I am sitting by the window, today’s newspaper in hand and a coffee in front of me. I can hear the coffee machines grinding the beans and hissing with steam. Waiters greeting the guests and shouting the orders into the kitchen. A group of civil servants from the nearby offices are here for a meeting. Next to me, an elderly couple are having their morning coffee together – he is reading the newspaper and, probably, trying to hide from the gossip his wife is sharing excitedly with him. Another woman dressed distinctly Viennese is watching the tourists next to her debating which coffee they should order.
A Viennese coffee house is different from cafés in Italy or America. While Americans drink their coffee on the go and Italians quickly have their espresso by the bar before heading to work, Viennese sit down and take time. It is nothing unusual to spend hours on your own in a café. Nobody will give you a weird look. Viennese coffee houses have always served as extended living rooms or offices. When I studied in Vienna, I prepared for exams at the café around the corner from my university. Until today, I hold my meetings in various cafés of the city. I never changed this habit – whether I was in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore or Thailand. Cafés have always been an important place for me.
The Viennese coffee culture goes back to the Siege of Vienna by the Ottomans. Like so many things we define as “distinctly Austrian” today, also coffee was an “immigrant”. The coffee beans were brought to Vienna by the Ottomans. Long before the coffee culture started in Vienna, there were coffee houses in Mecca as early as in the 12th century. Venice and London were among the first European cities to host coffee houses in the mid-17th century.
There is an urban legend that the first Viennese coffee house was opened by Georg Franz Kolschitzky in 1683. He is said to have been the first to obtain a license to sell coffee. However, it was the spy Johannes Diodato (or Hovhannes Asdvadzadourian) who opened the first coffee house using beans from his home country Armenia. During Napoleon’s contintental trade ban with England, coffee beans became extraordinarily expensive. Coffee houses were hit badly by the import duties and, consequently, were allowed to serve alcohol and snacks to be able to survive the difficult times. The coffee houses survived revolutions and wars and in 2011, they became a UNESCO world heritage.
The traditions and small details we still celebrate today started early. You may have noticed the small complimentary glass of water served with the coffee or pool tables in the cafés. These were part of the coffee culture from the start, inviting guests to spend time at the café. Free newspapers were offered in the early 18th century. Until today, they are often hung on a wooden construction with a stick to make reading more convenient and avoid folding the papers over and over. Viennese waiters do not enjoy a reputation of being particularly friendly, but unlike their counterparts in America, you will not constantly be reminded to get the bill and leave.
Probably the heyday of coffee culture was in the late 19th and early 20th century when intellectuals met at the Café Griensteidl or the Café Central. Writers Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig and Karl Kraus, artist Adolf Loos and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freund regularly met at the coffee houses to discuss their works and the state of the world. Even revolutionary Trotsky was a visitor of the Café Central. The reason was not only a social but also a practical one. Viennese apartments were tiny and cafés served as extended living rooms. Writer Peter Altenberg is said to have his mail and laundry delivered to the Café Central.
For a very long time, coffee house access was exclusive to men. Until 1856, the only women at the coffee houses were the cashiers. I only discovered this fact during my research for this postcard. For the longest time, the waiters were called “Herr Ober” – a term which only refers to men. When it was a waitress, Austrians said “Fräulein” (the way to address unmarried women). This habit, fortunately, has disappeared after the women’s movement of the 1960s. But it shows the attitude towards men and women that long existed inside and beyond the coffee houses.
The waiter asks me if I would like a “Kipferl”, a crescent shaped brioche which is said to have been brought to Vienna by the Ottomans. Similarly, the world famous French croissant is said to have been brought to Paris by a Viennese. And somehow, it also made its way to Italy where it is called “cornetto”. All of these are urban legends with little or no evidence.
But I love the idea that something as simple as a Kipferl and a coffee have travelled the world showing us that there are often more similarities between different countries and cultures than what differentiates us.
“Yes, I’d like to have a Kipferl”, I answer. 164 years after the first woman set foot in a coffee house, I have made my visits a habit. And I am glad we are not called Fräulein anymore. 🙂