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Vienna Coffeehouses

Viennese coffeehouses LEFT: Typical Austrian coffee service.

Coffeehouses are more commonplace than McDonald's in the English-speaking world these days, but they were a part of Viennese culture long before Seattle ever heard of Starbucks. What's more, the Kaffeehäuser of Vienna have more in common with Parisian literary cafés or English pubs than they do with modern espresso bars that serve latté in paper cups. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described the Viennese café as "an institution of a special kind...a sort of democratic club for discussion, writing, and playing cards."

Don't let Zweig's description keep you from patronizing Vienna's coffeehouses if you prefer solitary sipping to activities befitting an extrovert. Another writer, Alfred Polgar, had this to say about Vienna's legendary Café Central, a Baroque coffeehouse in the grand tradition whose whose patrons have included Goethe, Beethoven, Mahler, and Trotsky:

"Its inhabitants are, for the most part, people who are misanthropes, and whose aversion to other people is as acute as their need for people: who want to be alone, but must have company to do so. The habitué of the Central is a person who derives no sense of belonging from his family, profession, or party; the Café Central comes to his rescue, inviting him to join and escape. Its customers know, love, and underestimate one another. Even those who profess not to know each other regard this non-relationship as a kind of relationship; mutual dislike serves as a unifying force at the Central, a sort of camaraderie. Everyone knows about everybody. The Café Central is a village in the center of the metropolis, steaming with gossip, curiosity, and slander."

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