7 Dec 2010

Melange

It's one of the misjudgements I really regret. When Starbucks first announced expansion plans for continental Europe (and chose Zurich as a test market), I toyed with the idea of buying their stock. But then I decided against it, reasoning that Europe had long known truly great coffee and the overpriced, syrupy variety offered by the American giant would inevitably fail.

Obviously, by today Europe is littered with Starbucks branches and the stock has appreciated nicely over the last decade.

What I had underestimated was that Starbucks, in Europe even more so than in the States, doesn't really sell a beverage. They sell a lifestyle, which they themselves call the "in-between place". It's a mix of one's own living room and the office or classroom. It comes with lounge chairs, free Wifi, long opening hours and easy Jazz tunes, and invites to linger. Europe took to the novelty by storm.

All of Europe? Not quite. There is of course one culture which has for centuries had not just great coffee, but a great coffee house culture, thiving exactly on this mix of public and private space. The grandiose ring roads and inner city palazzos of the main Austro-Hungarian cities, all along the Blue Danube, are abounding in old-style coffee houses.

And that very fact, along with the Austrian talent for making "flour meals" (they affectionately call their pastries Mehlspeisen) is one of the main draws which brings me back to Vienna time and again. I prefer visiting in the cold season, and was thrilled to arrive in a city covered by a solid layer of snow. With the winter twilight and the low temperatures, it accentuates the city's imperially morbid charme, and creates exactly the right pretext to spend all day bouncing back and forth between coffee houses, royal museums and schnitzel restaurants. Add to this the satyrical-ironical Austrian national temper, and their ever so endearing accent (which I can't help but imitate after a few hours in town), and yours truly readly basks in a sugar-induced high. It seems only fitting that one of the local coffee houses calls itself a Kurkonditorei - which would roughly translate as a pastry spa. Of all the treatments I can think of, this one is definitely my favorite.

No matter which Kaffeehaus you visit, they all offer a large selection of international newspapers to peruse, and although their tuxedo'ed waiters usually indulge in their trademark grumpiness, they know the coffee menu inside out and can definitely tell their Einspänners from their Franziskaners. Either one will be served on a little silver tray, with the spoon across the top of the accompanying glass of water, and comes with the inherent permission to spend hours sitting, reading and - being Viennese. Just don't ask for a Grande or a Venti!

Ah yes, I am already sentimental (another great Austrian trait, by the way). But it occurs to me that I am, once again, in an in-between place myself. Between home I and home II, that is. There is a menu available, uniformed waiters roam the aisles, a selection of international newspapers is on offer, soothing tunes pipe through my headset and I have a reclining lounge chair to relax in for hours and hours. Never mind Campari Soda - I'll have another melange, bitt'scheen!

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