After reading about all that amazing history in the Viennese coffeehouses, and after shuffling around to a place or two in Los Angeles, it occurred to me that the best way to get a handle on what I’d read was to buy a fuggin’ plane ticket and fly to Vienna, so that’s what I did.
I am grateful for food and that includes airplane food, but if I can avoid eating it I do, but in fact I can’t because as soon as they start pushing that little cart and the cabin fills up with the moist smell of chickenorbeef I always break down, crumble like Brad House on a steep climb, and end up devouring everything, even the mystery dessert, yeah, I’ve been known to scrape the leftover sauce off the underside of the tinfoil with my tongue.
My wife knows I would prefer not to do that so the night before I left she got to work leavening the sourdough, ensuring that when I headed to the airport I’d be able to get there with a paper bag filled with a heavy, seed-filled, still-warm, granite-heavy loaf of bread that had enough calories to get me to Vienna and probably back again, too. When you are sitting in the waiting lounge with a bag gushing the smell of fresh bread it makes everyone insane, me too, and it was irresistible. I had already eaten about half the loaf by the time I boarded.
But I still had issues when the chickenorbeef came around so I compromised, accepting the beef but declining the plastic roll and substituting it with a hamfisted slug of sourdough.
A good book ought to make you do something
My Viennese coffeehouse book had forced me to buy a ticket and make reservations at my favorite hostile youth hostel, but there was no denying I was on a mission, only it was unclear what the mission actually was. Part of the shock of the book, and they led off with it, was the complete destruction of art, literary endeavors, and labors of the mind when Hitler came to roost.
But the book made clear that this was a euphemism for the Holocaust, because the artistic, intellectual, and literary minds of that era were, to a degree out of all proportion to their population, Jewish. The dispersal and destruction of European Jewry had as one of its many consequences the eradication of one of the most fascinating and consequential cultural phenomena, the Viennese coffeehouse. Apparently it’s hard to have an intellectual watering hole when you’ve killed all the smart people.
A few pokes and kicks around the Internet confirmed what I’d already noticed from previous Vienna visits. Many of the coffeehouses still exist, but the early 20th Century does not.
War and peace and war
After my coffeehouse book, the next unread tome stuffed under my bed was a book called Vormarsch, by Walther Bloehm. If a good book is supposed to make you do something, what about bad books? I suppose they can make you do something too.
Vormarsch, or “Advance,” is the memoir of a German infantry captain in World War I. It was a dreadful book written by a terrible writer, and by an ardent Nazi when the time came. But in 1914, Captain Bloehm was simply a 46-year-old reservist called up and sent to the Western Front as soon as the war broke out. What’s astonishing about the book is Bloehm’s total commitment to the cause. By the end of the book, when he gets shot in the knee and leg, his company has been reduced from 250 men to less than 80.
The slaughter and the casualties meant nothing to him other than in romantic terms. He saw himself and the war as a battle of heroes defending the Fatherland. He watched his closest comrades die the most bitter deaths but never questioned the war. There was never an epiphany, the kind we are so used to in our literature and in Hollywood, where the gung-ho soldier becomes the disillusioned and shell-shocked combatant. Bloehm collected a pair of Iron Crosses and would later return to battle, this time on the Eastern Front where he was again horribly wounded.
On the plane, after finishing Vormarsch, I picked up Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pretty much the opposite kind of book. This war novel was about a platoon of soldiers who fought in Iraq and about how they were feted and celebrated and honored back home for a firefight that was caught on live video.
Where Bloehm never noticed that Germany invaded a bunch of countries in WWI as he shot and bayoneted his way across Belgium and France, the author of this book never even served in the military. Instead, he compiled the novel with the assistance of consultants who instructed him on proper military jargon and behavior. And where Vormarsch was a single-minded mission to conquer, Billy Lynch’s Long Halftime Walk was the kind of squeamish, uncertain, conflicted, sarcastic, ironic, self-loathing-yet-duty-bound war book we’ve come to expect. Plus it had an awful lot of hard words in it, and a weird fascination with Jerry Jones, the ‘Pokes, and especially the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
So what’s the mission?
I had been thinking about before boarding the flight to Istanbul, and I concluded that I don’t really need one. There is only so much diving into war and the history of war that you can do and still have any positive thoughts at all about humanity. In this case, I had my son to spend time with, and since the weather was going to be -10 Celsius, it made a lot of sense to simply focus on being warm.
It also made sense to try and tie the whole coffee thing together with the coffeehouse thing. Coffee isn’t the purpose, it’s the medium. It is after all a black, bitter, horrible tasting concoction that can only be consumed by most people with cream, sugar, and an endless menu of bastardizations to try and take your eye off the ball, which in this case is a very nasty-tasting drink even in its finest evening dress.
And if coffee is the medium, I resolved to match each cup of coffee on my trip with at least one conversation, related a little, perhaps, to the old saying of “The only difference between today and a year from now are the people you’ve met and the books you’ve read.”
Coffee talk tally
My first cup was of course at the Starbucks in LAX. As I waited I struck up a conversation with the man behind me who was leading his obedient family on a big adventure to Capetown.
“Didn’t they run out of drinking water there?” I asked.
He laughed. “Not yet, but we figured we would go before they do.” I learned quite a bit about the politics of water in South Africa from him.
On the plane my first cup of coffee inspired me to break through the wall that separates seat mates. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“Vacation.” Then he educated me about the city and Lebanon, and complained about how the young people now prefer English to their native tongue. It seems like no matter where you go, the flattening effect of English is everywhere.
Back in the galley I got my next cup of coffee and began talking with the rather brusque flight attendant, who wasn’t really brusque, just tired. At the end of our conversation she whispered that Erdogan was a lousy dictator who had ruined Turkey, and advised me that if I ever visit I absolutely must go to Izmir.
In Istanbul I had a cappuccino at the gate and chatted up a Turkish dentist on his way to Vienna. He has offices in both cities and spends one week there, one week in Istanbul. His English was rough but my Turkish was nonexistent, so we generally spoke and generally misunderstood. The main point is that we were glad to talk to each other.
My last coffee of the day was in Vienna. Vienna is incredibly cold if you are accustomed to SoCal, and my t-shirt wasn’t up to the job. I soon donned a sweater, cap, overcoat and scarf. My son Hans met me at the train station and we slipped into a late-night fast food joint called Vapiano’s, where they cook-to-order your favorite Italian food. I had spaghetti with pesto, and topped it off with an Illy cappuccino. The conversation flowed.
Hans got me up to date on the real world and we drained our very tasty coffees. The father-son bond is long and strong, it pulls from across oceans, and I felt it as we talked and laughed, our insides warmed, sheltered from the cold outside.
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