Ghost Town – Part 2

A curiously quiet Heldenplatz (with clown cars)

It was almost a hundred days since I had last travelled on the underground in Vienna. In fact, since the second week of March, I had only used public transport on one occasion preferring instead to walk, cycle and a weekly use of the car to empty the shelves of Spar to keep the family fed. And I admit, despite its splendid reputation, I hadn’t missed it much. But here I was, with the appearance of a train robber, travelling on the U1 from Neu Laa in the south of Vienna on my way to the first district. To see for myself not only the apparent absence of crowds but also with the explicit intention to wind up a waiter in a classic café by pretending to be a tourist.

My plan was to go to the Café Landtmann on the Ringstrasse which if it is not the most famous café in Vienna, is probably the biggest of the classics. Although I have always been a big enthusiast of the café, I have only been to the Landtmann twice over the years (this is about two times more than most of the population of the city). Mostly because it had the reputation as a political hangout given its proximity to the Parliament and Town Hall, and because it was often hard to get a table (too many tourists).

Yet I was motivated to visit this particular café after an interview in early June with Berndt Querfeld, the boss of the company which runs Landtmann along with several other famous cafes in the city, most notably Mozart and Museum. The thrust of the interview was a rather characteristically Viennese whinge about the lack of government help for the gastro industry and its financial assistance package of “zerplatzte Luftballons” (burst balloons).

Given the times we live in, it inevitably divided opinion, even within the café industry, although I haven’t really been able to pin down the essential thrust of this division. Needless to say, my sense is that it didn’t help coming from a man whose coffee shop empire knew one or two things about over-inflated prices, ringing cash registers and a business model seemingly focused more on the Euro-rich tourist rather than local people.

Putting this debate aside for now, you may think that someone who has been stranded at home for three months with more leisure time than Melania Trump, then a visit to a posh café might be fiscally imprudent. Especially at the more “famous” establishments where you are generally looking at five Euro or more for a Melange. However, although I have (had) still been able to retain a modest income via the channels of technology since the quarantine, a trip to the coffee house was being subsidized by a steady drip of hardship funds orchestrated by the Vienna Chamber of Commerce. And I was sure I could find a way to make it tax deductible in the name of research.

But before we come to beans, a word on the bean counters. Although there were some initial criticisms about the complexities of the calculations for the self-employed and freelancer Ponzi scheme, I found the application process relatively simple and unbureaucratic. Which is saying a lot for a city built on a reputation for the liberal use of the Stempel (a rubber stamp) and a piece of paper for everything. Of course, it was futile trying to understand the how they determined the exact figure of financial assistance provided in the three-step second phase, and remember, they set this all up in a matter of a few weeks. But it worked.

So much so, that although the government initially planned for three months of support for the self-employed, this was suddenly increased to six months, and the minimum payment doubled from 500 Euros per month. A decision I can only assume they came after the realization they had greatly under-estimated the income of the self-employed in Austria and that there was more money than expected remaining in the war-chest. They called this the “comeback” bonus and it was another example of the exponential spread of linguistic imperialism which we have seen during the inception of Corona: “home-schooling”, “social distancing” and “schadenfreude”, a distinct strain of cultural-linguistics defined as what the rest of Europe feels  when observing what a Boris Johnson government is doing to the reputation of the UK.

Anyway, before my rendezvous with a slightly smirking waiter and a silver tray, I had first decided to have a mosey through the centre of the city to gauge the mood. So, I left the underground at Stephansplatz and emerged into the sunlit uplands of central Europe, still sporting my mask. I was shocked at what I saw. Yes, the e-scooter industry had obviously survived the pandemic. Sighing, I made my way along the Graben, observing the sparsely occupied cafes (only the Europa seemed to be doing any respectable business). I then took a left onto Kohlmart, home of designer fashion, expensive watches and, incongruous given the penetration of wealth and prestige all around, a branch of self-service fish and chip shop, Nordsee.

Reaching Michaelerplatz, I stopped for a moment to take in the glorious architecture only for it to be instantly ruined by an unmistakable spectacle. Yes, through the arch leading to Heldenplatz, another survivor of the Corona shutdown. A clown car. Sighing once more, I took a right onto Herrengasse and on past the Café Central (a must on the tourist trail and one rarely frequented by the Wiener) but tellingly for once without a queue. Then briefly into the Freyung, a quick left up Teinfaltstrasse past Irish pub, Molly Darcy’s, and then there it was, the Landtmann with its capacious outdoor seating, winter garden and terrace.

One of the regulations for restaurants and bars as they were allowed to reopen in mid-May, was that you had to wait to be shown to a seat. In cafés in Vienna I would reason that in normal times this is largely not the convention. But I suspect Landtmann is the kind of place that always requires a brief wait at the entrance until you are shown to a free table. So, I lingered just inside the door, looking for the hand sanitizer and trying to catch the eye of a smartly dressed man in what looked like a welder’s mask.

Fifteen seconds of British self-conscious foot shuffling later, I was at my table, Melange ordered, surrounded by people with a clothing budget unaffected by the effects of a global economic shutdown. This café was certainly plush, I thought, even by Vienna standards, and I could understand why it was popular amongst a certain kind of patron (highly scrubbed, oozing a veneer of wealth and entitlement which could only come from a lifetime of spa treatments).

However, like many of the classic cafes it bore some of the hallmarks of the Viennese experience. The tables with the reserved signs which the waiters employ to control who can sit where and when depending on their mood. The hierarchical system whereby the top Ober (waiter) welcomes you in, shows you to a table and collects the money (but another minion will do the fetching and carrying). And, this never ceases to amaze me, a very mediocre cup of coffee.

Landtmann is such a big place when you include all the various seating areas, so it is impossible to really say on this Wednesday mid-morning in June if it was suffering from a lack of wallets. But as I sipped my warm milk with hint of coffee it gave me the chance to muse on my short skirt across the beating heart of Vienna. At that time of day and year with the sun shining as it always does on the number one city, the streets should have been teeming with people and their smartphones. But it wasn‘t, and was impossible not to notice the silence, the lack of traffic and the unmistakable sense of calm.

Zahlen, bitte,” I called out in the vague direction of the head waiter as he chatted to a man in an immaculate blue suit, the colour of which I was sure had fallen out of fashion with the failed Vienna election campaign of Manfred Juraczka (Austrian Peoples Party) in 2015. “Bar oder Bankomat?” (cash or card) he asked, signalling another cultural shift in Vienna since the advent and the easing of lockdown; the ability to pay with plastic almost everywhere. I elect for cash and waited for the bill.

Five Euro and ninety cents, the most expensive coffee in the history of Vienna. I calculated the tip and said six-fifty, handing over a ten Euro note. Now, I never pertain to the belief that Viennese waiters are rude as is claimed and where others might perceive rudeness, I simply see no frills efficiency. Smiling and a jolly demeanour might in some cultures get you a quicker cup of coffee, but in the classic café In Vienna, it is seen as a sign of deviance. Just don’t faff about and make a fuss and everything will be swift and effortless.

So, I don’t need an excessive, fawning smile, just a nod and a thank you when I leave the culturally expected 10%. And over the years I have learned that 10% in Vienna is more than reasonable in a classic café, more and you deserve derision. But judging by the reaction of my waiter that morning to my sixty cent gratuity simply confirmed what I already knew. That for too long Landtmann, and institutions like it, had come to rely on a steady stream of visitors ill-attuned to the traditional trappings of tipping decorum in Vienna.

This is the challenge for Landtmann and its ilk this summer and beyond. They can implore all they like for more money from the state or more homespun guests, but persuading any Austrian let alone a career Wiener to pay five Euro for a coffee is about as likely as a good review for the Netflix original, Freud. Which is a shame, really, because Landtmann was Sigmund’s favourite café.

© Copyright RJ Barratt 2020

PS – About two weeks later, I travelled back into the city (a bit busier, but you could still notice that absence of people) to meet a friend. Ironically, we met at the eponymous Café Central, my first visit in more than a decade. It is not too busy and of course I ignore the waiter’s attempt to shepherd me towards a table which I didn’t like. “Can I sit here?”, I ask. “Have you reserved?” “Of course not, I am foreigner-resident class 3!” Architecturally, Central is magnificent and I admit if I were a first-time visitor to Vienna, then I would try to squeeze it in. My Melange is a bit cheaper than Landtmann but, and here is the cautionary truth: it is perhaps the worst cup of coffee in all my twenty-three years in the number one city.