Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Talk of the Town

Café Central, by Jonelle Summerfield*

So my week in Vienna speeds by.  The days are spent toiling in the vineyard of corporate instruction, grappling with a very nice but definitely motley crew of new recruits drawn from various Golden Handcuffs locations across Europe and far beyond.  The nights, though... ah, that's another story.

Of course, because I'm now a stout gentleman of a certain age and tastes significantly more restrained than in days gone by, they're not exactly the kind of wild nights that once earned Alte Wien such a reputation.  Even so, I've managed to be quite amused.  For example, last night I dined next to Hyacinth and Richard.  Well, at least as near to as ever I hope to, and my dinner was a highly Pym-ish and rewarding sort of experience.

The weather in Vienna has proved a good bit chillier than I expected, and so I decided not to venture too far afield. I'd spied a reputable looking boite not too far from the hotel, tucked into the shadow of the Albertina Palace, not far off the little square that features both the city's surliest café (and that's saying something), the Tirolerhof, and perhaps its most tawdrily touristy, the Mozart (a name that, the music aside, seems more likely to be associated with the horrendously tacky here than any this side of the ill-fated Sissi herself).  My destination, at least by contrast, was the epitome of quiet old-world charm.  It was fairly quiet as I arrived and took a quiet table in one corner, ordered a little something Aperolische to start, and perused with gratitude the English menu discreetly passed my way by the suavely understanding elderly waiter.

The quiet couple, older even than the waiter, who had the next table, gathered up their belongings, their scarves and gloves and that sort of thing and headed out into the dark, and initially I didn't pay much attention when they were succeeded by another couple.

My ignorance didn't last long.

"Well," said a stentorian Antipodean voice placed somewhere between that of Dame Joan Sutherland and Dame Edna, "I would have thought that they would put us in the window, not back here in this corner.  I would think [and oh, before the night was out, how very much I knew about what this dear lady might just cogitate] that we were just the sort of people who might draw them some trade."

"Yes, dear."

Well, of course, I had too look up at that, and there they were, large as life or even more so: Hyacinth and Richard.  Or at least their incarnations had they moved at some point in the mid-eighties to Brisbane.  She was large and florid, carefully poised beneath an elaborate and obviously recently done coiffure in a color rather like rosewood; he apparently trying to disappear into a luxe and equally obviously recently obtained suit of almost recklessly Austrian tweeds (the overall effect was something like a summer stock Captain von Trapp, as played by Wally Cox).

Soon enough they were being fussed over by the elderly waiter (but of course never fussed over quite enough) and given menus.

"No, dear, of course you can't have an English menu.  This is not the sort of the place that would have an English menu.  I despise that sort of place.  You will have to rely on my German, which has never failed me yet."  I thought about offering up my own English menu, but decided that the possible consequences of this implicit contradiction of the Received Truth were too dreadful to consider.  Instead, I sat, carefully appearing to read my book (the excellent memoirs of the late Duchess of Devonshire, more of which at some point, I'm sure).

And indeed in short order she was dealing as confidently with the waiter as she did with her consort, brooking about as much lip, and in a kind of fractured Hochdeutsch that gave her an incongruously schoolgirlish air - rather as if ZaSu Pitts were imitating Marlene Dietrich.  She was intent that the mister would at all costs order Tafelspitz, the famous Viennese boiled-beef dinner; I'm assuming that she thought it would suit his costume.  His protests, while surprisingly vigorous given his overall air of utter defeat, were vain, although perhaps out of pity she allowed him to order the wine.  Or rather, she allowed him to start to the order the wine.

"Really, dear, do you think that's wise?  No, I think a red would be far too heavy.  You know you never sleep as it is.  No, I think a nice light white..." Something that I'm sure had nothing to do with the fact that while himself would be plowing though a formidable plate of boiled beef and all the trimmings, she would be having a delicate supper of lemon sole. Nothing all all.

At length I did turn my attention to dear Debo Devonshire and her actually quite gripping account of how she turned Chatsworth into a viable business (those Mitford girls may not have had much education, but they certainly had good heads on their shoulders - at least the ones who weren't Hitler-idolizing Fascists, or course).

After a while, though, I found my attention turned from both Chatsworth and my dinner (a lovely tomato-cream soup, followed by an equally delicious veal goulasch with spaetzle), as I realized that the neighbors' conversation was hitting rather close to home.

"That man, dear.  Look at all that food.  Does he think that wise?  Surely his doctor wouldn't approve...all that rich cream..."

I suppose they hadn't noticed me ordering, or perhaps she'd overheard me thanking the waiter with a quiet "Danke."  in any case, for whatever reason, I clearly spoke no English.

"Whom do you suppose a person like that is?  Really not dressed in a way I would think right for this sort of good restaurant, and that great shock of curly hair gone all gray.  Mutton dressed as lamb, if you ask me!"

Well, I mean.  Really.  And me what owns me own condo.

"Maybe he's some sort of artist, dear..."

"I should hope not!  No reason at all I would think of why any artist couldn't at least come to dinner in a decent jacket with his hair combed.  No, he's probably some sort of tourist from one of those Eastern countries, or some clerk splurging at his employer's expense.  Far too much of that sort of thing going on, if you ask me.  I've half a mind to tell him so..."

I wish I could say I had the presence of mind to come up with some aptly sharp riposte, but honestly I was afraid I wouln't be able to keep a straight face, and then also, of her kind she was such an extraordinarily perfect specimen that it almost seemed a pity to - to the extent that one ever could - disillusion her. Instead I finished my dinner and wandered out into the night air, missing the new drama just about to launch as she determined their dessert-future and considered the pressing question of whether or not the mister might dare, that late at night, an espresso (all signs pointing, you won't I think be surprised to hear, toward "no"...).

My only disappointment really, is that if in fact I had ventured a word, she might just have muttered something about the kind of class feeling one encounters nowadays. Alas, an opportunity lost...

* In casting about for an illustration, I happened on the website of Miss Summerfield, who has a dab hand for evocative Continental interiors and whose work I think I rather adore. And she's even from my part of the world, the green fields of Western Pennsylvania. Go have a look.


  1. Hilarious! How you managed to bite your lip is a miracle. I couldn't have... Jx

  2. I think your restraint is so commendable, certainly more than any of those Mitford girls would have bothered with.

    And just how rakish was your jacket? Some 80's pleather motorcycle thingy, fancy with studs and unnecessary zippers?

  3. I love you all the more for sharing this as eloquently as only you can. Wishing you a safe trip home!