We sat in the cafe, the same cafe my friend first sat in more than forty years ago. “It is just the same,” she laughed. “Well perhaps we are a bit older.”
The small town of Retz is only a few kilometers from the Czech border. The region is filled with vineyards, and Austria’s oldest windmill sits atop the small hill outside of town, where it still grinds corn into meal.
The cafe was warm shelter from the bluster outside, and the display case offered row after row of fresh, homemade pastries and cakes.
Up against the far wall, perhaps ten feet from us, was a long table around which sat nine or ten very old women. They paid no attention to us while noting every detail, and carried on a lively conversation in Pulkautalerisch dialect so thick that after five minutes of forehead-crinkling concentration I could only dimly divine three words. Zucker, total, braucht.
My friend’s sister showed up. She has lived in this small town of 2,000 for more than fifty years and she knew everyone in the cafe. She joined us at our table and ordered coffee.
For some number of hours frozen in time there was nothing but kind conversation, funny stories, reminiscences, and quick updates on happenings around town. The cafe slowly filled up, the occasional cigarette was lit, and the excellent coffee topped with the thickest of whipped cream continued to appear.
From time to time people looked at our small group, anchored with the two women who had been born there and by the one woman’s daughter, herself a local once removed. Eyes met and nods of recognition were exchanged. All would be, could be, should be, must be explained later and in the detail that only denizens of a small town of a former thousand-year empire can make note of and recall.
When we stood to leave the elderly women smiled and briefly broke our exit with the kindest of pleasantries. As we left the kind and patient woman behind the counter thanked us with the warmth that only comes from sincerity and decency.
Our souvenirs were the most amazing and memorable of all; the souvenirs of calmness, placid conversation, being part of small accretions to a lifetime spent in one place, and civility, oh civility. We were interlopers, or rather something much finer and honored and without peer; we were guests.