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The Vienna Kaffeehaus Atmosphere

The Kaffeehaus (coffee house) is a typical Viennese institution. Basically a café for enjoying a good cup of coffee with friends or accompanied by a newspaper in a relaxed atmosphere, different other treats (such as tea, drinks, cakes and small snacks) are served as well. Visiting a couple of these places reveals a great variety and is definitely a must for every visitor to Vienna.
The following essay describes this institution and its importance to social life in Vienna perfectly well - enjoy!

Everyday Gemütlichkeit

by Meinrad Knapp

Vienna Coffee © Maria Sales

It is Monday afternoon, at the Café Griensteidl in downtown Vienna. This is an old, traditional Viennese coffee house, which was once the meeting point for the so-called "Jung Wien", the artists and intellectuals of the Jugendstil movement after which this newspaper is named. This meeting place of writers Arthur Schnitzler and Peter Altenberg was, I deemed, the perfect spot to meet with a friend from Philadelphia, a place where the strong injections of caffeine set the gears of the brain in motion and the air is full of ideas. So my friend Michael and I drank our coffee and talked, watching the waiters sidling among the tables. Busy as they are, there is no sense of hurry in a Viennese Kaffeehaus. It seems as if a magic hand touches the people on the shoulder; they move at their own speed, selecting their newspapers and settling in. Even the cell phones seem to ring more quietly here. "But don´t these people have to work?" my friend asked me, incredulous. Surely all of these people sipping coffee, reading their newspapers, involved in conversations and talking on the phone must do something for a living! And indeed, they looked far too young to be retired. "Are the people in Vienna so wealthy that they can sit for hours in coffee houses on a Monday afternoon", he asked? Sometimes you need somebody from the outside to give you another perspective. I was raised here in Vienna, so I am used to the picture of a busy Viennese Kaffeehaus on a Monday afternoon. But people doing nothing? If you think that these people are doing nothing, you do not understand Vienna. Just be patient, I told my American friend. And watch.
Café Griensteidl A Viennese Kaffeehaus is a veritable stew of activity and a sampling of life in the city. It is the best place to get together informally, to try out an idea, discuss a project, or develop a contact. It´s a private spot outside the office to do some reading or get some thoughts on paper. It is the place where first dates take place, where G´spusi (an Austrian´s secret love affairs) begin and end. But perhaps I am moving too fast. Let me explain. A Viennese coffee house is the citys neutral ground, a low-intensity meeting place, for business, professional or personal life. Initial meetings with clients, private talks with lawyers and consultants, even headhunters meet with their potential clients for the first time in a coffee house. The choice of such a setting is clearer if you understand the hierarchical world of Austrian business. When you make an appointment with a Viennese business person, the venue is chosen according to who is the more influential and powerful. If you want to show your client who is the Donald Trump of this deal, then he has to come to your office. But if you want to meet on level ground, you meet in a coffee house. If you are applying for a job, you have two choices: You can send in your CV and wait. Or you can suggest meeting Mr. or Ms. Human Resources Director in person at a coffee house: if they agree, your chances have improved immensely. Sachertorte © Mafalda Consider a coffee house as your resource center. The typical Viennese Kaffeehaus is equipped with an unwilling and remarkably unfriendly waiter, who also has a remarkable memory. After your third visit, if you are a generous enough tipper, he will remember what your usual order is and provide you with a wide variety of local and international newspapers. And as a bonus, he will pass along a little gossip and you can eavesdrop on the other guests to pick up the latest on current issues, giving you a good feeling of what Viennese people are really concerned with. Finally, and very important, a Kaffeehaus is the setting for romance: If you meet with somebody, you are interested in, the first date is usually at a coffeehouse. It is informal. You do not have to spend the whole evening together. If it turns out to be boring, you can conveniently part ways. And if you enjoy each others company, you can move on to dinner. In the end, Michael was, to say the least, impressed. And could I perhaps leave him for a while, so that he could sit by himself in Café Griensteidl? I smiled. The magic hand had finally touched him. He had started to feel comfortable within the cover zone, and he spent his time by studying the people surrounding him: Like the young couple sitting next to him, laughing and talking and touching. But "he" was much older than "she" was. Were they meeting for the first time? Or was he married and they were having an affair? And what were those two men dressed in the gray suits talking about? They have been sitting and whispering at the same table for hours. Are they discussing a major business deal, or a secret political affair? And why is that young man sitting alone at a nearby table, reading newspapers, taking notes and reading a book at the same time? Is he a student? But he looks too old to be a student. Maybe he is doing some research for his father´s company? I left my American friend Michael in the Griensteidl, in his own world, thinking about the stories behind the faces. He hadn´t realized it yet, but sitting in the coffeehouse, doing whatever you are doing while having fun observing the other guests, is a very integral part of Viennese Gemütlichkeit. But I will fill Michael in on this fact the next time he visits Vienna. It is definitely easier to enjoy than to understand.


special thanks for this article go to:

"The Vienna Review" (formerly "Jugendstil"), the Student Newspaper of Webster University Vienna, available at newsstands, by subscription and on the web; published by The Vienna Journalism Institute at Webster University Vienna. 


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