hg: The Viennese Café

The rain hammered down, persistent and penetrating. Our coats were soaked through and wet denim stuck to our legs. It was time to find shelter.

We spotted a crowded entrance to a café and burrowed our way through the bodies into a dark, dingy room. Dozens of small tables were scattered around, each with a huddle of cosy conspirators. Wallpaper peeled from the tattered walls. Cups clattered, spoons chinked, and the coffee machine hissed. An open fire crackled pleasingly, filling the room with a light haze.

I squinted around for an empty table but struggled to see through the smoke and mass of people. Just then a waitress appeared at my elbow. She ushered us towards a faded sofa in the corner where Naomi and I sat down. The cushions, pummelled by countless derrières over the years, put up little protest and nearly swallowed us entirely.

The waitress peered down as we struggled to escape the sagging pillows. Her hair was pulled back in an aggressive ponytail, and the stiff white shirt and black waistcoat of her uniform had a military air. She didn’t seem like a waitress who would surrender her hospitality without a fight.

“Hot chocolate,” she instructed.

We nodded dumbly.

“Strudel.”

We nodded again.

And then she was gone before we could say dankeschön, making a beeline for the counter with her ponytail flicking from side to side like an angry tail.

I turned to Naomi and told her not to worry about the abrupt waitress. We were getting the authentic coffee-house experience, I explained sagely, complete with tatty decor, the constant hum of conversation, and fleet-footed staff prancing around in fancy outfits.

The only missing ingredient was the coffee. Having pictured myself in a café like this many times, perhaps debating the futility of life with members of the continental intelligentsia, I was always stirring a dark, syrupy espresso with a tiny spoon; not slurping on hot choccy like a muppet. But never mind.

The drinks in question arrived on a silver tray, along with two glasses of water and a slice of strudel. This time we got our dankeschönes in nice and early but the waitress still ignored them. I began to wonder if this approach was typical of Austrian culture in general. If it was, I didn’t mind. Her bluntness gave me a slight thrill. It was refreshing compared to the awkwardness of us Brits, and certainly preferable to those fawning Americans.

The hot chocolates turned out to be rich and creamy, and thoughts of the rain outside began to fade. Slowly, we dissolved in the hustle and bustle of the café, listening to conversations we couldn’t understand and watching our waitress glide through the chaos as groups of people rose to leave in turn, their tables immediately wiped and filled with fresh customers. The coffee machine hissed and rattled, and when it paused, fervent chatter grew to fill the void.

When the last crumb of our strudel had been scraped from its plate, a bill suddenly appeared in front of us. I was in no rush to pay though. I wanted to lounge a while longer, soaking up the atmosphere. I was beginning to feel like I belonged here. If we sat tight, the owner would soon be out to shake hands and offer his spare bedroom for the night.

But then I glanced down at the bill. I’d expected to see a modest sum - something in line with my belief that this was a place for locals who knew where to get a cheap brew - but, alas, it came to seventeen euros. Seventeen euros! For two hot chocolates and a sad slice of strudel. Authentic Viennese café, my arse.

I placed a twenty-euro note in the dish and sat back to await my change.