House of prayer

March 2, 2018 § 2 Comments

My church in Vienna is Joseph Brot, a bakery. They make a big, dense loaf of rye sourdough filled with nuts called “That one, please.” One day I’ll learn its name.

My fifth day of travel had beaten me down and well. Too much walking, too much freezing, especially too much freezing. I pulled the plug early in the day and returned to the home of hostile youth. So far I’d eaten a brace of eggs and a bowl of chicken soup. The brick-hard, cobblestone-heavy loaf of bread was in my backpack for dinner.

The room supplies you with tiny plastic shot glasses, so I filled one up with water and had my evening meal. Bread and water. Sound delicious? It was. The crust was thick and hard and rough, and it tore the edges of my mouth and roughed up the roof of my mouth like sandpaper; it cut my tongue and it hurt my jaw to chew, my teeth moved in the gums as I ripped each piece out from the main body of the loaf.

I went into the bathroom to refill my shot glass, and spit a mouthful of blood into the sink. All of this could have been avoided with a device called a “knife,” but on reflection it could best have been avoided by something called “staying home.”

I ate a quarter of the loaf, stuffed the rest back into the paper bag, put it at the foot of my bed, read myself to sleep. That seems to be the best thing about jet lag. Every time is a good time to sleep.

More Vienna, more coffee

Before I hit the wall, I had hit two new coffee joints. The first was Cafe Ritter, an old school coffeehouse on the model of Cafe Sperl, minus the billiard tables. One inescapable conclusion is that wintertime is a bad time to go to the big coffeehouses because they are drafty, high-ceilinged, and poorly heated. Unless you arrive with a blanket and a foot warmer, after a couple of hours you’re going to be very cold.

The second place was Coffee Pirates, located near the university. It had great home-roasted coffee, was located in a small, cramped building, and was filled with students or those posing as such. I posed along with the other posers until the combined effects of travel, jet lag, and exhaustion evicted me. No matter what type of coffeeshop I’d been in, none played music, an amazing relief.

On the outside, looking in

I awoke a few hours later and dug back into one of my recent purchases, “Moses and Monotheism,” by Freud. It was like reading Sherlock Holmes, only so much better. Freud has an amazing ability to tell a story and to unravel a riddle. His application of psychoanalysis to history and anthropology is mind-boggling. It is astonishing when you read truly great writing by a truly great mind. Think how much smarter he would have been if he’d had Facebook!

I read a few reviews of the book after getting halfway through, only to learn that it’s been discarded and discredited by mostly everyone, which, if anything, only made me like it better.  Freud is not for those who like swimming with the current. But I did fall into the wormhole of Wikipedia links on anthropology, and wound up reading, in addition to critiques of Freud’s book, the story of the Mead-Freeman dispute.

Anthropologists, it seems, are caught in the conundrum of whether you should get your observations by participating in the culture you’re observing, or whether you should do it analytically, from a distance, like Freud did. The problem seems impossible of resolution for the same reasons that underlie Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. You can know the momentum or position of a particle, but not both. Same with anthropology: You can observe from a distance and lose all the detail, or you can interact and have all of your observations distorted by your personal experiences and by the fact that people behave differently when they are being observed.

This paradox is what it feels like to be in a coffeehouse. On the one hand you want to be a fly on the wall, but on the other hand you want to be a fly in the soup. And since you can’t be both, you’re neither.

Travel is fundamentally this way, being part of something you don’t really belong to. It’s as alienating as it is anonymizing, liberating, and in the case of Vienna in winter, cold as hell.

Wake-up bread

My alarm was set for 5:00, not for any particular reason, as the irregular sleep hours meant that I’d surely get up before then. Throughout the night I’d coast in and out of consciousness, thanks in part to the guy next door who had a truly first class snore. It resonated through very thick walls, sounding like power equipment on low mode, or like suitcases being dragged over gravel.

Also dogging my sleep was the rustle of paper. Every few minutes I’d turn over and hear paper. It was weird. By three o’clock my stomach was growling, and I stretched out under the covers. The end of my foot slammed up against something hard, covered in paper. Ah, yes, of course. The wake-up bread. Time for prayers.



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Pay up

March 1, 2018 § 4 Comments

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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Siberian holiday

February 27, 2018 § 4 Comments

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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