A Cup of Coffee With My Interrogator

Two Viennese cafes encourage strangers to meet for a meal and “menu” of personal questions.


By Katya Barannik

“What have you rebelled against in the past and what are you rebelling against now?” “What different kinds of love have you known?”

As I sat on the deep red velvet booths of Café Museum, a short walk from the Vienna Secession House on the second night of my visit in Vienna, contemplating the answers to these questions, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Not the type to usually strike up a conversation with a stranger, I was in the middle of sharing a two hour dinner with one.

Thanks to pure chance I was able to sign up for the premiere of an event, Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations, the night before. This event serves as one of the few catalysts in the city that strives to bring Viennese locals and tourists together.

The Coffeehouse Conversations, which revolve around having a three-course dinner with a stranger are accompanied by a “menu” of 25 questions which can be asked throughout the evening to facilitate conversation. In my case the stranger was Thomas, a 29-year-old Viennese local. The questions are based upon the conversation concept created by Oxford University historian, Theodore Zeldin. Zeldin introduced the dinner conversations as part of his Oxford Muse Foundation, which brought together sections of the community who didn’t know each other to discuss ideas over the course of a simple meal.

Prague Wandering Spring 2013 Issue Number 2 Museum Cafe Vienna

A waitress serves coffee at Vienna’s famous Coffeehouse, Cafe Museum.
Photo courtesy of Cafemuseum.at.

Starter questions accompany your appetizer, entree questions accompany your main meal and dessert questions accompany your after dinner coffee. A few questions listed on the conversation menu include, “If you were a fruit which would you be?”, “What has been your most difficult conversation?” and “Which ideas have you encountered while traveling and brought back to your life at home?”

The concept of discussing and nurturing ideas in a coffeehouse dates back 150 years in Vienna. The coffeehouse culture is viewed as an essential historic part of Viennese society, so much so that it belongs to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) list of Intangible Cultural Heritages.

These Coffeehouse Conversations take place in two famous coffeehouses. One traditional and deeply rooted in the rich history of conversation and debate is Café Museum, and the other, more quirky and off the beaten path, is Café Am Heumarkt, near Stadtpark.

At the turn of the 20th-century, coffeehouses were really the place where something new happened. Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotksy, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, just to name a few, were frequent visitors of Viennese coffeehouses, which became the intellectual hubs of the late 1800s until the early 1900s. Designers, intellectuals and writers regularly met in coffeehouses to discuss, nurture and develop new ideas.

“’These Coffeehouse Conversations are about nurturing ideas and exchanging different views. Because if you always talk to someone who has the same views as you and is from the same generation and social environment, you will always be the same,’ Grüll-Cação said.”

The Coffeehouse Conversations strive to bring back this social aspect of coffeehouses that has slowly been lost in our age of technology and isolation.

Barbara Grüll-Cação, co-organizer of the event and creator of the niche destination website, Vienna Unwrapped, believes that this event strengthens the social role of Viennese coffeehouses in today’s independent and busy society.

These Coffeehouse Conversations are “about nurturing ideas and exchanging different views. Because if you always talk to someone who has the same views as you and is from the same generation and social environment, you will always be the same,” Grüll-Cação said.  “But if you meet a real stranger or when you’re traveling or you meet with a local then you may really get to hear new views that are different from yours. That is the whole point of traveling.”

The atmosphere of the evening was relaxed and free flowing. As the ice was broken and conversations got started, all my preconceived notions and fears were thrown out. An intimate group of around twenty-five foreigners and locals of all backgrounds and ages ranging from mid-twenties to late sixties, were dining and conversing in harmony.

Thomas and I ate traditional Viennese dishes as we discussed everything from education to hobbies to literature, using the question from the menus only when there was a lull in the conversation.

As I ordered an espresso with cream along with my decadent chocolate pastry, a small glass of water was served and I was reminded that history is woven through every aspect of Vienna’s coffeehouses. Even this small cup of water has a story behind it dating back close to four hundred years. Turkish coffee, which is what people used to drink back in the day, was unfiltered and made with coffee powder. When this type of coffee is poured into a mug, it is necessary to wait for the powder to settle down before you can drink it. Often times towards the end of the coffee, a bit of this grainy powder gets into your mouth, requiring a glass of water to wash it down.

Prague Wandering Spring 2013 Issue Number 2 Museum Cafe Vienna

Photo courtesy of Wien.info.

Despite the nine-year gap between us and despite living 4000 miles away from each other, Thomas and I found plenty of similarities between us. We shared our favorite travel experiences, funny experiences with love and how we like to spend our free time. Thomas also dispelled my generalization that all of Vienna’s locals are as unpleasant as the stereotypically grumpy Viennese waiters.

Meeting a friendly face in a new city can be a daunting task. Yet if you succeed, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences.

“I think the most interesting conversations and travel experiences come from encounters with locals,” Grüll-Cação said. “Whether it’s a taxi driver or a barman who tells an interesting story, that is what sticks in your mind and that is what you remember. These coffeehouse conversations cater to the travel trend of experiential travel,” she said.

After indulging in an evening of conversation and debate with Thomas, I decided not to attend the after-dinner drinks, which were taking place with everyone at the bar across the street. Thomas and I exchanged e-mails and decided that if he ever makes his way to New York we will be in contact again. That evening I strolled back to my hostel feeling more welcome in this gloomy city looted with history. Not to mention feeling full of delicious pastries and coffee.

The Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations, which will be held monthly until August 2013, begin at 18:50 and go until 21:00. Optional after dinner drinks will take place at a bar nearby. Registration is essential.

Café Museum– Operngasse 7, Vienna, Austria

Tel: +43 1 24100620

Future conversations at Café Museum:

Saturday, 11th May 2013, 6.50pm to 9pm

Saturday, 13th July 2013, 6.50pm to 9pm

Saturday, 10th August 2013, 6.50pm to 9pm

Cafe am Heumarkt– Am Heumarkt 15, Vienna, Austria

Tel: +43 1 7126581

Future conversations at Café am Heumarkt:

Friday, 12th April 2013, 6.50pm to 9pm

Friday, 14th June 2013, 6.50pm to 9pm

Register at http://www.vienna-unwrapped.com/vienna-coffeehouse-conversations.html

If you need help, please email the registration helpline: barbara.cacao@vienna-unwrapped.com.

Katya Barannik is in the NYU Class of 2015, majoring in Journalism and Art History. Her hometown is Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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Categories: Food, Spring 2013 Issue Number 2, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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