Rather than simply post excerpts, I thought I might be more fun to also show the images that inspired many of the places, artists, paintings, etc I included in my book. And so here is the first of many:
At the first church bell chime beyond the Schottenring, I ran faster than I ever had without my life depending on it. I am sure I could not have borne another minute alone, waiting there under the fractured shadows of the scaffolded dome, counting down to nine o’clock. But now released, I broke into a furious sprint towards Café Hawelka, through vacant squares and cobble-stone alleys, where the military patrols glared suspiciously at me but gave the meager young woman no credence, until at last I held the coffeehouse’s tell-tale yellow globe light in my view. By the time I desperately tore open the café’s heavy door, my thin bangs had plastered my forehead, and I emanated that insidious stink again.
Fortunately, the smell proved no match for Café Hawelka’s tawdry stench of soiled velvet, dishwater, and stale tobacco. I breathed freely.
Now to find her through the curtains of nebulous smoke. My mother was not the easiest person to distinguish next to the ebony paneling of those corner banquets. With her dark hair and a thinning frame that very nearly melted against the black background. The effect of it never failed to elicit a shiver of anxiety.
Please be here or I’ll never forgive you. (p.5-6)
The opening scene of GIBBIN HOUSE takes place in one of Vienna's most renowned coffeehouses (and that's saying something), Cafe Hawelka. A bohemian enclave pretty much since 1945, it seemed the perfect settting for a moody, smoky tete-a-tete between mother and daughter, as the latter discovers she is about to be sent away to London to begin a new life. Being that this is her last impression of the city before she leaves, Anka will from here on in picture Cafe Hawelka whenever she thinks about her mother and the distance growing between them.
|Cafe Hawelka (Wikipedia)|
Now, you might wonder how of Vienna's hundreds of cafes, I settled on this one? This small, dark establishment doesn't seem at all characteristic of the coffeehouses the city is so famous for.
Let me preface my explanation by saying: I love love love Viennese coffeehouses! The glorious ceilings, the cigarette stench, the waiters in black bowties, the little glasses of water, the marble table tops, the tortes oozing whipped cream, the murmur of conversation, and of course, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee:) ahhh...
Naturally, when I went to Vienna to research the book in 2002, I enthusiastically visited every coffeehouse in the guide book (and proceeded to consume sinful quantities of pastries). Every place was a revelation in its own right, elegantly appointed, sumptuous epicurean citadels of culture...but when I walked down a narrow alley in the old center at 10 PM and stumbled on this angsty, claustrophobic, awesome little cafe, I could just smell the history - the imperial wear and tear was written on the face of the pocket-sized octogenarian proprietess, who stood dressed in black at the back, commandeering her staff. Clearly, Hawelka wasn't some renovated ultra-cafe, a remodeled museum...despite it's obvious popularity it was gritty, it was real.
The moment I got back to Miami, I did my homework. Turns out Hawelka had had the same owners since 1939. The year they bought the place, they had to close it down because of the war. In the meantime, Vienna was bombed to smithereens (80,000 tons alone in February and March of 1945). But would you believe, when the Hawelkas returned to their cafe after the war, it didn't have a single broken window, eventhough everything around it lay in ruins!
|Cafe Hawelka (Wikipedia) - I confess I made up the part about the globe lights outside...|
Heimito von Doderer, Dorothea Zeemann and Wolfgang Fleischer at Café Hawelka. Photo by Franz Hubmann
Owing to this, Hawelka quickly became a watering hole for intellectualls and struggling artists, who according to Rick Steves, paid with paintings for their coffee. I think I some of their work is still hanging on the walls.
But what really amazed me was the realization that the sweet old lady I had seen was indeed the original owner, Josefine Hawelka! Sadly, she has since passed on, but I'm grateful to have at least for a night been witness to Cafe Hawelka's incredible history. As for her husband, Leopold, he recently celebrated his 100th birthday!