I lay in bed this morning, utterly defeated by the cold. On the one hand, the whole point of this trip was to get up early and park myself in a coffee house, reliving the past I’d only read about, playing literati, and reveling in the emptiness of this small yet grand European capital. On the other hand, the bed was as warm as a lover, the radiator was cranking, and all I could think about was how beastly cold my teeth were going to be with that first suck of iced-over air.
So I lay there and did nothing as the minutes ticked by. “Soon,” I thought, “the morning will be gone. How stupid is that? What the hell am I here for? To sleep in a cheap bed with a soggy pillow? I can do that at home.”
I jumped up, showered, shaved, and plunged into the throat slitting air. It was ice bath cold, but a funny thing had happened: After tromping around all day the day before, freezing and thawing and thawing and freezing, my thermostat had begun working. Instead of having my nose, throat, and lungs seared by the cold and wind, my body fought back, generating heat and sending it to all four corners of the meatbag.
With each step I realized how much I loved Vienna. Lodging as I was on the edge of town, the streets were dirty, the shops shabby, and everyone had that look of working hard for a living, struggling to make ends meet, galaxies removed from the bling and blang of Stephansplatz and the First District. Yet the working edge of the city was as beautiful as it was gray, with its worn facades, streets named after famous people, and the musical sound of Austrian German at the bus stops I passed.
Cafe Sperl redux
Ten minutes into my thirty minute trot, whereas the previous day I’d been hideously frozen, I was merely miserably cold. I had also found the chink in my armor, which happened to be my cotton knit cap. Something woolier and easier to pull down over my ears would have been great, so I made a note to add “toasty cap” to my shopping list of comb and razor blades.
The rest of the walk passed quickly enough, but the last five minutes my thermostat broke and I froze solid again, all the way to the roots of my teeth. I finally arrived at Cafe Sperl, determined to eat a big breakfast, drink coffee, write a couple of letters, and win the tipping battle.
How hot and good that first cup of coffee tasted! I knew by now to never order “coffee” at a Viennese coffeehouse. Instead I cooly ordered a “grosser brauner” but bungled this decidedly local move by uncouthly drinking it quickly, and by ordering it before breakfast rather than after. Next I ordered three eggs sunny side up with cheese, tomato, and bacon. Denny’s take note: Your breakfasts suck.
While waiting for the food to arrive I observed the morning weekday crowd, regulars who sipped coffee while choosing from the thirty or so newspapers draped across one of the billiard tables, of which there were three, sitting smack in the middle of the cafe. Seated next to a giant picture window I watched the people walk by, mostly purposeful and cold, but some not uncomfortable at all, and one or two tough gals even on bicycles.
My tabletop was made of marble, and the broad wooden window sills were amply wide to rest my arm on. The wooden floor was scarred but still beautiful, the beauty of hard service, long use, and sturdy practicality. And this is perhaps the most beautiful thing about Vienna, and it reveals itself only in winter: The hard use, the hard history, the stonily enduring nature of the place, not its spruced up city center awash in summer green, but its hard and weathered winter character, survivor of carpet bombing, of the siege of 1683, of the ruins of World War I, of a monarchy, despotic, and a Catholic religion that took with both hands and gave back with a clenched fist.
The breakfast came and I conquered it, and after a while I flagged the server and asked for the bill. That’s when the battle of the tip began.
Settling the score
Unlike the USA, where the server hands you the bill and wanders off while you calculate in private how little you can leave and still dare show your face there again, in Vienna they give you the bill and you have to pay up on the spot.
That’s okay, but you have to tip as you’re handing the server the money, telling her how much to keep, because the moment she hands you your change the tipping moment has passed and you’ve just stiffed the server. If you leave money on the table, a crudity not worth mentioning, or worse, tip her after she’s handed you the change, you might as well get a tattoo that says “I am a horrible customer cheapass deadbeat shitbag.” Unlike many other jams, you can’t get out of this one playing dumb American, just like you can’t get out of farting aloud in an elevator. Bad manners are bad manners and they mark you like a scarlet letter.
This means you must have an idea in your head before the bill comes what the bill is going to be, know which denomination you’re going to hand the server, and then speak enough German to let her know how much to keep. Fortunately, there is a save-all phrase, “Das passt schon,” which means “Keep the change” and lets you off the hook when you’ve failed to anticipate the amount of the bill, the amount of the tip, and the denomination in which you’re going to pay.
As my blood pressure rose, having failed to do any of the proper tip preparation, I used the catch-all, which out of sheer luck turned out to be about the right amount to tip. The server smiled, I bundled up, and left.
Later that afternoon I found myself in the same situation at Cafe Hawelka, by far my favorite coffee house on earth and the very last place I would ever want to show up without my tipping manners on. I only had a grosser brauner and a slice of mushy apple strudel, so my bill was a paltry eight euros. Again having failed to anticipate anything, I handed the Oberkellner a 20-euro note. In that effortless instant when I should have told him to give me seven euros back, leaving him with a handsome 5-euro tip, I panicked and blurted out “Das passt schon.”
He paused, and just to make sure, with his eyes keenly focused on mine, said “Ja?”
“Ja,” I answered, as if it were my habit to tip $14 on a $9 tab. “Sehr freundlich von Ihnen,” he said, and it came out smooth as a bald head, professional and gracious, yet a bit surprised by the largesse. Then he added, “Let me get you another glass of water.” Two waters with a single coffee was, I gathered, the height of luxury and appreciation.
He brought it, and I drank down my $14 glass of tap water. I can’t say it tasted any better than the tap water at the hostel, but it came with a memory I won’t soon forget.
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