Friday, April 24, 2015

Cafes, Pastries and Melange in Austria

“In Austria, it’s all about the whipped cream,” my aunt Sharon says as she sips her mélange.
 Mélange, in all its creamy glory 

They serve it with everything in Austria, sacher torte, strudel, coffee, everything. Viennese waiters with too much pride will ask if you want whipped cream with a raise of an eyebrow, a waggle of their mustache, daring you to decline. Say no to the forthcoming mountain of whipped cream, and risk offending them and their centuries old culture, but then again, do as you wish, because your very existence has already pissed them off.
Apple strudel, coffee and cream
The Viennese cafes in particular are equipped with an arrogance so refined its almost breathtaking. One waitress dropped the money we gave her, scoffed at us, and tapped her foot impatiently while my aunt scrambled to pick up the loose bills. Another waiter, when confronted with two loud-mouthed Americans and their traitorous Viennese relative, demanded how long we’d need the table before letting us sit down. Thirty minutes we told him, and he held us to the number, for when twenty minutes had passed and we asked for the check, he waived us away, convinced that we were still enjoying the ambiance and his ice-cold presence.
In Graz the arrogance is more under control. My aunt took Raquel and me to a tiny café, and when Raquel asked (GASP!) what one of the pastries was the waitress smiled and indulgently told us the name and ingredients of every fantastic confection behind the glass. And when Raquel decided on the very first one the woman had named, she served us with a smile and a raised eyebrow, daring me to put whipped cream in my coffee.

The coffee in Austria is as delicious as the confections. In Vienna, be sure you order the mélange. It’s no different from a cappuccino, but to order such a refined drink in vulgar Italian risks being ostracized. In Graz ordering a cappuccino doesn’t invoke the same visceral reaction, but to order a mélange tells the server you’ve been to the capital city, something Austrians respect, even if only because they know you’ve strolled through Schonbrunn and dealt with a café far snobbery than theirs.  
Esterhozy, mélange, and poppyseed cake

But worry not intrepid traveler! All said snobbery is worth the confectionary perfection. For to be in Austria and not taste sacher torte or apfel strudel is a sin of carelessness most egregious. To not venture out and sample esterhozy--a slice of almond and cognac invented by angels in Hungary--or the dense mashed poppy seed cake my cousin can’t stop eating is a lapse of judgment as foolish as admiring the grand canyon with one’s eyes closed.

So dine on! Walk into a café, peruse the delights behind the glass, and trust they taste as good as they look. Remember that to fear being snubbed is folly. Those sneers and scoffs of the Viennese are much deserved. Your waiter is old enough to have served Kaisers and Kings. You’re but a tourist taking up space at a table once reserved for royalty.

Want more Austrian adventures? Click for meat, taboos, or here for food from my year in Japan.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Beard, The Babe, and The Bear

From where I sit above Vienna I can see old bearded Austrians hobble past young Muslims lost in conversation amongst red-brick buildings. To think that 24 hours ago I was eating a box of bento—rice, fried fish paste and steamed vegetables—on the floor of a train station in Tokyo boggles my mind. My wife Raquel and I finished a year spent teaching in Takayama Japan and decided to strap our stuffed bear Kumamon to one of our backpacks, and spend two months in Europe. 

Eating on the floor in Japan is certainly more agreeable with the locals than walking while you eat, but typically frowned upon when done in a train station. Yet we were given no hassle, for Kumamon was with us. Locals tried to frown when they saw two westerners shoveling their faces between trains, but inevitably failed when they saw his fat black belly and rosy red cheeks. Frowns faded as the passersby mumbled “Kumamon,” from goofy smiles. It seemed that deciding to take a stuffed animal as our only carry-on item besides a backpack each was a great idea.

But that all changed.

The three of us landed in the Dubai airport after a tiring yet sleepless 12 flight from Tokyo. After a year living amongst a sea of Japanese salary men, the diversity of the airport boggled my mind. I saw men in turbans and women in scarves, gnarled beards, styled mustached, business suits, bindies and baseball caps on hair of every style growing from skin of every color. The only thing all these people had in common was their distrust of the two Americans sauntering through the airport with a stuffed bear. 

People woke from their naps just to roll over and turn their backs on us. Mothers warned their children to keep their distance and husbands told their wives wait to take a picture until the cheerless ambiance of the enormous international airport could return.

After an hour of listless wandering, it was time to fly to Vienna. We queued up, inched forward, presented our boarding pass and were promptly told to get out of line. A hundred people walked past us, their tickets brokering them no troubles. We kept smiles on our faces and Kumamon bounced happily in Raquel’s arms but the passing crowd was not amused. As people filed onto the plane, stares grew from distrust to suspicion to downright horror. I know they were all thinking the same thing. “There’s a bomb in that bear.”

“Your seats changed, I didn’t have a printer,” the flight attendant said with a grin, not even apologizing for how sweaty the delay had made us. We piled onto the plane, plopped down with Kumamon, and prepared for the praise to come for our travelling companion.

Instead we were greeted with a cold smile from a European flight attendant, and told to stuff our teddy bear in the overhead so we could take off.

Teddy bear? We looked at eachother. TEDDY BEAR? We would never travel with a teddy bear! But then our eyes alit on sweet sweet Kumamon and we realized that she was indeed talking to us.

So I’ll miss Japan, with its bowing businessman and silly characters, but we’re ready for a new adventure, this one with a cast of three lead characters and countless bit parts that will come and go. So stay tuned to see who we meet, and what they have to say about my beard, my beautiful wife, and lil’ Kumamon.  

If you liked this post, follow our adventures in Europe or find out about my year in Japan.