Sometimes I dream about sitting in a coffeehouse far away—in an old city of old buildings with quietly venerable walls—and writing. I make a nest in the ambient smoke, wear a holey sweater, take in the people around me and ink stain the pen-pressure callus on my right middle finger as I write and write. Occasionally, I have a philosophic companion.
There’s a time-honored culture devoted to this dream scene in Vienna, Austria. Here, coffeehouses are so definitive of Viennese je ne sais quoi—or, rather, gemütlichkeit—that UNESCO put them on its 2011 List of Intangible Cultural Heritage as places "where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill."
Gemütlichkeit refers to coziness and peace of mind, a place or situation cheerfully free of hurry and worry and accompanied by a sense of warm social belonging. Traditional Viennese coffeehouses cultivate this in ornate last-millennium buildings furnished with dark wood accents, bentwood chairs and coat hangers, marble-topped tables and chandeliers. Grumpy waiters in black tie and smokestack customers are standard, along with piles of newspapers and magazines.
Along with outdoor ice-skating, sitting in a kaffeehaus was high on my list when we visited Vienna last month. I told myself it was merely a variation on my writing dream to enter these time- and UNESCO-hallowed coffee halls with four children aged 7 and 4, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and my husband. I carried a journal and a pen in my bag, hopeful.
When I was first pregnant, I maintained that our life would not change with children. We would still do all loved to do: We would hike, ski and backpack; we would go to concerts, museums and restaurants; we would, above all, travel—close to home and as far as possible. We would do all of these things all the time and keep pace with our sans-kids selves.
I was—and sometimes still am—teased for this claim that nothing would change. The keeping pace part, of course, went out the window immediately, right along with the delusional “all of these things all the time.” We have intentionally held to the activities themselves, though: Even if they’re somewhat diminished and age-adapted, they remain present in our family life.
Traveling with little kids is no less an adventure than going solo with a backpack and a buddy, but it is different. Renting an apartment instead of sleeping in train stations, or even hotel rooms, provides home-space stability plus opportunities for breakfast cereal and spaghetti. Planning only one event a day makes sightseeing reasonable. The U-Bahn/subway is not just transportation, it’s a kid-empowering carnival ride. Frequently tasting street food to stave off meltdowns is the same as traveling without kids, for me anyway. So was putting cafés on the itinerary.
We entered the legendary Café Hawelka one morning after walking by the towering, gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral and its steep, striking chevroned roof. Piled newspapers, check; bentwood chairs and marble tables, check; dark-paneled chair rails underlining original artwork, including sketches of the namesake proprietor, check. Our group—10 Americans spanning three generations—made our way to a corner as unobtrusively as possible. We were not unobtrusive. Ten Americans spanning three generations do not blend in. We went so far as to get our kids Austrian lederhosen and dirndls, actually, but they didn’t wear these to cafés—much to the likely disappointment of Austrians everywhere.
After nearly toppling the coat tree three times with our hats, scarves and puffy coats, we sat down—a two-top table for my parents and an eight-top for the rest of us, except for my nephew, who preferred the floor beneath the coats. The black-tie-clad waiter (check) pointed out the menu board and we sent a dispatch party to decipher it. The waiter then listened to our half-German orders of eggs and ham and eggs before informing us that the menu didn’t apply on Saturdays. We could have wurst or gulaschsuppe.
We ordered wurst and gulaschsuppe. We also had the customary weiner mélange, a cup of espresso, hot frothy milk and a dollop of foam served on a silver tray with a glass of tap water (check). Our waiter was nice, and the café was neither filthy nor smoky as advertised, as I, now a traveling parent, noticed gratefully.
In the Café Central, near the palatial seat of the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire, we were relegated to a ridiculously large table beyond the main dining room’s imperial opulence. There, the kids sketched the paper napkins to shreds, and we adjusted our saucers to hide their pen marks on the tablecloth. As it turned out, the covered courtyard that felt like the back room was the original café, purveyor of gemütlichkeit for Vienna’s turn-of-the-last-century intelligentsia and future dictators, such as Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler.
Artists and poets—and tourists, who visit all central-city coffeehouses—have patronized Café Griensteidl for its centuries. We flocked there because of impending kid collapse following the exhaustion of watching Lippezaner horses. Mirrors topped elegant paneled booths, and marble tables stood sharp against dark chairs. Tall windows and grand chandeliers brightened the L-shaped dining alley, and a lovely selection of cakes sat somehow crumbless behind class cabinets. If alone, I’d have requested one of the small paneled booths for private thinking. As it was, we commandeered space in the very center. For 20 minutes, the four kids were quite well behaved at their very own table. Then 4-year-old Sylvia slid mewling to the floor and almost tripped a waiter, so she and I cut out. Early exits like this cost me some missed apple strudels, which is a shame, indeed, but wandering old European streets with your 4-year-old is very sweet, too.
In each coffeehouse, 7-year-old Theo asked for drawing paper. This, apparently, was why I carried my journal everywhere. I tore out blank pages and handed them over, along with my pens. In step with my Bohemian fantasies, I also discovered a hole in the elbow of my sweater. But, instead of hunkering down to write, I held Sylvia on my lap, sipped my mélange and watched Theo fill my journal pages with his sketches. He studied the architecture and décor and copied it down. He took it seriously and he took his time: He was fully engaged in observing, absorbing and documenting this foreign environment.
At the Café Hawelka, neither my kids nor their cousins blinked when sausages and goulash replaced their breakfast eggs. They just ate—encouraged by the promise of apple strudel for dessert, true, but still, they dug in. They sat through plays in German; listened to the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra play the music of Fantasia; looked at paintings and a historical review of knights’ armor; nearly toppled displays of ancient Egyptian artifacts; reminded us of the novelty of super-long escalators; and discovered that käse spaetzel is very like macaroni and cheese. They ran, jumped and skipped and then whined to be carried after we’d walked them for miles.
I still long for writing hours in a dim café, and I sometimes long for the girl who’d sit there composing. I am not her right now. I may be some version of her again someday, but who knows. Now, my old-word-coffeehouse hours are spent protecting my cup from a preschooler’s elbow and holding steady the teetering coat-tree fort—and I know how lucky I am to be here. It’s the pre-children priority, adjusted for children. And it includes something I hadn’t counted on in opening my life to kids: the joy of raising travelers.