Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Wahlen Cafe

Today it snowed heavy snowflakes, slow falling and grand enough to catch in your mitten and contemplate for the second or two they lived before returning to their native liquid form. His Holiness and I were in the Mediapark playground this morning and on a Sunday morning the park is filled with children. He screams at the sight of these children because he is starved for the company of his own kind. As much as he loves me, and he must love me because he tells me so each night before I turn off the light, he can’t wait to be with the other little ones. Since we arrived here in Köln in the middle of the year, it was too late to find a spot for him in any of the area playgroups, so his days are spent with his old man and I am no match for another two year old, someone with whom he can carry on a conversation in that special secret language they speak, someone his own size to struggle with over toys or for supremacy on the slide. He played and played and got very wet but had the time of his life.
Sunday is also a day when he sees his Mama, who is German and grew up not far from Köln, in a small village in the Eifel, an area of rolling hills and lush valleys. In the afternoon, when all of us had eaten and rested and done the chores we are permitted to do on Sunday (there are not many things you can do on Sunday – but that is a subject for another day) Mama expressed a desire for “Kaffee und Kuchen.” For those of you who are not familiar with this expression let me say at the outset that you are missing something. I first became acquainted with the Kaffee und Kuchen when I was dating the future “Mama.” She would sometimes prepare hot coffee and something sweet in the late afternoon, sometime between two and four, and called it by this name. One summer when we were driving through the Eifel I saw a sign on the side of the road and nearly killed us both by pulling off into the parking lot to take a picture of the sign which advertised this indulgent afternoon delight. So today when Mama looked to me and asked if I had discovered any place special in the neighborhood for Kaffee und Kuchen, I was happy to be able to say yes and take her to a spot she had never visited before but which has been in operation here in Köln since 1911.
As you may know, one of the things I love to do is to search out my neighborhood for hidden gastronomic and other treasures. About three weeks ago His Holiness and I were on one of our morning walks when I decided, for no particular reason, to turn right instead of left at a corner we had traveled through numerous times in the past. I know it is a cliché to even mention the difference a choice of one direction or another can make at a crossroads, but these choices seem to me to be the very essence of life. Certainly in my life the choice to take on path or another has made all the difference, and I’m not saying that I have always made the right choice, or choices that ultimately served me well, but there is no denying the fact that changing course, even the slightest deviation from the norm can often have dramatic and unexpected consequences. For those of us who are Expats, this change of course, this radical change from one path to the next is the very essence of our lives. We have chosen to leave the familiar for the unknown, to roll the dice, to risk everything we know for the chance to find something … what? better? different? more challenging? I can only answer for myself as to why I have made the choices I have made in life. But I am taking you far far away from the topic at hand today.

I answered yes to Mama’s inquiry and proceeded to a café that His Holiness and I had spotted in early January. I saw it from across the street; there was something about the lettering on the neon sign above the doorway that caught my attention. It reminded me of signs I had seen on coffee shops on the Upper West Side of Manhattan back in the 1970’s when I had first moved there as a young man from the South, cafes that served soft cakes and sweet teas and in which one could often hear the aging accents of Europe before the great war. “Wahlen Konditori and Café” the sign read, and the window was filled with colorful and original confections of every imaginable color. I could just see through the glass into the main room that was up a small flight of stairs, what appeared to be a Tea room, a formal space with floral wallpaper and chandeliers, peppered on that late morning with a handful of grazers, sipping strong coffee and eating soft bread and butter. I made a note of the location and filed it away.

This afternoon when we arrived the room I had seen only from the street and through showroom glass was filled, only our table was open. I don’t know where to begin in describing this place; there are so many images that struck me. The tablecloths were starched, pink cotton, and they reminded me of the tablecloths at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, where I once had tea next to Carol Channing, who at that time was the reigning queen of Broadway. The cream pitcher and the sugar bowl were silver-plated, but nicely so, and His Holiness had great fun emptying the sugar bowl repeatedly until his Hot Chocolate arrived. This afternoon the main room of the Wahlen Café was filled with an inspiring cross-section of people. I have noticed a phenomenon here in Germany that I have not experienced in America, that is the fluidity with which all generations and varieties of people mingle together without taking any apparent notice of each other. Sitting next to us was a table with five Oma’s, or women who could easily pass as Oma’s, silver–haired, soft-skinned and often leaning back to smile at His Holiness. There was a stack of canes in different colors in the corner beside their table and when they got up to leave they helped each other into their coats, and passed the canes around before they moved slowly down the five steps to the front door. One of them stopped and faced our table before she left and asked if we came here often and said that she and her friends were here from time and time and would no doubt see us again. There were two tables just across the aisle from us, each occupied by lean young men holding hands, sipping tea and having what appeared to be very earnest conversation. There was a table with five girls and as many hair colors, another table with a young couple and a child who could not have been much older than the milk in my coffee. At another table were two young men, one wearing a baseball cap and another in a hooded sweatshirt of the uni-bomber cum gangsta variety. And at one table was the institutional grump, someone who appeared to be from out-of-town, frowning dramatically and waving his hand in a futile gesture to send the waves of rising smoke from the table just below him in another direction. I say he is from out of town only because here in Köln smoking in cafes is de rigueur. To my astonishment I witnessed smokers in the organic café next to the mediation studio just a block from our apartment. To a former New Yorker this is as close to “PC” blasphemy as it gets. So I figure if people smoke in the organic café – how can you possibly take umbrage at cigarette smoke in a place that is serving high-octane coffee and cake?

So picture if you can a room of aging elegance, pink tablecloths and silver service, soft light and rich, sweet cakes, antique denizens of this ancient city sitting side by side with the latest bad hair from Japan, and all on a late winter afternoon in Köln. Nothing remarkable I suppose but I found something quite reassuring about it, something beautiful in fact. This room, this sharing in the tradition of Kaffee und Kuchen, this admission of the collective weakness for sweets and caffeine connects these otherwise unrelated people and marks them as kindred, or at least familiar, and made me rethink the notion that these Germans are cold, indifferent and insular. They may not be as demonstrative as we are back in the states, but on a snowy Sunday in the Wahlen Café, it was as close to one warm family as many of us anywhere will ever know.

16 Comments:

Blogger Cathy said...

Richard;
I love this story. I could imagine the cafe so well, having been in such cafes in Germany myself. I could really picture the Omas; I also had a beautiful silver-black haired one, who didn;t use a cane but was the sweetest Oma a girl could have asked for. She too prepared Kaffe und Kuchen.

Now, does HHs Mami know you have a blog, and read it? Just curious.

12:49 AM  
Anonymous Megan said...

I really enjoy reading along as you go through this. You train your eye on just what I would want to see.

About the cafes and the mixed generations, it's so true. Arriving in Munich, going to different cafes, all of a sudden it hit me that everyone was there. Everyone was everywhere, young and old were together in cafes, on the bus, riding bicycles even. Somehow in the USA we separated from each other and only over here do I realize how much one is missing when only rubbing elbows with one's own generation.

Have you read Adam Gopnik's book about being with his small son in Paris?

10:54 AM  
Blogger Sarah Mackenzie said...

You've got the coffee thing down! I am bathing in that warm, sensual atmosphere from cold and rainy Scotland. A delight in a very different way.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

If you're ever in Aachen may I recommend one of my favorite places for K-n-K, the Roncalli Grand Cafe.

http://www.roncalli-cafe.de/bilder.php

2:48 PM  
Blogger swissmiss said...

I love how observant and attuned you are to your new environment, it makes for great reading.

In Switzerland the Kaffe and Kuchen is often called a Zvieri (Zum Vier - the four o'clock snack.) I'm a big fan of the Zvieri - it's why I call these extra pounds I've picked up the "Swiss pounds!"

BTW, you might be able to find an informal play group for HH by getting in touch with an American Woman's Club (surely they would find a way to cut you some slack once they saw your beautiful boy) or an English Speaker's Club in Koln. There must be something like that, and the mothers often put together regular playdates. Just something to think about.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Cathy ... I'm glad you enjoyed this piece - it was fun and fattening to write! ... Who or what is a "Mami"? Is that Canadian for Oma?
LOL ...xR

Megan ... I haven't read Adam's book ... Can you give me the title and I'll pick it up ... I am about to do some extensive travel and looking for good reading material.

Sarah ... I'm glad it worked for you ... thanks for your time.

Lisa ... Thanks for the tip!

swissmiss ... The American Women's Club in Cologne is a super group of people who have been very helpful in finding pediatricians and GP's ... a wealth of helpful info. Also, HH is now enrolled in a new english/german school here in Koln ... thank you Great Spirit!

8:24 PM  
Blogger piu piu said...

this reminds me so strongly of my time in Munich...

(can u send me another email and i'll reply with my number and berlin details. cheers)

10:55 PM  
Anonymous megan said...

of course... This guy was / is a writer for the New Yorker. The book is called Paris to the Moon and documents the two years he and his family spent in Paris. Although your experiences are naturally quite different, being another New Yorker transplanted, it seems likely the book would resonate with you.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Richard;
O.K. I don't know what I was thinking, I meant Mutti...

1:38 AM  
Anonymous lillian said...

beautifully written.

1:42 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Cathy ... I Googled "mutti" (because I am lame in Canadian I guess) and got back ... "generic term for medicine in South Africa" ... If the term refers to any of HH's close female relatives, the answer would be yes and no ... Some know I write and some even read English ... but most do not.


Piu ... Done and thanks - hope to see you there.

Megan ... Thank you, I will read the book and get back to you.

Lillian ... Thank you.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Signora B. said...

This realy brings back memories of the afternoons my Oma and I would
sit in a Konditorei,feeling like a princess.
The beautiful Linens,the smell of Coffee and the oh,so tasty cakes.
Some times I feel that longing ,to see it one more time .
Richard ,its so important, to make memories and you are doing it with
HH.
I love to read your Posts.
Thank you .

6:18 AM  
Blogger sandy said...

R.,
nice story (as always!)...

Since no one has replied to this issue so far: "Mami" refers to "Mama" in a neater way, some people prefer "Mutti"...

For an online dictionary (german<->english), you might have a look at http://dict.leo.org [an initiative of the Technical University of Munich].

12:26 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Sandy ... Voila! Many thanks for unraveling that linguistic mystery.

SB ... Your comments mean so much to me ... I'm happy to know you enjoy reading here ...

2:03 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences; I enjoyed reading your story very much. The "Kaffee and Kuchen" thing is one of my favorite aspects of life in Germany.

My wife and I were in Lübeck visiting friends last weekend and randomly picked a café based on much the same impressions - it turned out to be a new literature café, but had that old-school feel (that I love).

As someone already mentioned above, I also love the fact that you can "observe" people from all walks of life in these classy cafés. It makes the culinary delights taste that much better!

2:21 PM  
Blogger Andreas Schaefer (gh4acws) said...

Some of the finest of old-style cafes are gone And the modern Starbucks and clones are no replacement even IF the coffee sometimes is better ) I reccoment to your eye "Schorschs Teestube in Schillinstr. near Ebertplatz about where the backentrance to Metropolis Kino would be ( Colognes Cinema for films in English ) (www.metropolis-koeln.de)

I gain no profit from this, I merely like those places. (And if you come and try the Angloclub you will be welcome)

4:20 PM  

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