by Lara Endreszl
January in Vienna induces cafe dreaming.
My new chocolate-brown boots can’t compete with cobblestones. Three-inch, stiletto heeled, pointy-toed beauties, but my feet aren’t appreciating this walk. My eyes, however, love it. I am twenty-one and studying abroad for a month. I am drinking in this city. Before coming here, the only thing I knew about Vienna was the name printed on tiny cans of sausages hidden on shelves at my local Safeway. Now, wandering around by myself dreaming of another time where horses—not cars—crowded these alleyways, I find an outlet for my imagination: strangers. I walk towards my favorite teahouse, long ago squeezed into a cove of shops behind the towering St. Stephens Cathedral; Haas & Haas is a beloved stop of mine.
Darkness closes in on the city but inside I sip my Indian Spice and wait patiently. While waiting for milk and the assortment of sugars for my tea, I absorb the lives of my fellow tea-drinkers.
The man in the pink tie two tables over is French; or maybe he just looks and sounds so. He and his woman companion are in a heated discussion, but it’s calm, not aggressive. I assume it’s not personal. They both have tea but only she is eating. She ordered regular tea house fare: a tiny porcelain-tiered tray filled with cucumber, egg and tuna triangular sandwiches—yes, with the crusts cut off—ever so delicate a meal complete with an assortment of colorful and fruit filled petit fours. I like that he let her sit on the booth side, but I don’t think they came together. Maybe she got here first. He glances over at me every so often, probably wondering why I am alone. He can’t see my notebook, it sits on my lap while I try to be discreet.
The first person to draw my attention is a woman in a ridiculously teal sweater; it’s too cold for such a color, that type of teal belongs somewhere perpetually sunny: like Cannes or somewhere tacky: Say, a crowded beach in Florida. Her head is enveloped in a fur hat and both she and the young woman across the table from her are sporting bright red acrylics atop their once-natural fingernails. Teal Sweater is animated as she talks, white scarf lying haphazardly across her chest, same position as her bottle-bleached-blonde hair. She doesn’t seem to be a visitor, no language barriers being crossed, unlike my pink-tie-wearing Parisian neighbor. She’s not wearing a wedding ring, but I wonder: is she the proud, perpetual bachelorette or is she a scorned lover wishing for the one she lost? She dominates the conversation—I have been watching for awhile—and the young woman merely nods and sips; Teal Sweater must be telling a story. Her companion, Young Woman, lights a European cigarette, long and very thin. She also adjusts the sunglasses atop her head and smoothes out her hair. Why sunglasses on a cloudy day in January? Maybe she dreams. I wonder how they get smoke out of fur. I don’t like smelling of smoke in my inexpensive pullover and weighty pea coat let alone anything made of fur. I wonder about this laundry hazard for a while and get distracted. Suddenly they are laughing and I have missed the joke. Granted my German isn’t helpful past “thank you”, “goodnight” or “lock the door” but I still would have liked to see the progression of this laughter. I look down and stir my tea.
A woman, maybe thirty, watches me from across the crowded mint-green-cushioned interior as I apply my small white tube of lip gloss. She is chubby but muscular and carrying a baby whose body is three times the size of the mother’s head. She is having a hard time finding space for her stroller and gets frustrated. I feel bad for her and stop watching; she makes me feel guilty. I think the Pink Tie Parisian and Companion are leaving soon. He has put on his jacket, gold decorative sleeve-buttons and all. This reminds me of my father’s favorite old suit: navy with loosely hanging gold embellishments, and I smile. I can see the family I left behind in California: Dad falls asleep before ten, glass of red wine on the table next to his chair, remote glued to his right hand. Meanwhile Mom drinks water nonstop, crochets blankets and loves to watch old movies; she never sleeps longer than eight hours. Back in this moment in the tea house, I absorb the city into my permanent memory while making Vienna my temporary home. The sugar has dissolved. My tea is perfect. The lights have gotten brighter since I’ve been inside the tiny tea shop; the sun has gone down completely outside.
Teal Sweater has stopped awhile; thankfully. I guess that Young Woman has a dilemma and needs some advice. Personally, I wouldn’t take advice from someone in that teal of a sweater on such a depressingly dark day, but I also wouldn’t smoke in my fur; if I smoked, or wore fur. Happily I observe, realizing that for once, Teal Sweater is not focusing on herself, or constantly glancing at her black glimmering watch, diamonds embedded around its delicate face. She is actually listening; I should give her a prize. Would she enjoy a trophy or a decorated ribbon? Wait, she leans in and looks at me while whispering to Young Woman, does she suspect the spy? No…I shrug and pour myself a new cup from my individual tea pot, I think it’s my fourth. Three gems of sugar added, a little milk, yum. I don’t care if she knows I’m watching. Teal Sweater should be flattered anyone is looking. I feel bad for this woman and suddenly become fearful. What if, twenty years down the road, I make a bad fashion statement while out with a friend one day and end up on some nosy student’s sympathy list? I’d have become just another poor soul, watched and judged without any opportunity to sway my perceiver. I wouldn’t even get a warning, in case I had a chance to fix my snarled strands or check if my mascara had run down my cheek in the rain. Perhaps she is this type of person, maybe I misjudged her. Teal Sweater could be me in a few decades—without the fur—caught unsuspecting by a stranger on laundry day while venting to a trusted friend.
Another woman has just stood up; surprised I haven’t seen her yet, I take another look. She wears snow boots but it hasn’t snowed in two days. Wait—Young Woman has excused herself and Teal Sweater is at a loss for something to do. Pink Tie Parisian and Companion still have not left; he shifts a lot in his chair, a sign of discomfort. He looks puzzled; his left leg is crossed on top of his right knee, hands clasped together around kneecap. He unclasps his hands and rubs his eyes. Companion is still pushing her barely bitten sandwiches around her small white plate. It frustrates me that he stares hard at the tiny tart with a sliced strawberry resting in a cloud of cream, yet will not eat. She has stopped eating completely. I covet her delicate tray and continue to watch this interaction. I cannot figure these two out. Are they friends? Are they colleagues? They can’t be lovers. There’s no affection between them. Pink Tie Parisian’s tie clip is in the wrong place on his equally bright but differently shaded pink shirt. I’m pretty sure he’s French. I catch snippets of their conversation and it’s familiar to me. Their body language is very strange. Companion’s stuff is all behind her: briefcase, coat, and scarf; she is hiding her identity from him. Is she aware she is doing this? Do I do this to people unknowingly? They haven’t known each other for very long, a few weeks maybe; they are still very formal.
An old woman in a large salmon cardigan is sharing tea across a tiny table with her daughter. It’s like watching a woman having tea and sitting across from a mirror, I adore this sight: The Twins. There is a giant white painting above The Twins on the wall covering the space between their chairs; it is a depressing attempt to cover up the eggshell wall that would normally stay blank. Random gray and black slashes bleeding into the white background is the only thing this rectangle portrays to the world; it does not match their mood. I wonder if it’s ever matched anyone’s mood. It seems out of place in the quaint atmosphere. The rail-thin waitress—my favorite one because she actually knows how to speak English and doesn’t just pretend—has just brought them champagne. They must be celebrating. Perhaps they are celebrating a triumph? Maybe they are toasting a triumph over a doctor’s visit, congratulating a new job or something as simple as a birthday. The Twins don’t seem sinister and they don’t seem to hide from each other. They laugh quietly so as to not disturb their tabletop neighbors. How polite The Twins are. Smiles are everywhere. I wish I knew them.
Tweed Suit just stormed across the front of the room. She demands attention and sits facing an empty booth, obviously waiting for someone. I am disappointed she doesn’t want the comfy seat facing the open window. She is staring hard at Pink Tie Parisian and Companion. She is struggling to find stuff to do; she is waiting for a man. Women are always waiting impatiently for men. She grabs the menu as to simulate actually searching for something to sip. Her eyes scan down each laminated page, hoping to kill some time. She already knows what she wants; I can tell. She comes here a lot. Her red silky blouse peeking out from under her tweed blazer shows her flirty side; she knows how to hold a delicate martini glass, but tonight she chooses tea. She is classy and wears a single strand of pearls. Lots of blush and some wrinkles I see but not one smile.
Behind Tweed Suit, there are two old men sitting in front of the window with the best view of St. Stephens Cathedral or to the locals, Stephansdome. You can always guarantee that in an old city, the church is where the best characteristics of that city is hidden. A church represents each city’s center: Vienna is no different. This dark monument stands at attention watching over its bustling city. If you go to the top of the tower you can see the huge bell enclosed in its own mausoleum, and a personal view of the different brightly-colored crests immortalized on each side of the roof tiles, standing out within an otherwise indistinguishable palette. This church is quiet yet powerful, just like Vienna’s hold over me.
The old man facing me looks tired, although it could just be his disheveled nature and balding head. He has wispy gray hair that stands up like static cling on a balloon. They have been quietly talking for a while. Depending on the weather, I might suggest that these are the type of men to play chess outside on the street near the birds. They probably listen to Mozart and light candles in memory of their dead wives at church every evening. This little man physically looks nothing like my own grandfather, but an old, stubborn German still isn’t hard to place anywhere. On a Monday evening, I wonder what his dingy white undershirt means under his tailored black blazer. Does he still go to work? He can’t work with his hands anymore, he’s too old and clumsy and it’s not safe. Laundry must mean little to the Old Men. The one facing me uses his hands a lot while talking, still careful not to let anyone except his partner hear him. He is protective and seems sweet. I’d like this Old German to be sweet.
Finally, a smile, it’s wrinkled, but it doesn’t look bad on Tweed Suit. The Man has arrived. He looks like he walked out of a European J. Crew catalog: fur lined long camel hair jacket and scarf, hat casually thrown to one side, brim misted over from the outside chill. Sharp facial features and a structured outfit complement his dark hair. They are in love. The Man leans over and kisses the top of Tweed Suit’s cheek and squeezes her hand as they gaze across the table at each other. I wonder why he was late. Who did he leave to see her? Work? Another woman? Is it an after-work rendezvous or a secret tryst between adulterers? I hope that it’s the first. I don’t worry that she will see me taking notes while looking in her direction, she sees only him. He scans the menu and sips from her lukewarm tea.
The Old German with the light-socket hair and murky white shirt looks at me straight in the eyes. He is the first of my subjects to acknowledge doing so. Playing chicken we are and, for the most part, I look away first. We do this a few times over the next few minutes. What is he so secretive about? I look down at my watch to avoid his steady gaze.
Oh-no! I have to meet my roommate Katie for dinner in twenty minutes! I have one more cup of tea in my pot. I can savor it. I can’t leave my patrons just yet. Old German looks tired as he rests his hands on his face. He is a local. He never wears a watch. I’m watching him yet he does not care. He is a regular, unlike me. Being here is not a luxury to him. He probably has a scruffy little white dog with always-dirty paws that helps him walk home. He seems like he’d enjoy the smell of gasoline and the dirt off the cobblestone after a good rain. I sense that he will be here tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. I will be back here before I leave, but not tomorrow. I have other places to explore, more people to observe, and more pages to fill. I hope he keeps playing chess, lighting candles and walking to the tea shop to meet a friend in his old unwashed, black blazer.
It’s been awhile now since The Twins replaced Teal Sweater. The champagne is long drunk and they have stopped interesting me. Mirrors are usually one-sided anyway. Pink Tie Parisian is still here choking on his words and probably wondering, as I still am, why Companion ordered so much when she didn’t want to eat it. My waitress brings me my bill and thank God she hasn’t seen me accidentally fling a sugar gem down the aisle ahead of us. My legs aren’t long enough to reach it, I don’t think she would appreciate having to pick it up; she’s been on her feet all day. As I put my stuff away I wonder what my specimens will think when they see me leave. Will someone else be curious like me? Will Tweed Suit be watching the way I apply my faux-Burberry scarf or will Old German see how I button my black pea coat with the oversized cream buttons? Have The Twins speculated about my single status in the corner of the room? Would Teal Sweater’s gaze follow mine if she were still here? Will anyone notice me leave? Do I want anyone to? What does it really mean to see and be seen? I twist my skinny silver pen closed and slide in into the elastic band stretched over my pocket notebook with the imprint of the Eiffel Tower on the cover. I put both away and quickly speculate whether Pink Tie Parisian would recognize the symbol. My tea is gone and I already miss it. I am going to be late for dinner. My roommate may already be at the quaint Austrian pub next to our hotel, graceful and patient, thumbing through the familiarized menu—even though she already knows what she wants—keeping herself busy glancing at the pictures: Waiting and watching for me.
Lara Endreszl is currently living and writing in Northern California while in the process of getting an MFA from Saint Mary’s College. Although she detests packing, she hopes to become a travel writer in the near future.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.