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Authors: Andrew Riemer

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Once they had lost the hotheadedness of youth they settled into a life of responsibility and probity, feeling at one with this world, drawing sustenance from its very rigidity and stratification. The searing critics of Kakanian corruption usually came from the ranks of the powerful and privileged—Musil lacerated this world with unflagging energy; Wittgenstein's detestation of Austria proved one of his most enduring obsessions. By contrast my great-grandfather, a minor cog in the great machinery of the Austro-Hungarian state, who might well have felt exploited by that régime, which dispensed privileges in a blatantly partisan fashion, always spoke of the Emperor Franz Josef as ‘that good man', and remembered the grief with which everyone greeted the news of his Empress's assassination when she boarded a pleasure boat on faraway Lake Geneva.

Remembering the experience of a terrible century, and knowing what happened to that world, it is only too easy to be aware of the hypocrisy and, indeed, the evil that must have lain at the heart of that society. Yet, I too accede willingly to the fiction and fantasy that must have governed the lives of my relatives in those two cities and in the other capitals and provincial towns of the realm. I also find the allure of those images of the Kakanian good life irresistible. For me too they provide emblems of an existence that seems in many ways ideal, even though I know that their reality is quite the contrary. I anticipate with some pleasure, therefore, this opportunity that a quirk of history—the sudden flowering in Hungary of an interest in things Australian—will give me to explore this world, the wonderful cloud-cuckoo-land of Kakania.


The cabin screen flickers into life. With the washed-out colours and fuzzy images characteristic of in-flight movies, a succession
of enticing visions floats across the screen. Here are the famous sights of Vienna—the great imperial palaces, the handsome townhouses of the inner city, the churches, theatres and parks that make it one of the most photogenic of cities. Towards the end of this short sequence, true to the spirit that had placed food at the centre of my family's way of life in those distant years when Kakania flourished, the producers of this promotional documentary had decided to display emblems of what obviously remain the most haunting insignia of this world. The screen oozes with images of rich pastries, towering gâteaux, mounds of chestnut purée surrounded by snowy peaks of whipped cream, sandwiches shimmering under films of aspic—all the fabled delicacies Vienna's cafés serve in almost indecent abundance in a world where not too far to the east there is hardship and the none-too-remote threat of famine. As in the Kakania where my family first experienced the blessings of civilised urban life, modern Austria obviously seeks to display its individuality, its charm and appeal in terms of the richest yet most delicate of foods.

The social rituals of old Kakania were certainly concentrated in the ceremonies of food. Wherever you went in that world, whatever you did, food was the focus of communal life. It accompanied, and also defined, a way of life and a trust in the essentially wholesome nature of that life in much the same way that the consecrated wafer is both the actuality and the symbol of the mystery of the redemption. The reasons for that adulation of food were complex and intimately connected with the elaborate social structures—filled with barriers and exclusions—of Kakania. More forcefully than elsewhere in bourgeois Europe, such pressures threw emphasis on the family, the group and the caste. Whatever cultural pursuits members of this world might have followed, the focus of their lives was provided by the family circle, with all its networks and ramifications. Within that network, moreover, the quality as much as the quantity of the food offered and consumed served as powerful social and spiritual emblems.

Five-o'clock-tea, a curious and copious meal, usually consisted
of goose-liver paté sandwiches, quivering custard slices and that confection known as
, made of two chocolate-glazed hemispheres of sponge held together with stiffly whipped cream—the magnified images of which are floating across the screen in front of me. These were the ritual trappings of a ceremony fundamentally important to the maintenance and preservation of a cherished way of life. People would gather at those groaning tables where the great topics of the day would be discussed to the accompaniment of solicitous urgings that Aunt Gizi or Uncle Sandor should partake of this or that delicacy, with passionate reminders that they must eat to keep up their strength, to remember poor Cousin Piroska who wasted away with TB because she would never, but never, eat enough cream and always refused to drink chocolate.

They talked about the great and disturbing events of the time: royal suicides, political assassinations—on Lake Geneva, in Sarajevo, in Vienna itself; and the ominous insurrections, pogroms, witch-hunts that disturbed the even tenor of their lives. Yet the persistent topic of conversation would have been the more immediate and perhaps more important verities—the marriages of their children and relatives, how one had foolishly strayed beyond the self-imposed limits of this society by marrying a penniless baron, while another had, wisely, married his well-to-do second cousin; the business acumen of an uncle or a friend; the death agony of somebody's grandmother. Custard slices, paté shimmering with aspic, richly fragrant ham from Prague and spicy salami from the Hungarian plains slid from dish to plate and from plate to mouth, propelled by elaborately shaped silver implements, and throughout these ceremonies the talk or gossip that defined the ethical limits of that little world would pass from person to person with grace, ease and agility.

The rituals of the dining-room were transported beyond the heavily furnished, thickly carpeted flats where these people conducted such mystic rites. They looked for food when walking in the Vienna Woods or in the hills outside Budapest. Their mental map of the paths that wound through the bosks
of these charming places was well marked with inns where you could refresh yourself with boiled sausages and horseradish sauce, washed down with beer, so that you would have enough energy to continue on your constitutional—that communication with nature which these people had learnt from the despised Germans, among whom many of them had spent years studying to become engineers or drawing-room pianists. At the theatre, the long intervals provided opportunities for visiting one of the many buffets groaning with food. There rich cakes, baroque sandwiches with their slices of meat, eggs, caviar and cheese trapped under a film of aspic, sustained them for another act of
The Countess Maritza, The Merry Widow
The Gypsy Princess
. The buffet was even more elaborate at the opera, but of course you needed sustenance for the intellectual demands of
Madame Butterfly
—many could not understand how their younger relatives (like my father) could endure all those hours of that terrible antisemite, Wagner.

When the womenfolk visited the dressmaker they were offered simple refreshments (the cost of which was added, naturally, to the seamstress's bill). No shopping expedition would have been complete without a visit to a gilded café. In the lives of the men, even for those confined to the routines of an office, cafés played an intrinsic role, not merely in their leisure life but in their professions as well—for they were all ‘Doctor' or ‘Engineer', the two great classifications and distinguishing marks of the Kakanian bourgeoisie. Children's lives were also surrounded by the ceremonies of food. Berib-boned and sailor-suited they (or we, for I was born into the tail-end of that world) would gather for polite and seemly games supervised by grown-up relatives and governesses. In one corner of the room a table overladen with ‘healthy' (that is to say carbohydrate-rich) food awaited the signal summoning the young ladies and gentlemen to help themselves to its strawberry ices and
. Eating was an integral part of visits to the skating-rink in winter (for you had to keep out the cold); it replenished exhausted muscles at the swimming baths in summer, where every hour on the hour a whistle
would announce that the wave-machine was about to be turned on.

It is as a legacy, no doubt, of such an obsession with food among members of my family and the society they had inhabitated that for many years I have been visited without warning by a sensation that must have had its origin in the rituals of this world. It is a potently visual and olfactory sensation, and it has remained remarkably consistent even though months or years sometimes separate its sudden and inexplicable visitations. It always comes in the same form: I am looking at the junction of two narrow cobbled streets on a wintry afternoon. There is still some light in a leaden sky but a gaslight attached to the corner building by a sturdy bracket is already alight. The conjunction of the two streets forms an acute angle, so that my gaze travels down each, allowing the buildings on either side of both streets to be seen. They are low structures with steeply pitched roofs. The large arched gates are secured by heavy wooden doors. Many of the windows are barred. A light snowfall leaves a thin layer of greyish-white ice on the cobblestones, which extend to the walls of the buildings, for there are no footpaths in these narrow streets. A little way up one of the streets, a warm orange-yellow light filters through the curtained window of a shop.

It is a banal image, culled perhaps from a painting, an illustration or even from one of those realistic stage settings that I saw as a child on outings to the theatre in one of these towns or cities. Yet its effect on me is very peculiar. I experience a sensation of great peace and contentment, mixed with an acute sense of loss, whenever the image pops into my consciousness from a recess of my personality where it has been dormant. It is accompanied, moreover, by its most curious attribute, a powerful scent, bringing to the nostrils of my imagination the characteristic odour of an Austro-Hungarian café, a heady amalgam of aromas, among which vanilla and coffee are dominant.

I can attach no precise source to this sensation, nor am I
able to find any explanation for its unheralded appearances. But I have felt, as the years pass and as it insists on returning, that it represents something fundamentally important—whatever it might be. It speaks to me of something that demands to be recovered but is perhaps no longer recoverable: innocence, the clarity of childhood, a world that has been compromised by experience and lost in time.

I have often thought that this image, sensation, or visitation is merely a trick provoked by the literary disposition, a consequence, perhaps, of reading too much Proust. Yet as it returns with its haunting insistence, sometimes in broad daylight, sometimes in a vividly remembered dream, I realise that it first struck me during my early adolescence, in the first years of my life in Australia, long before I had heard Proust's name, or read even a page of
Remembrance of Things Past
. Rather, I am convinced, it must emerge from a private vocabulary of images and memories. It is a visual and olfactory emblem of the lost fantasy-world of Kakania: the characteristic appearance of its streets in some city or town, mixed with a whiff of its equally characteristic and perhaps most significant institution—a café where the sweet odour of vanilla mingles with the pungent scent of highly roasted coffee. In my imagination, this café of the Habsburg world—in some unknown city or town of my early childhood when that Empire and realm, though no longer a political reality, still exerted an influence throughout its former territories—has assumed a position of undisputed centrality. It has become a distillation, a compact, fleeting yet powerful image of a world irrecoverably lost, a world compromised by hatred and brutality, a world which must be approached with the armour of irony fully in place, and yet a world of irresistible allure. And it provides, no matter how tenuously, or how contingently, some signs of the survival of that world in dreams, in the imagination or in visions imprinted on my memory many years ago, a time when all experiences and sensations were new, fresh and shiningly clear.


The screen is blank, the golden images have faded. All that remains are the strains of sentimental Viennese music piped through the aircraft's sound system. We are obviously falling towards the source and origin of these sugary melodies. I try as hard as I am able to control my growing anxiety. Even though this 747 seems to be gliding down through the morning air with the ease and assurance of a powerfully muscled bird, ingrained misgivings, disciplined though not tamed by years of exposure to the perils of flight, assert themselves as the two realms, the celestial and the terrestrial, begin to come into conjunction.

In the night, above India, I could almost persuade myself that we were not suspended thousands of metres above the earth in a fragile metal cylinder. At that time we seemed to be in another existence, astral beings, safe, powerful and beyond harm, observing with indifference the faint pools of light floating in a sea of darkness. But when the ground looms large and menacing all around, as it is doing now, when you can see the miniature dots of cars scurrying along a busy highway, then anxiety becomes inescapably insistent.

My thoughts turn, therefore, towards that other aeroplane, and to that winter flight from Vienna and from the brutality this world had experienced, into the perpetual darkness of the northern night. I remember with an almost intolerable immediacy the lone, stark chimneystack that floated past every few minutes as the plane circled the town of Hartford in Connecticut, marking with clocklike insistence our approach to the seemingly inevitable death that awaited us below in the snowy whiteness. I recall too the terrible shudder and thud with which the plane, its malfunctioning undercarriage frozen and icebound, plopped into the soft thick snow, and how the young airhostess, who had maintained her regulation smile throughout the many hours of the emergency, fainted the instant all that creaking and jangling of metal had been silenced and we knew that we had been saved.

BOOK: The Habsburg Cafe
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