Kleines Cafe, Vienna

This is an essay draft, the ideas from a late morning coffee. Verb tense is a small mess. I need to read the whole thing aloud to hear what I want it to sound like. This next school year will very likely be our last in the Middle East and lately I’ve been feeling more afraid than hopeful for change. Also, this summer I’ve been seeing pregnant women, babies and toddler every third step and that’s turned over more thinking about my early motherhood, a time that remains lovely and difficult to remember. Anyway, there might be something to this start. I’ll find out if I go back to it in a month or two.

The online reviewers give Kleines Café 4.3 stars. There’s a note about Kleines being a café locals go to and a picture of a latte in a clear mug so you can see the band of espresso between the whole milk on bottom and the frothed milk on top. That was the latte I ordered after finding the place a couple of blocks off Stephansplatz. I navigated what looks like easy turns following the blue dot on Google maps and then, even with the café in front of me saying Kleines Café with two doors open to its small rooms, I looked at the map and saw the pin dropped maybe fifty meters further and wondered if there were two Kleines Cafes in the same block. Be where you are, I told myself, and stepped into an alcove of a dining room.

I was going to write. When you go somewhere to write, be a little picky about where you sit. I like to sit at the side or back of a room but not with my back to others because the pause between thoughts or paragraphs is a good time to see what people are like. There really isn’t a back or side at Kleines. You go in and you’re in the middle of the whole room wherever you sit. Cracked, cigarette scarred vinyl upholstered benches line either side of the room. A bar with three wood backed swivel stools is where the waiter double checks orders before carrying trays out to the patio tables where most patrons sit. I could have sat outside but the tables and chairs are wood slatted with spindly metal legs standing on cobblestone. I don’t like to write at a wobbly table. I sat near the door at a marble topped table with enough space for my latte, water and notebook if I set the sugar, salt and pepper and ashtray on a chair. There were two more tables on my side and then a few steps down to the toilets and a narrow hall opening to a second room. I don’t know what’s in that second room. Maybe another bar. The kitchen has to be back there somewhere too.

I ordered a latte and opened my notebook. All morning I’d thought about the regret I have, for a couple of years when the kids were little and I wavered, insecure and angry but recognizing those currents and seeking security and peace in God. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m enjoying my kids more now than when they were babies and sometimes I feel bad about that. Some of the new joy is attributable to relative ease of having school age children who tie their shoes, wipe their bottoms, read books and play Lego. And some of the joy stems from a shoot of security I root daily, that I am loved by God. Maybe it was my age or being a new mom, but when the kids were babies I looked at myself and saw this vein of pride that for years had pushed me to seek the approval of others.

Parenting is humbling. And parenting in a social media blitz of links and posts is devastating if you aren’t sure of your own purpose. Even if you are sure. So I opened my notebook to write more about this. I didn’t figure it out. Instead I sort of paralyzed myself playing a highlight reel of my approval seeking ventures.

My daughter strings together nonsensical lyrics, walks through the street pretending she’s a husky, wears polka dot socks with stubby blue leather boots and carries a smartphone made out of a Tic Tac box covered with stickers. I sat in Kleines Café thinking I can’t watch her lose any of that sureness. I thought of my mom too who was my age, thirty-five, when I was a sophomore in high school. What did she see when she watched me walk out the door wearing old corduroys I’d salvaged from St. Vinny’s thrift shop? Did she think I was making it okay? When I was fifteen I had a shell of superiority, not too different from armor most teenagers wear. Now, at thirty-five, I get a little nauseous at the thought like me because it’s a heavy chain to drag through all my places and relationships.

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Running Vienna

When we arrived, I asked our host where he suggested I run. He took out a map and showed me the streets from our apartment to Schoenbrunn Palace and promised kilometers of garden paths. I went the next morning, a fifteen minute run to the palace gates which open to the public at 6:30am.

I loved it.

I said Thank you, God. This summer break, running outside was bliss. The cool morning temperatures, breeze, and occasional rain. I ran the park’s paths for an hour.

I wanted to explore Vienna on my morning runs too so the next routes were up Mariahilfer, through the Museum Quater and along Burg Ring and the Danube Canal. Nearly everything I found, I found by accident. I tried to remember what direction I came from and at some turns, made a note of graffiti or statuary. I got lost a lot. I ran farther than I meant to. When I approached someone for directions, I used the train station nearest our apartment as reference. One man laughed and said, “That is a long way away.” He made a zigzag with his hand and told me which street to watch for and I jogged away hoping he meant long for a walk.

One morning I planned to meet a new friend at Belvedere for a run through the gardens. I looked up the route and knew enough of the streets and landmarks to guess where to turn. I ran and ran and ran, heading toward Belvedere, going wide and getting lost in a maze of short streets and tall residence. I stopped to ask a woman in a parked van if she spoke English. No. “Belvedere?” I said. She nodded and drew a map in the air, said, “So. So. So-oo-oo. So.” I nodded and got lost again.

Map of Vienna

Getting lost was fine. I carried fifty cents for a public toilet and learned which ones were nicest. I rarely ran fast so hearing Westbonhof was a long way away didn’t worry me. I looked up. I doubled back to see if I recognized a landmark. Later in the day I showed Justin and the kids what I’d seen that morning.

But after a few days of running the city, even the quieter streets, I found myself leaving the center early, returning to fit twenty or thirty minutes of Schoenbrunn paths in my run. My last week of running was entirely Schoenbrunn. I arrived when the gates opened and ran the flat paths and the hill. I made up patterns and loops. I got rocks in my shoes. The tree archways made me happy. The rose garden made me happy. The old men sitting on benches made me happy. I get giddy around other runners after so many months on a treadmill. I nod. I smile. I sometimes run to catch up and hold a pace, just to play running partner for fifteen minutes.

Map of the park at Schönbrunn

I met one runner on our way to Schoenbrunn and we seemed matched enough in pace that we ran a long loop of the gardens together. I loved it! We met up again my last morning in Vienna, by chance, and ran a few lengths of the park together. She’d just returned to Vienna after a year of traveling. She mentioned the value of connecting with people from the place you’re visiting. Agreed. I was so glad to meet both of my Vienna running partners.

My last run through Schoenbrunn, I went by a motley collection of broken statuary and columns piled in an empty fountain. It’s the corner of Schoenbrunn opposite the zoo, probably ignored by most visitors. But after the tree archways, that mess of stone was my favorite part of the garden. The haphazard jam of the leftover pieces – the different colors, shapes and sizes of carved stone – is beautiful. I stopped one morning on my run down the hill, on a path behind the fountain. I stood and looked at the floral design of tiles on the arch. The carved faces. Giant chunks of column. Maybe those pieces find their places at the end of hidden paths. Maybe one day they are given their own benches for us to sit on and look at them and think how lovely. Maybe they just stay together, leaning long enough that the pose gets comfortable.

If I Lived Here

Justin and I spent our first Christmas in South America in Peru. The trip included a boat ride across Lake Titicaca and an overnight stay on an island. Our group was hosted by locals whose way of life felt a little staged as they shepherded us through coca tea and dancing. The town was losing its indigenous population as youth left the island for education and jobs. I have mixed feelings about discovering these rarer, simply sustained places and introducing TV and potato chips, but when the daughter of the house led Justin and I up a ladder to our tiny room, I thought I could be happy here.

There was a short bed piled with heavy blankets, a red plastic bucket under the bed for a night toilet, a sturdy table and chair and a small shelf. I woke in the middle of the night with a blinding altitude headache and drank a Coke, took a couple Tylenol. It was silent and dark. I lay under the weight of blankets, next to my husband and in the morning, climbed down the ladder, ate a bland breakfast prepared by the mother of the house. I stood in their kitchen the size of a closet, spooning porridge and thinking I might like shearing sheep. I could stay and make my own cooking fire. I would drink the cleanest air and swallow the brightest stars and write poetry that said just that.

Then I shouldered my pack and climbed back in the boat, leaving that small room with its table and chair.

I play this game when I travel: If I lived here. It’s usually a quick game. Playing Vienna: If I lived here, I would shop at Billa or Denn’s or Spar. If I lived here I would take a weekend trip to a lake. Claire and I would go to Cafe Sperl for the apple strudel. I would eat Zotter chocolate. I would bike to work and walk everywhere and buy only the groceries I could carry home.

But I don’t live here, the game ends.

Even so, when I travel, I absorb the everyday. I enjoy the regular. I wear long sleeves when I run in the morning chill. I walk the same quiet street to the same park where Claire and Grant swing and climb and slide. I order a beer at lunch, if I like. Justin buys the same bread because it is too good to bother trying another bakery. I make ham and cheese crepes for dinner. I sit at a white kitchen table, my bare feet on the parquet floor. When I glance up from my notebook, I see rooftops and a spire with a gold point.

I leave some places thinking I am not done with them, not yet. I may not return, but I am not done there either. That small room in Peru. The spire I see from this kitchen window.