THE SLATE-COLORED JANUARY MORNING drummed cold rain against the windows of Café Prückel. My friend Boris and I had arrived on the red-eye from JFK two hours before. He wanted to sleep; I wanted to go to Prückel, and he’d reluctantly agreed.
Vienna is renowned for its cafés. There’s the toothache-inducing gilt of Café Central, the faux-bohemian shabbiness of Café Hawelka, the raspberry-bordello color scheme of Café Sacher. But my first destination in Vienna is always Café Prückel. Like the more central cafés, it, too, is overseen by taciturn middle-aged men in poly-blend tuxedos. (Viennese servers do not subsist on tips, a fact reflected in their unhurried gait and refreshing disinclination to smile.) But it’s more spacious and sparsely populated, always making me feel pleasurably left alone. Multilingual newspapers hang along the walls, and soft-boiled eggs arrive in eggcups alongside good espresso, and the light streaming in through tall windows invites you to dig your shoulders into the upholstery and linger.
Across the table, Boris didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. But it wasn’t because I’d kept him from a soft mattress. “It’s like a Soviet cafeteria,” he said, poking unhappily at the cold cuts that had arrived along with the eggs. He surveyed the vast dining area, which, admittedly, did have a wood-paneled wall or two. “The bourgeois version.” I suspected that this was partly why I loved it.
I first came to Vienna when I was 9, a refugee fleeing the Soviet Union. My mother, her parents, and I shared a rundown hotel suite somewhere on the city’s edge. It was the first stop on the journey that would eventually take us to New York, and Vienna was our first encounter with what everyone in the Soviet Union referred to, usually in a whisper, as the West.
Beginning in the late ’60s, hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking refugees passed through Vienna on their way west, mainly to Israel and the United States. Concerned about the appearance of losing so many citizens, Soviet officials preferred to release their refugees to an intermediary nation — and its neutrality made Austria a logical choice. I suppose what I remember most about those weeks in 1979 is a peculiar mixture of emotions: sheer confusion; exhilarated discovery; the distinct embarrassment of being a stranger in what felt like a more civilized civilization; and the recent loss of everything and everyone familiar save a handful of loved ones, a presentiment cushioned for me by the fact of my childhood.
But my most indelible memories of Vienna were of café interiors, especially the vitrines filled with pristine geometric pastries that looked to us like they were made by Fabergé — they were all the more compelling because, subsisting on an allowance from a refugee-resettlement agency, we couldn’t afford to taste them. Now, decades later, I could — and did, an architectural piece of strudel surrounded by a moat of vanilla sauce. I was finishing a book about three generations of my family and wanted to find some vestige of our passage, and of my former self. On this, my fifth visit to Vienna in ten years, I wanted to know one more thing: Why did the city pull me to itself so relentlessly?
JANUARY IN VIENNA: I should have known better. But if Alex had proposed the Sahel in August, I probably would have said yes, too. In Alex, I’d finally met, after 29 relatively barren American years, what felt like a doppelgänger. He had experienced the same immigration I had, ten years earlier; it had left him with similar complexes; and he had the same degree of separation from his Russianness and Jewishness that I did.
And I was curious about Vienna. It was where my family and I encountered the West in 1988, when I was 9. No one had told me where we were going or why, but the signs weren’t good. In the months before leaving, as we pawned everything in our apartment and whittled a century in Minsk into one suitcase per person, my sweet, sheltered Soviet life gave way to unspecified terror. (Ordinary people didn’t travel outside the Soviet Union, and those who did certainly never got to return.) On the rail platform of the train to Vienna — it was easier to imagine visiting Mars — my mother wept as if someone had died. Soviet customs had just upended our suitcases and treated itself to my mother’s wedding ring and a set of gold cutlery. My neck burned with a gold necklace concealed under the top button.
Thirty-six hours later, we rolled into a kind of fairy tale. Even poor people seemed to drive Mercedeses. The supermarkets had automatic sliding doors, which my father learned after nearly toppling an emerging Austrian grandma. I gorged on bratwurst oozing with bergkäse cheese and ice cream cylinders wrapped at the ends with striped twine. In this country, the sausages melted like ice cream, and the ice cream came wrapped at the ends like cured sausage! Once, I came across a kitchenware store so beautiful that, my mouth agape, I walked right into the window, my forehead leaving a spot on the glass. We might as well have been rural North Koreans trying to defect to Ibiza. (At our medical checkups, the doctor handed us a diagram that explained that my mother had to consume the pills for her earache orally, not by putting them in her ear, as previous immigrants had been doing in deference to the Soviet habit of treating earaches with ear compresses.) But Vienna — Vienna would do.
Since immigrating, as I Americanized, then de-Americanized to reconnect with my heritage, then pureed both parts of myself into a thoroughly imperfect but more or less livable hash, I thought of Vienna now and then, the way you wonder about what might have been with someone had the timing been better. In places like Austria, I imagined, they didn’t worship “freedom” to the point of anarchy; were less ready to sacrifice morality for profit; did not regard intellectuals with suspicion; and took care of artists — took care of people in general. Alex felt a deeper attachment to our adopted homeland. It was the one part of him that mystified me.
Thirty years earlier, a small number of refugees like us had found a way to remain in Vienna. “What are you all stampeding over there for?” one, named Sasha, kept asking us. He meant America, a word that to us meant more than Shangri-la. Sasha had visited Brooklyn, where we were heading. “What’s it like?” my mother asked. “It’s not like anything,” he said. When we finally encountered it two months later — low-slung, dirty, and gray — we remembered his words. What if I’d spent the last three decades in Vienna, instead? But there’s the fantasy and the cold, gray, wood-paneled truth.
MY FIRST MEMORY OF VIENNA begins aboard an Aeroflot jet, its fuselage painted with a winged hammer and sickle. My mother and I left Moscow in our winter coats, carrying two suitcases containing six changes of clothes, a photo album, and a book of poems by Anna Akhmatova. My mother’s wedding ring and watch were taken in customs. Aboard the plane we were served an unexpectedly luxurious meal of baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and a wedge of soft processed cheese in a foil wrapper that read “Progress!” I remember my mother slipping the metal forks and knives into her coat pockets. An hour into the flight the pilot announced, in German and then in Russian, that the plane had left Soviet airspace. “Meine Damen und Herren…,” the announcement began, and when it was finished one or two passengers, the boldest ones, clapped. At the airport in Vienna, I sat on my suitcase and gaped at a security guard with a German shepherd and a submachine gun. Then I watched a pilot walk out of the gate, his hat embroidered with the six-pointed star of Israel. “Is Austria a capitalist country?” I asked my mother. She said I looked “as scared as a rabbit.”
To revisit a place remembered from childhood is to realize two rather disappointing facts: (1) Most of us recall childhood through a filter of adult sentimentality, and (2) our memories are, at best, undependable — researchers have found that every time we mentally access a memory, our recall of it changes. We confabulate others unwittingly, with a clear conscience. And the more I thought about my weeks in Vienna in the fall of 1979, the more I had to admit that two things had occupied nearly all of my 9-year-old brain: non-Soviet makes of automobiles and eating. Luckily, my interest in cars has waned, but eating remains a preoccupation. The Viennese are preoccupied with it, too, though without the Parisian self-regard or Roman chauvinism.
As in other cities with thriving café cultures, Vienna’s cafés and bars are cognizant of themselves primarily as social spaces. Most are laid out with watching — and being watched — in mind. Some are as flamboyant as stage sets, but all seem attuned to the public pleasures of tribal togetherness or the kind of low-effort nonconformism that sometimes involves an omelet.
Zum Schwarzen Kameel, where Beethoven had emptied a great many cases of red wine, was celebrating its 400th anniversary, and after a long nap to kill jet lag, Boris and I pulled up two hard barstools in its front room. Popular with maximally groomed, rather cruel-looking regulars — it’s a hangout for conservative politicians — it encourages competitive levels of smoking, which remains permitted in restaurants, another vestige of my Soviet past. Kameel is home to one of the country’s most thorough wine cellars and possibly the most rewarding people-watching in town. Boris and I spent a night there drinking cold Grüner Veltliner, happily lost in talk, while men in quilted jackets and creased trousers crowded around the bar, jockeying for another glass of wine. The only solitary figure was an enervated young woman wearing a fox-fur waistcoat and a Chanel bag sitting across from us. She looked like someone had stood her up. She kept her vividly mascaraed eyes fixed in the middle distance and, with jeweled fingers wrapped around her glass, exhaled drafts of smoke in our faces.
I HAD GIVEN ALEX PRÜCKEL, so he agreed to give me “Swimming Pool.” In Mitteleuropa, when it comes to fitness, yoga and spin classes are still the interlopers, and bath complexes the standard. But we didn’t go to the century-old Jörgerbad pool, in the sleepy 17th district, to take the healing waters. I wanted to see whether the comparative generosity of the Austrian state meant better art. For there was going to be art at the pool, commissioned by the nonprofit arts group Brut, a mainstay of the avant-garde scene in Vienna. A performance artist and several confederates were going to use the pool to “expos[e] the audience to the conflicting feelings of safety and uncanniness.” Whatever that meant.
After some horsing around in the pool, the actors went off to perform various oddities. One poured what looked like red food dye into the pool gutter, making me think of chemical attacks and the extreme generosity of Austrian arts funding. (Alex deemed it “quixotic and bad.”) At home, thanks to our new president, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts — the equivalent of two and a half F-15s — was under the knife.
I had become a full-time freelance writer at 24, and it’s possible that I didn’t sleep or eat for the next year or two — I was too terrified for my future. After a year of 16-hour days and seven-day weeks, I had $22,000, a twitching left eyelid, and not one article I could point to as the product of passion instead of expedience. As bizarre as it was, “Swimming Pool” — or the reality that had made it possible — felt quite okay as an alternative. Everyone in attendance was young, attractive, and responsible — the invitation had said to bring one’s own flip-flops, and everyone had. And serious: They gazed upon the circus before us with the utmost solemnity.
After the performance, we ended up at Rebhuhn, a traditional tavern just outside the city center. It served a Platonic version of grandmother food — pike-perch in a white-wine-but-mostly-butter sauce, chestnut “pasta” over cream and lingonberry preserves — but the best thing about Rebhuhn wasn’t the food. At one table, a woman was reading a newspaper. At another, three lavishly dressed women were having what you just knew was their every-Sunday-night klatch. There were 20-somethings and 80-somethings. No one was “doing a concept” to “maximize covers,” no one was trying to pretend to touch my soul so they could scour my wallet.
When I ate out at such a place in New York, I felt guilty for lingering because I was infringing on the server’s opportunity to turn the table, something I felt responsible for because American restaurants didn’t pay their servers a living wage. Nowhere did this economic model feel as insane as at Rebhuhn in Vienna on a Sunday evening. “Vienna,” Alex said in another theft-worthy line as he mopped sauce with a cube of fish, “is cultural Xanax.” In America, I realized, we were undergoing a kind of national seizure, the kind where you’d stopped noticing that your shoulders were up all the time because you’d internalized terrible economic insecurity as the norm. Safety — an uncanny feeling, indeed. Perhaps the Europe I’d been imagining — the Vienna Alex had been telling me about almost since we’d met — wasn’t only a fantasy.
ANOTHER THING ABOUT THE CITY that saturated my childhood imagination: the streets themselves. After growing up in one of the Brezhnev-era apartment towers that surrounded Moscow like a cinder-block forest, Vienna struck me as a marvel from a distant antiquity. In fact, the city was transformed in the 19th century by Emperor Franz Joseph I, and it is his Vienna — neo-Baroque, orderly, martial — that visitors see today. Franz Joseph’s vision lent the city the quality that has stayed with me most as an adult, a quality that no amount of skyscrapers can efface — an officious, comforting solemnity.
It was just off one of these imperial streets that Boris and I spent our most educational outing in Vienna — at Gasthaus Grünauer, a partly hidden local institution with an interior so low-ceilinged and rustic that it could’ve been located in Middle-earth. We were meeting my friends. Jutta Ambrositsch is the city’s most talented winemaker; her husband, Marco, operates the business side of the winery. The restaurant’s third-generation proprietor, Christian Grünauer, owner of one of the most sardonic faces I’d seen, reminisced in unaccented English about 1980s New York, where he waited tables at an Upper East Side Italian restaurant called Elio’s. One of the regulars there was Donald Trump. “He was so afraid of germs that he wouldn’t shake anyone’s hand,” Christian recalled, “but look at him now, slapping backs and kissing babies!”
Christian’s wife, Katja, prepared Mitteleuropean soul food — grilled veal kidneys, delicately breaded loin of pork, pan-fried whole trout — so flavorful it nearly made us forget about the virtual absence of vegetables. The scene got an infusion of chaos and originality with an appearance of a 60-something gent named Xandi: pear-shaped, red-nosed, leering, perversely avuncular. According to Marco, he was famous around town for his copious eating and drinking, and was rumored to be the father or guardian of 13 children. He waded around our table kissing everyone ceremoniously and wetly and doffing an imaginary hat, then sat down among us, uninvited. He proceeded to deliver a theatrical speech to Jutta that I failed to understand fully due to my meager German, but judging by the suddenly tense faces around the table, its content must have been cutting if not downright mean.
Xandi was demonstrating Wiener Schmäh, a local strain of humor distinguished by dark absurdity, glee at your friends’ misfortune, and masking insult with flattery. When I asked Marco about it later, he shrugged and said, “In Vienna, no joke is too insulting.” I knew what he meant. Back in Brooklyn, Xandi’s behavior would have caused my American-born friends to lapse into embarrassed silence. But at my Russian-Jewish family’s dinner table, an imaginative verbal jab is met with laughter and a grudging appreciation of the offender’s wit — and so it was at Grünauer. No wonder I felt at home.
FROM OUR SIX-HOUR MARATHON of eating, drinking, and smoking, the next morning I remembered only one thing, breathed into my ear by an older gentleman of uncertain employment but many opinions. (This was Xandi, Alex told me later.) “You know why Vienna is perfect?” he said. “It’s 10 to 20 years more slow than everywhere else.” He slapped his doughy hands together, dropping a good bit of cigarette ash onto my jeans. “No complications.”
(I may have remembered only this because, irresponsibly, I didn’t take out my reporter’s notebook all night. Alex and I were very different kinds of travel writers, it turned out — I wrote down everything, and he often waited to see what stuck in his mind. I had decided to try it his way.)
How had we gotten to a world where this was true? Where the best places in Europe were economic B-listers (Portugal, Spain) and those behind the curve (Austria)? This had its downsides. Austria had some of the most progressive social-welfare policies in the world, but you could still smoke in bars and restaurants, and it would be wrong to say Viennese dining had completely left the Wiener schnitzel behind. (Changes were coming to the safety net, too — several weeks before we arrived, a center-right/radical-right coalition had taken power promising to slash social benefits.)
Also, the state extended cultural funding more readily to established artistic institutions than independent artists, which meant that the dynamism and dislocation created by upstart projects often found an easier home elsewhere. Vienna felt less international than almost any Western European capital I’d visited, and almost no one in it seemed to resemble — in dress, habit, conversational references — the globalized elite. This cultural concentrate created a heady unpredictability — the cost, perhaps, of visiting a place like itself and no other. Prückel, “Swimming Pool,” Rebhuhn, Xandi: Even when mediocre, these experiences felt gloriously unrepeatable elsewhere.
GOING OVER THAT NIGHT THE FOLLOWING MORNING, a last scene came into focus: We were at Café Anzengruber, a spot popular with writers and insomniacs, operated by members of a large Croatian clan. Xandi and a pair of young chefs soon appeared. The owner, Tomi, seemed occupied mostly with taunting his defeated-looking brother-in-law, who kept to himself behind the bar. Tomi brought bottles of Croatian Graševina and schnapps and God knows what else and sat down at the table, toasting extravagantly, and soon we were staggeringly drunk. All of us, that is, except Jutta — she sat grinning shyly and a little remorsefully among seven unlaced, hammered men. Something about her expression brought me back to a scene in my childhood kitchen, where my father and four of his friends shared loud, vodka-lubricated enthusiasms about Levi’s jeans and Edgar Winter records, with my mother functioning as the scene’s unmoving, silent axis.
Later, when I related this memory to Julya Rabinowich, one of the country’s best-known authors, she let out an exasperated guffaw. “When it comes to gender equality, Austria is 50 years behind Germany or France,” she said. Despite being a liberal stronghold, Vienna didn’t provide enough day care to meet public demand, Rabinowich explained, forcing many young mothers to stay at home. As in the country of my birth, all too many men here still expected women to handle the majority of the cooking and child care. I was realizing that, culturally, Vienna shared nearly as much with Warsaw-Pact Eastern Europe as it did with the Western democracies. I found much of that kinship problematic, but I couldn’t deny that for me it made Vienna feel as familiar and comfortable as an old blazer. At last, I was deciphering what drew me to this city: It offered much of the essence and manners of my homeland, amid the relative safety and freedom of my home.
In Rabinowich I found something like a double, whose life diverged from mine in ways that interested me. We were born several months apart; her family immigrated from the Soviet Union two years before mine did, but chose to settle in Vienna. I told Rabinowich that, after arriving as a child in New York, I’d felt almost instantly American. “When I was going to school here, no one allowed me to forget I was a foreigner,” she replied. “On the other hand, the government paid for my education, awarded me a stipend that allowed me to write full time, and honored my books with prizes.” We were drinking coffee in a quiet, pretty café in the city’s third district, where everyone seemed to know her by name. Rabinowich, who writes a newspaper column about politics, lamented that the recent election represented “a sharp turn to the right.” She sighed. “But of course I consider myself an Austrian,” she said. “If I leave, I’ll be in exile.”
FOR ALL THE SINCERITY OF MY SEARCHING, there was very little of 1988 Vienna left to discover. Forced to remain neutral as a condition of Soviet withdrawal after the war, Austria didn’t fully accede to the European Union until the mid-1990s. “When I went to Germany in the ’80s, I carried such lists of things to buy that my German friends would jokingly ask me if I wasn’t coming from East Germany rather than Austria,” as one person told me. But once Austria joined the EU, it didn’t look back. The modest pension where my family had stayed seemed to no longer exist, and the street where it was supposedly located listed no store of kitchen supplies.
So it felt like a miracle when it turned out that the two refugee-aid agencies that had shepherded us to America, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), had representatives in Vienna that had been around for the great Soviet-refugee influx 30 years earlier. (Both agencies continue to serve refugee populations.) Alex and I met them for coffee at Café Frauenhuber, a tourist-district café that miraculously few tourists seem to know about. (Mozart had given his last public performance upstairs, in 1791. Vienna is like that.) And all of a sudden, I was sitting in front of two men whom I very well may have had already met, half a lifetime before.
“I had no time to go to the washroom,” Walter Juraschek, who was with HIAS, said. The child of World War II Polish refugees, he had been made for the work, and began his days at 3 a.m., coaching atheist Soviet people like my parents and grandparents on how to say the right things about Jewish identity to the American consular officers. (Religious persecution was a precondition for refugee status.) HIAS shared an office with the JDC, and Juraschek remembers the waiting rooms and corridors so packed that muscling his way back and forth to his desk proved a daily challenge. He ran interference with the authorities, such as the police officer who had his arm broken by an iron-swinging woman who thought he was coming to arrest her. When the Danish Embassy turned away a Soviet refugee who hoped to emigrate there, Juraschek bombarded the queen of Denmark with letters until she personally intervened.
Inspired by the meeting, I strayed toward the spot on the map that showed the location of the Stadttempel, the main synagogue in Vienna, located in a warren of streets known as the Bermuda Triangle. During my family’s stay in 1988, we’d been taken by the JDC to get a glimpse of the exterior, as holiday services were in progress inside. My grandfather had not come all that way to look at a facade, so he grabbed my hand, split off from the group, and, me at his waist (I still remember the naphthalene smell of his slacks), prised open the heavy wood door. Inside, we saw something we’d never seen in our atheist homeland: Orthodox Jewish men praying. “Fanatics!” he said, not without affection, and winked at me.
True to the promise of the Bermuda Triangle, there was nothing but the backside of an ornate building where the map said the synagogue would be. It didn’t seem like I was meant to find even this — something that definitely still existed. But then, wandering up a side street, I saw it. Or rather the police van that, sadly, so often signals a Jewish place of worship in Europe these days. Who knew if those were the same wood doors my grandfather and I had touched, but their location was the same. As I stood alone in that alley, not wanting to approach them for fear of my intentions being mistaken — I look Middle Eastern — what I was seeing would have to be good enough. And what I was feeling — my grandfather had passed away a month before I’d arrived in Vienna.
ON THE MORNING AFTER the euphoric, drunken night at Grünauer, Jutta drove Boris and me to see her vineyards on the city’s northernmost edge. As we were getting into her Audi, a Japanese tour group emerged from the U-Bahn station nearby, and a woman in a pantsuit leading the tour suddenly shrieked, “Jutta Ambrositsch!” She introduced us excitedly to the group in rapid-fire Japanese. The tourists reacted to this by surrounding us and bursting into applause.
It was an unseasonably cold, foggy day, and Boris and I ended up tramping through muddy vineyards behind Jutta and her elderly fox terrier, Edgar. The view made up for the mud. Standing among the vines on a hill called Nussberg, we looked out over downtown Vienna, anchored by the jutting, silly Millennium Tower, and finally got a sense of the Danube’s massive span. Yet the city was inaudible — we heard only birds. “I live in the city center and I’m a 20-minute drive from the vineyards,” Jutta marveled, pulling a patched hunting jacket tighter around her. “Where else can you do that?”
As a respite from the cold fog and my hurricane-grade hangover, I went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum to see the Bruegels. I spent a long while in the picture gallery on the second floor, looking at ten large panels. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s village landscapes refuse to be read as religious allegory and exist as documents of rural communities. Their portrayal of the Flemish villagers is neither humorous nor moralizing nor idealistic; instead, they’re suffused with an acceptance of the cycles of daily life — with their 16th-century miseries intact — and a compassion that borders on the post-human.
I stood in front of Hunters in the Snow and remembered the feeling of first seeing it as a 9-year-old. I could picture myself standing beside my mother in that gallery nearly 40 years earlier; the memory was as detailed as though it had happened last week. Later I sat down at a café amid the museum’s imperial-chocolate-cake decor and ordered coffee and a piece of strudel. Then I called my mother in New York. I told her excitedly where I was, and described what I remembered. She listened patiently. “The admission to that museum was expensive,” she said finally. “So we didn’t go. What you remember never happened.”
ON THE BROKEN-HEADED MORNING after our bacchanal, what Vienna calls coffee — an espresso shot lost in a trough of milk and foam — was not going to suffice. I needed rocket fuel, and, feeling morning-after shame of a different kind, headed for the only solution I could imagine: a Starbucks. There, I did something I’ve never done even in America: I ordered a venti. It was only five minutes back to my rental, but it was five minutes longer than necessary to register the horrified stares of rush-hour Vienna at the RPG in my hands.
In the weeks to come, after Alex and I returned to New York, it would be this moment I’d remember more than any other from the trip, crystals of nostalgia forming almost in real time. But no matter how sweet and less mixed my recollections of Vienna became, the feeling never alchemized into a readiness to consider moving there — or anywhere. Having spent so many years looking toward Europe with longing, I’d failed to register just how American I was becoming — if not always ideologically, then due simply to years of being able to order mediocre coffee in three sizes. It isn’t that you can’t go home again. It’s that once you’ve lost it, every place is just what another place isn’t.
That morning, our last, Alex’s friend Jutta was driving us to the 19th district, a posh enclave on the edge of the city that dead-ends in acres of vineyards, including her own. Afterward, at lunch, I told her about my Vienna history. When I mentioned the kitchenware store I’d walked into, she lit up. “It’s called Ostovics!” she said. “There’s one right near Neubaugasse,” the street where I’d told her our pension may have been located. Memory is as vague as it is rigid. It hadn’t occurred to me that the kitchenware store might be on a nearby street.
I had an interview after lunch, but I raced to Ostovics afterward. I remembered floor-to-ceiling windows rather than its glass recessed in a brick enclosure. But the pots and serving dishes behind the glass were painted as beautifully as artworks and actually lived up to the gleam in my memory. I looked around — no one. I’d been feeling regret that I’d not gone up to touch the synagogue doors. (How observantly Jewish, ironically, my investment of that touch with such talismanic power.) So I went up to the Ostovics window and, feeling like a lunatic, brought my forehead to it, like all those years ago. It was cold and dry outside, and the touch left no trace.