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Authors: Andrew Riemer

Tags: #Biography/Autobiography

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Walking past the convent, we turn another corner, and find ourselves in St George Street. Here, at Number 11 according to my cousin, was the poky flat where my mother and her family led a miserable life of destitution. The building is surprisingly large: its windows rise in four levels in strict classical order of size and decoration. The façade is freshly plastered and partly painted. A handsome arched gateway is secured by a well-polished slatted door. A notice fixed to one of its wings, and protected by a sheet of plastic, advises that the restoration of 11 St George Street will be completed by early 1992, when these self-contained luxury flats, each with its lock-up garage at the rear, will be offered for sale.

Two or three cobbled lanes cast into dark shadows, but illuminated by handsome converted gaslights which have been turned on in the early afternoon gloom, take us to another, quite large space lined with public buildings. And there in front of us is the tower, just as I remember it, at its base a squat, rough-hewn construction but rising to a graceful baroque steeple. A tunnel-like passage runs through its cumbersome base—the tower's Roman foundations, I remember being told
by my mother half a century ago on the occasion of one of our visits to Sopron.

Here, therefore, is the moment of integration, the re-entry into mythology. This is the watchtower and this space, where groups of people are craning their necks to inspect the steeple, is no doubt where the town was scandalised by my mother's disgraceful antics on a motorbike. Beneath the present-day appearance of this drab and neglected town, more dreary-looking, in all probability, because of the lowering winter sky, I can feel—in a mild though by no means unpleasant way—a tenuous connection with the past. I experience an entirely irrational sense that somehow or other I belong here, in a way that I do not quite belong in Budapest, that city of terrible memories, or Vienna, despite its allure, or even Sydney, the familiar place I now fondly call my home. Looking around this open space in front of the massive tower, where the cobblestones once clattered under the wheels of my father's motorbike, I am able to understand how this little Habsburg town, which has managed to retain much of its essence despite the vicissitudes of time and history, somehow concentrates the symbols of a way of life that I can only identify by the mock-serious name of Kakania—symbols I have encountered, though dispersed and at times almost obliterated, in the cities and towns of this world.

There is no illumination, no sense of a peace passing all understanding as this goal is achieved. There is, however, a mildly pleasant sense of satisfaction—despite aching eyes, running nose and fiery throat—that the myth world which has coloured so much of my imagination in the course of my life does have at least some foundation, that it is not entirely the product of misplaced longings and dissatisfaction. I have not come upon those streets meeting under a burning gaslight, nor seen the rectangle of light illuminating a patch of cobblestones. I have not found the Habsburg café depicted on my private iconostasis. But I have found the elements of that vision scattered throughout the square kilometre of this little town that nestles so comfortably around its watchtower.

It is well after two, time to look for a meal, my acquaintance says—the restaurants should be emptying by now. Then, looking up at the tower, he suggest that perhaps we should climb to the top, there's bound to be a reasonable view, despite the cloud and drizzle. But we find the entrance heavily barred: a notice advises that the tower is closed for winter; it is open for inspection from April to October.


We leave the overheated cellar restaurant after an indigestible paprika-laden meal—my last exposure for a long time, I think with considerable satisfaction, to Hungarian cooking. As we climb the short flight of steps leading to the street I can still hear some elderly Austrians protesting loudly about the outrageous cost of their meal—which was probably as low as ours had been. My companion thanks me for my hospitality, and I, in turn, thank him for the lift, for his kindness in showing me around the town. It is time to get under way again. In a few minutes, he says, we'll be at the border. He hopes that there won't be a long delay, but you can't tell. This border crossing is quite good, he adds, because it has a separate lane for road transports. Elsewhere, especially on the road into Czechoslovakia, you can be kept waiting for ten or twelve hours if you are unlucky.

On our way back to the large parking lot, it strikes me that I should offer my companion some coffee before we start on our journey—for it is not good form in this world to take coffee in the restaurant where you've had your meal. Glancing at his watch, he says that that would be very nice, as long as we don't take too long, because he'd like to get me to the airport hotel before it gets dark: the roads around there are very busy and he finds them very confusing.

Around the next corner we come upon a sign placed in the gateway of one of the few freshly painted houses. We step inside a surprisingly spacious courtyard where, at its far end, another
sign over a doorway identifies the location of a café. The place resembles—and once it probably was—a ground-floor apartment. The first room we come upon contains the obligatory glass-fronted and mirror-backed counter displaying a selection of homely cakes and pastries. One of the two doors in this hallway leads to the café itself—a series of interconnected small rooms, each with two or three marble-topped tables and plush chairs. The second door obviously leads to the kitchen.

All the tables in the first room are occupied. At one, a pair of elderly ladies are scraping the last bits of a creamy confection from shallow glass dishes. We find a table in the second room. The only other occupant is a middle-aged gentleman in a baggy suit. His briefcase has been placed on the chair opposite him. He is reading a newspaper while finishing a cup of coffee. An untouched glass of water stands on a small saucer on top of a paper doily.

The suspicion that this café had once been a dwelling is even stronger in this room. Two sash windows with lace curtains look onto the courtyard—an undesirable aspect according to the domestic hierarchies of this world. A large winged door on the opposite wall leads to another room, perhaps the owner's apartment. The walls are papered with a pattern known in English as Regency. A chandelier of Bohemian glass hangs from the moulded ceiling.

It would be easy to imagine this place as it would have looked when it housed some worthy citizen of Sopron. As we wait for our order to be taken, I begin to spin fantasies about this place. Who lived here in the 1920s, the years in which my mother was growing up in this tight little town? Since this was a courtyard flat on the edge of the old town, it is unlikely that its occupants were grandees. It is much more likely that they were relatively hard-up, like my mother's people, though no doubt able to aspire to some measure of bourgeois propriety and comfort. Did they know my mother? Were they parts of the rumour mill that spread the news of her scandalous conduct around the town? Did my mother visit friends or acquaintances here? Perhaps this was where the not-very-accomplished
portrait painter executed a likeness of her on a large oval board—commissioned to commemorate her first ball—which she always detested and took some pleasure in chopping up to provide firewood in the bitter winter of 1945, as Budapest lay in ruins around us.

The atmosphere of the café is comfortably somnolent. The tiled stove in the corner sends out a mellow heat. We are silent, each lost in his thoughts. Perhaps my acquaintance is thinking about what he must do in his three or four days in Austria. I, for my part, looking around at the comfortable furnishings of this little café on the border of what used to be the two great nations of the Habsburg realm, am struck by a sense of curious appropriateness. It seems to me entirely fitting, indeed inevitable, that these months of wandering around the territories of what used to be Kakania, that world which gave the various members of my family many of their dreams and preoccupations, their fantasies and also their fears, should come to an end here, in a café, perhaps the most characteristic and poignant image of that world's communal dreams.

It also strikes me with particular force that the anomalies and paradoxes of this world are beyond resolution, just as my own confused and ambiguous responses to the tinsel pomp of Austria and the turmoil of contemporary Hungary must always remain balanced on a knife-edge between scorn and attachment, fear and indifference. Yet in this little town, rich with images of a mythic world, and in this unassuming café, there may remain a few echoes of a former life, of a lost world, capable of being cherished and recaptured, briefly and provisionally, in this fossil of the Dual Monarchy, the bitter-sweet, serio-comic dream of Kakania, which once, in the distant past, beguiled so many members of my family, seducing them with its siren-song of the good life.

As my eyes travel around this warm, comfortable, slightly dowdy place, I notice the faded etchings and lithographs decorating its walls. They show perspectives of this city, always dominated by its watchtower, some executed with great skill, others with a charmingly naïve ineptitude. In each of them,
whether accomplished or amateurish, the engravers and draughtsmen have managed to include, somewhere in the elaborate designs framing these views of the town, a curiously-shaped crown, the emblem of the Kings of Hungary, and the proud double-headed eagle of the Habsburgs.

The waitress arrives to take our order. Only coffee? Nothing to eat? Could she perhaps recommend her
, homemade, according to the original recipe, far superior to anything we'd find in Vienna?


We rise into a leaden sky. Soon trees and fields, roads and houses are blotted out as we climb, shuddering and jolting, through a thick blanket of cloud. Later the turbulence ceases, the pilot extinguishes the seat-belt sign. Weak winter sunlight flows into the cabin. Nothing is visible through the porthole beside my seat except the thick cloud-cover from horizon to distant horizon. Below, the countries, provinces and districts that had once formed the world of Kakania—their towns and cities, their hopes and terrible hatreds, and those cafés that seem to stretch from one end of this realm to another—slip by unseen. Towards dusk the clouds begin to disperse. Just before sunset I catch sight of a snow-covered crag burning with the last glimmer of evening as we hurtle eastwards, into the night.

BOOK: The Habsburg Cafe
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