In late March of 1984 my mom called me to say she’d bought tickets and asked if I wanted to spend my spring break in Paris. I had never been to Europe and was in my second year of French so of course I said, “Yes!”
We got there and some awful storm had just blown in. The contrast with Austin couldn’t have been greater. It was bitterly cold, that kind of nasty wet freeze that gnaws right through whatever you’re wearing, eats into your bones and teeth, and radiates outwards until the whole meatbag is cobblestone cold.
Before we left I was advised by my French teacher not to be put off if the Parisians were assholes; she assured me that if I persevered, despite the grunting noises I made that only vaguely resembled French, I’d run into someone every now and then who appreciated the effort.
What I found was a mostly empty city, and if the Parisians were rude, it must have been a seasonal thing that coincided with summer. What I also learned was that the best time to visit a tourist destination is when the weather is nasty. Freezing wind and rain, lowering skies, amputated days and extended nights kept all the other tourists at home, and opened up the City of Not Much Light to budget tourists like me. There were no lines anywhere, which made sense because the smart travelers were at home. Additional punishment to not having people be rude: I stood in front of the Mona Lisa with about ten other people for as long as I wanted.
Central Europe in February
Is cold. The newspapers advised that Austria was the coldest capital in Europe at the moment, a joint-seizing minus 25 degrees. My flimsy overcoat, which covered my flimsy sweater and flimsy t-shirt, overlain by a flimsy scarf and topped with a flimsy cotton cap, were not up to the task. I only had a fifteen-minute walk to the Westbahnhof, but that’s like saying my hand was slammed in the door for only fifteen minutes.
On the way there I saw some sights. One was a couple speaking Russian wearing the lightest of clothes and seeming to enjoy the balmy weather. The other was a dude on a bike, commuting. The entire day I saw five cyclists, and three of them were food delivery people. Snow flurries, icy streets, and worst of all the wind that knew no barriers made even the thought of riding a bike a form of delirium or insanity.
As hard as I looked, I saw not a single tourist. What I did see was the station, inside which were copious, all-you-can-eat quantities of free heat. It took a few minutes to feel my feet again.
It was 11 o’clock and I’d only been up for an hour. Why worry about jet lag when you have nothing to do and nowhere to be? My son met me, he didn’t look cold at all. We took the train to the Volkstheater but first went the wrong way for a couple of stations which was awesome because the trains were as toasty and warm as the outside was unforgivingly cold. On the street we had a solid ten-minute walk to Cafe Sperl. We got ready to cross the super narrow little street to the cafe but the light was red. There was no traffic, none, zip, zero. The street was maybe three strides wide. The light refused to change. I looked at Hans and bolted across the street to dash into the cafe, but he stood there patiently for an additional three minutes of vicious cold. Walking on the “don’t cross” is a no-no, but then in my book so is rigor mortis.
I know that lady
The first time I was in Cafe Sperl, two years ago, I was served by a short, businesslike lady in her mid-50’s. Yesterday I was served by her again and amazingly she didn’t recognize me. Hans was hungry and I was starving, so we ordered Wiener schnitzel, wolfed it down, and followed it with coffee.
Cafe Sperl opened in 1880. It’s roomy, comfortable, and populated with regulars. The last time I was there the place was packed and we were lucky to get a seat. Another benefit to brutally cold weather in the tourism non-season is that you don’t have to wait to get a table. No one was in a hurry to get back outside, and neither were we.
We had a long conversation about guns and gun control, and Hans told me that invariably Austrians have a simple explanation for a society that gives guns to everyone and shoots up children at school. “Americans are sick.”
“Pretty solid position,” I said.
He nodded. “It’s an argument that has its strengths.”
Our server only came by at twenty minute intervals, and when we had finally emptied our coffee cups after a couple of hours, she briskly took them off the table. I expected her to give us the bill, but she walked away. “Isn’t she going to give us the check?” I asked.
“No. You have to ask for it.”
“But we’ve finished lunch, she’s cleared off the coffee cups. No one has ordered anything else. Isn’t it clear we’re finished?”
“Oh, not at all. Now is when some patrons whip out a book and read for three hours.”
Another half hour of good conversation flew by until we saw her again and asked for the check. She obliged, in no hurry at all to turn the table.
From coffee to coffee
Our next stop was the Thalia bookstore on Mariahilferstrasse, or “Mahu” as the Viennese call it. It was a solid twenty minutes away. but filled with the false courage that comes from three hours of sitting in a warm cafe, we decided to walk rather than take the tram. Ten minutes in, the folly of the idea was plain, in all its glory. I can’t remember ever being in a place where the cold from the pavement freezes the soles of your feet.
The huge benefit to the bookstore, in addition to its free heating, was that it had a coffee shop inside as well as numerous chairs and benches for reading. Hanging out at a bookstore requires skills, skills that over a lifetime I’ve failed to acquire. The most important thing in any bookstore is to go slow. I still remember the Waldenbooks at the Galleria Mall in Houston, where I would rush in and immediately buy whatever Peanuts volumes I could afford with my allowance and lawn mowing money.
Yet to do a bookstore properly you must do it slowly. How people do this I have no idea. In the Viennese bookstores there is so much book candy that it gives me a sugar high bordering on mania. “Look! A four-volume set of the collected works of Karl Kraus!”
“Look! The collected works of Freud!”
“Look! The collected works of Hans Fallada!”
“Dad,” my son said. “If you buy even a fraction of that stuff you are going to regret it.”
“I know.” I scooped up a couple of books.
“You have no room at home for anything.”
“I know.” I scooped up another.
“Your back is killing you from lugging around your laptop and books are basically trees. You’re carrying around small trees.”
“I know.” I scooped up a fourth.
“You’ve already got reading material from your last trip here for two years and you’re coming back in July.”
“I know. Where is the history section?”
He sighed and we went upstairs. Only with an armful of books could we matriculate to the coffee shop. It couldn’t have been more different from Cafe Sperl. Some people were there for the long haul, but most were in-and-out. Everyone was chained to their phone or laptop. Out of the roomful of people, only we and the couple behind us spoke.
Ethiopian cuisine, anyone?
I went back to the youth hostel, which was devoid of youth and hostility, took a two-hour nap, and called Hans to see if he was hungry for dinner. “Sure,” he said.
I struck out again in the bitter cold, which had become even more bitter with the disappearance of the weak, pale, feeble sun, and got to his apartment frozen. It was starting to be enjoyable, this process of extraordinary misery followed by warmth, kind of like intervals.
“I saw an Ethiopian place on the way here,” I said. “Want to try it?”
“Ethiopian? I’ve never seen an Ethiopian place in Vienna.”
“I passed it a bunch of times last year walking over here. It looks good.”
“Sure, let’s try it. What’s it called?”
“Et-something,” I said.
We walked over. “It doesn’t look very Ethiopian,” he said as we entered.
At the bar a big Polish guy was pouring beer and Polish music played from the loudspeakers. A huge selection of Polish sausages and meats stared at us from behind a giant cooler. All the patrons had a certain Polish look to them, enhanced by the fact that they were all speaking, well, Polish.
“Take a seat,” the Polish guy said in Polish-accented German.
Hans looked at me “Ethiopian, huh?”
“Well, it said Et-something outside.”
“You saw the letters “Et” and assumed the rest of it was ‘hiopia’?”
“Something like that.”
“For future reference, in German, Ethiopia starts with an ‘A’ and has an umlaut over it.”
“Noted,” I said.
The menu, which was all in Polish, allowed us to freestyle a bit for ordering. I got the chicken soup, the Serbian salad, and the stuffed sausage. The soup alone was astonishingly good. It came in a bowl big enough to feed four, along with a side of fresh warm bread that was a meal in itself.
But nothing prepared us for our sausage entrees, which came out on huge platters surrounded by French fries. Mine was covered in mayo and mustard, had a thick deep-fried shell around it, and when you cut into the sausage a massive load of creamy sauce spurted out the tip. I considered several metaphors, then forced myself to stop thinking and to start eating.
I have rarely not finished a meal because I couldn’t, but three-quarters of the way into the Polish Penis Special I gave up. Hans didn’t do much better, but we had them boxed and called it a day.
I got back to the hostel and considered getting a coffee, but it was late, I was tired, and it was going to take a lot of REM to resolve the culinary/psychological issues associated with that sausage. Glad I had bought that copy of Freud’s “The Meaning of Dreams.”
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