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.