter apparently disturbs the holy silence reigning in the Viennese Coffee house. The relaxed atmosphere, the coziness which is often mentioned in connection with Viennese coffee houses, has given way to hurry and everyday stress. Today people rarely take the time to go to a coffee house. If they go, the coffee and the cake has to be served within 3 minutes, otherwise something else comes in between – the typically Viennese Grant (grief, anger). And so they are assembled – the angry waiter and the angry customer, feeling aggrieved, hurt and disappointed.
If you take a close look at the reason why people go to coffee houses, you can find another typical trait of Viennese people. Guests are not invited to one’s own apartment, but taken to the coffee house. That’s the only way to avoid guests getting an insight into one’s private life and to prevent them from criticizing and gossiping about one’s pictures, furniture, etc. People don’t like showing the things they have obtained through hard work. That’s the way the Viennese seem to think.
The phenomenon of “sitting in a coffee house and reading a newspaper for hours”, isn’t entirely accurate either. The paying customer is disturbed every 10 minutes by a rather impolite “Would you like another coffee” or “another Sachertorte for you?” while reading the newspaper. And if we are honest, our coffee houses are slowly becoming “Americanized”. Beautiful old coffee houses very often have to give way to new stand-up coffee places.
So I am sitting in rainy New York and ruminatimg on the good old coffee houses in Vienna. And while the rain is beating down on the windows of Starbucks and all the people outside are running by under their umbrellas, I say to myself: “You can criticise the myth of the Viennese coffee houses, but we all love to go there. Perhaps it’s because of the strange atmosphere you find there”. I take the first sip from my coffee and think:
“Besides, our coffee is much better” – but this could of course be plain patriotism, another typical characteristic of a typical Austrian. I say goodbye and go outside into the rain. A paper cup with tasteless odd coffee stays behind.
THE LEGEND OF COFFEE
There are many stories about the creation of the Viennese coffee house, in which historical material is mixed with legend. Georg Franz Kolschitzky plays an important role: a long time ago he was mentioned as the first the person who opened a coffee house in Vienna. He lived in Vienna in 1683, the time of the Turkish siege. It is reported that he and his servant could escape through the siege to hand letters from the prisoners over to the Duke of Lothringen. The duke promised to set the prisoners free by sending 70.000 soldiers to their aud, and that is how the prisoners returned to Vienna. As a reward for his courage, Kolschitzky was given some of the bags of coffee beans found in the Turkish camp. The first coffee house was founded with these bags of coffee beans – so the story goes. But in reality, in 1668 merchants were already trading coffee, so it must have been introduced to Vienna 15 years before the siege by the Turks’. The first owner of a coffee house is said to have been of Greek origin.
The importance of the coffee houses in the 17th and the 18th century:
The first coffee houses were founded in the 17th century. Their development went along with another innovation – at the beginning of the 18th century the first periodical newspapers were created (for example the “Posttaegliche Mercurius”, “Corriere Ordinario”, “Wienerische Diarium” – the last one was renamed into “Wiener Zeitung” and is today the oldest newspaper in the world). These newspapers appeared twice a week, one could either have a subscription or read it in a coffee house. Reading the newspapers was not allowed on Sundays, so that coffee houses were closed. From that moment on, the coffee house has been a place for the privileged. It was the only place where people onefreedom, the “freedom of the coffee houses”. It was the only place where you could even criticize the rule of the Austrian emperor. One could find uncensored, so called “Wrong Newspapers”.. In the coffee house “Kramer” on the first floor one could meet ordinary people, while in the cellar, in the “CAVE” people were allowed to discuss forbidden political topics. The first literary coffee houses were called into being in a time of censorship when people were controlled everywhere in Austria. The coffee houses were the only places where people could enjoy limited freedom of speech, especially where politics were concerned.
Small coffee house guide
opened in 1847, meeting point of literary men such as Hermann Bar, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Krauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal or composers such as Hugo Wolf or Arnold Schoenberg; birth place of Viennese literature. People could live out their notions of decadence; pulled down in 1897; reopened in 1990, the old atmosphere has been replaced by a modernised version.
After the closing down of Griensteidl the favourite haunt of artists (Loos, Friedel, Alfred Polgar, Karl Kraus, Altenberger); place for philosophic and literary discussion, now pretty different – high costs for renovation, but the arched room where many artists had “their tables” isn’t accessible to the public. nowadays it is frequented by tourists, bank employees, shop assistants, …
Hidden between old antique shops, it reminds one of the 17/18th centuries, the same furniture, a little bit dusty and antiquated walls, the waiters are still relics of the past centuries, there are a lot of newspapers, including foreign ones (for example The Herald Tribune, The Guardian, The Times, …)
In the early 1950ies, meeting point of many intellectual painters, HC Artmann, Konrad Bayer,… all spent their nights at Hawelka, the furniture is still very old, the plush is scabby, posters on the walls.
Expensive, renovated in 1980, a typical “Ringstrassencafe”, very artistic wood panelling, guests have their own niche, very high backrests, small adjoining rooms where press conferences are held, regular customers were: Julius Raab, Paul Hoerbiger, Oskar Werner, Max Reinhardt, Oskar Kokoschka, …
The oldest coffee house, Mozart and Beethoven gave concerts here, very quiet place with carpets on the floor, it’s like a living room with glass cupboards for the china, and of course all the furniture is covered with plush…