TWO MEN WITH SLRs and wide-angle lenses were photographing the cafe. The waiter, a balding man in a blue-and-gray argyle sweatervest and red skirted apron, brought them drinks to shoot: a small cappuccino, a frothy latte, a mélange topped with milk. They snapped photos of the decadent chocolate and jam cakes, the curved chandeliers and the broad dark wood walls that framed the morning light with a seriousness otherwise reserved for lawyers.
Coffee shops in Vienna are as sex shops in Tokyo, as chai stalls in Kolkata, as poutineries in Montreal. They are more than a must-do; they are an inevitable-do, if not for the cuisine then for the local flavour, the ambience of the city embodied in the microcosm of small rooms. My friend who knows these things recommended several places; one was Cafe Jelinek, not far from my hostel. I walked through the humid gray air to find Sweatervest opening right at 9 o’clock.
Sweatervest, who at first seemed nice (“Ah, I see you’ve brought your own camera,” he joked. “Perfect.”) and turned quickly cold (Me: “You’re having a photo shoot?” Him, brusquely: “Yes.”) took my order: a breakfast set of Viennese black coffee, a croissant with honey, yogurt with sliced grapes and muesli, and slices of whole-grain bread with ricotta cheese, tomatoes and chives.
The photographers suddenly took a shot in my direction. I assumed I couldn’t be in their shot, but just in case I was, I rolled up my shirtsleeves, picked up my coffee and looked thoughtfully out the window with narrowed eyes. Then I turned back to my notepad and wrote down what I had just done, to seem academic about it.
There is a very distinct vibe—really what I mean is airy, hoity-toity, upper-class European vibe—to being in Vienna. Even if the photographers weren’t there, I’d probably have looked thoughtfully out the window and written something down. There isn’t much else to do here before the museums open at 10 o’clock except self-fulfill the prophecy of scribbling notes about Vienna for the sake of scribbling notes in Vienna.
Sweatervest opened an old steel furnace beside the cake cabinet and lit a bright orange fire. It took a while to get his attention for anything, like the bill. Later, when describing the scene to a local girl, she asked me: “Was he rude?” I said he was, and asked if all Viennese waiters were the same. She shrugged. “Most.” Maybe that’s his role to play.
But who cares, really. When surrounded by the smell of freshly chopped chives and aromatic coffee, it is easy to fall into the scene, as an actor might when he first sets foot onstage. Even after the photographers left, I stuck to my part, stared out the window, and wrote more of these notes.