Don’t Panic

Out of service

If you really know me then you will know that I am rather obsessed by Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. If you have read HHGTTG then you will also realise that everybody who has read HHGTTG is in fact obsessed by HHGTTG. If you haven’t read it then you should. The radio series is compulsory listening. The TV series is fun and suitably quirky. The film is mostly harmless. I think that covers all the bases.

Anyway, my reason for bringing this up is that a central plot line revolves around galactic refugee Arthur Dent’s epic struggle to get his hands on a decent cup of tea following the unfortunate destruction of planet earth by a Vogon constructor fleet. Today I am Arthur Dent. The tea is coffee.


I’m in London. It’s my first visit for a few years following a 6 month stint in which I blogged the hell out of the capital. So I have my finger on the pulse and I’m not going to settle for any lame ass tourism as I’ve loftier ideas today:

  • 10am: A photo exhibition at British Museum, another
  • 11am: Another photo exhibition at The Photographers Gallery (free before noon)
  • PM: A Scandinavian market in Rotherhithe where I’m going to luxuriate in a decadent chocolate brownie and velvety smooth coffee

Life’s simple pleasures and all that. Truth is that today is all about the coffee and cake.

It goes wrong pretty much from the start. A pre-museum tea fails to materialise. 80 percent of cafes around Holborn don’t open on a Saturday. So it’s onto the British Museum where a long queue for entry takes me a little by surprise. They are checking bags today and there’s a branch of Currys in my rucksack. I finally make it into this magnificent building but there’s no mention of the exhibition. I ask at the information desk. They know nothing about this. Huh?

The rather impressive British Museum
The rather impressive British Museum

Regardless, it’s a beautiful building so I take half an hour to absorb the place and nip up to the top floor to take in a couple of exhibitions – one on postcards which is nothing to write home about and another on Captain Cook which is a little short of discovery.

Onto the Photographers Gallery which is a favourite drop-in of mine. With my organised schedule today I’ve only half an hour to spare before my next move so I’ve come at opening time because entry is free until noon. Except that it’s not. The management decided to move free entry from 11-12 to 5-6pm. They changed their policy last night. Like you do. Fine – I pay to glance around the gallery for 30 minutes and then it’s time for a dash across town for the much hyped Scandinavian coffee that will make everything alright.

A sign of things to come
A sign of things to come

As I leave the gallery it dawns on me that today’s massive anti-Brexit rally may have a bearing on my travel plans. Oxford Street is awash with protestors who are all headed towards the march. As an enthusiastic Europhile it’s heartening to see such a turnout but the fate of our country must wait seeing as there’s coffee to think about. I descend into Oxford Street tube station to begin a complicated journey to Rotherhithe.

At Green Park events take a sharp turn for the worse as I alight for a change onto the Jubilee Line. Huge mistake. The escalators down to the platform are all dedicated to churning an endless stream of protestor up from the Victoria Line. After 15 minutes I give up waiting and head back to the Victoria line in order to continue onto Stockwell where I can change lines. Except now the congestion is so severe that trains are no longer stopping here.

Streets packed to a stand-still
Streets packed to a stand-still

It takes another 20 minutes to leave the station as an endless throng of people overwhelm the station on their way to the march. The full scale of the demonstration becomes apparent at street level. Over a million people have brought this part of London to a standstill. There’s a part of me that wants to repurpose my day, join the march and seize the moment. But I NEED that coffee and cake now. Resistance is futile.

Out of service
Out of service

Tired and decaffeinated the options for motorised travel appear to be pretty much zero. The tube is out of bounds. There are road closures in all directions and every bus is stationary with its engine turned off as every route has become overwhelmed by human traffic. There’s no point in continuing south as that’s where the action is. The only option is to jump on a rental bike and pedal anywhere north. It turns out that bike is the only way to get across town right now.

It’s getting late. I’m tired. If I was an RPG character my health would be near zero and the puniest of trolls would be circling with their cudgels ready to bring my quest to a premature end. Time for Plan B: Cycle up to King’s Cross, jump on the Northern Line a few stops down to London Bridge and pillage Borough Market for coffee and cake.


Borough Market – once trendy destination for hipster vendors and bearded instagrammers – has long been usurped by the ever-present tide of change in the London food scene. Until 3:30pm on November 15th when it once again became acceptably popular for reasons nobody fully comprehends.

Phew, no Gregg Wallace
Phew, no Gregg Wallace

This is my first visit for several years and I’m understandably cautious about returning, lest the gurning face of Gregg Wallace should cross my path. The market is still every bit as popular as it once was. Now give me the coffee and cake dammit! Obviously it’s not that simple. There is a sea of dawdling foreign tourists to swim through. Here’s the thing. I love Europe. I am European. I am a citizen of the world. Theresa May would hate me if she got around to acknowledging my existence. But today the fruits of the EU have conspired to deny me the coffee fix that I so desperately need. That’s about as anti freedom of movement as it gets with me.

But there is no freedom of movement at Borough Market today. It’s packed, and it’s not like anybody is buying much. The tourists are taking photos of artisan honeycomb with their iPhones. The instagrammers are shoving their zoom lenses up the nostrils of the stall holders. It’s like some kind of participatory art installation.

Instagram generation
Instagram generation

In the last 4 hours I have been squashed by strangers, baked in the subterranean depths of Green Park and cycled like fury across West London, all without refreshment. There’s a delicious aroma of apples from a cider stall. Maybe that will take the pain away. It’s a fresh and wondrous liquid. It’s what cider should be, not what it tends to be. But it’s not coffee.

Lovely. But not coffee.
Lovely. But not coffee.

In a hallucinatory state I shove old couples to the ground and trample across their prone bodies to make headway. I apologise. I’m still English after all. Chocolate brownie procured. Just need to get my hands on some sodding coffee now, except the stalls have either disappeared or become so niche that I wouldn’t know what to ask for. Glucose free Andalucian matcha tea? No – just a bloody coffee!

Coffee. But not coffee.
Coffee. But not coffee.

Monmouth coffee looms ahead – a friendly and reliable port in this storm. Except that there’s an escheresque queue of people waiting to be served. I’ll bet they are just here because of some review. They are probably going to order tea and water. Damn them.


I’m writing this as a broken spirit from some chain coffee shop across the road from Borough Market. My cup contains a liquid that tastes almost but not quite entirely unlike coffee. The moment is gone. It departed several hours ago, yet I kept chasing it like some fool. There’s a metaphor for Brexit in there somewhere. You work it out.

Goodnight Vienna

You are in the lobby of Vienna airport. Do you head for Departures or queue for a taxi into the city? It’s the sort of hypothetical question that iconic resident Alexander Schrödinger might have moved onto if he had ever progressed beyond the classic (but frankly less weighty) feline survival paradox. It’s also the question I poked a stick at in my last blog before getting distracted for weeks by modern life.


I’m reasonably well travelled, within Europe at least, and each destination leaves an impression. It seems that there is a general trend for places to gravitate towards bland uniformity, but in the face of globalisation the question I find myself asking is “could I live here?” – language aside. I haven’t visited many places with a strong tick in the “Yes” box but here is a snapshot view of the city and it’s people, broken down into the most important considerations.

Eating

As somebody sitting in the “live to eat” camp this is an important factor. Let’s get something straight – the Viennese appreciate good quality wholesome food. They want to eat fresh produce and you simply don’t see anybody stuffing their face with crisps in the street.

Fresh please!
Fresh please!

They aren’t going to put up with much of the chain-driven dross inflicted upon the British public. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bakeries where even the most indulgent of snacks is produced to be consumed that day, then binned if not sold by closing time. They don’t pump preservatives into the breads and pastries in order to extend shelf life.

Choices choices...
Choices choices…

Furthermore they use a wide range of interesting flours and grains to make for a better tasting and healthier experience. I’m now a big fan of Stroek which, despite being a local chain is still superior to most independent bakeries in the UK.

Move over Greggs
A Master Stroek

The shame is that most tourists will never get to try any of the everyday bakeries here because they are drawn inexorably to the undeniably beautiful displays in the over-priced big-name outlets (Demel, Sacher, etc).

Food as art
Food as art

But man cannot live on bakery goods alone. At least not for long. Well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Man should get himself down to a nice restaurant for something like this…

Worth the calories!
Worth the calories!

OK, this savoury dumpling is arguably life shortening but oh so wonderful. It’s an Austrian speciality and the outdoor courtyard ambience of Restaurant Mill added another dimension to its consumption. My starter of Wild Garlic Soup was the stuff of dreams. Great smile-inducing food in a beautiful setting. Though for belly-laugh levels of culinary entertainment may I recommend Villa Aurora. Visual pranks abound from the moment the entry sign claims to herald a Coffee House – Restaurant – Beer Garden – Ice Rink. The night garden is curiously decked out with sofas and a vertical lamp…

Dining under the stars
Dining room under the stars

… while you have the option to dine in a two man greenhouse (so small that the waiter has to pass your food in through the window) or a fishing boat, stranded improbably on a hill in a land-locked country.

A long wait until high tide...
A long wait until high tide…

The food is no joke however and traditional dishes like kaiserschmarrn are a real treat to share in the candle light.

There is always room for pudding
There is always room for pudding
Drinking

Austrians love beer. There are many breweries here in the capital and in just a few days I visited several of them without really trying, including Fisher Brau, 7-Stern, Kolar and Steigel. Think of superior Bavarian beer and you are in the right ballpark.

Fischer Brau
Fischer Brau

I could go on and on about the beer but that would be a British thing to do. More notable is the Viennese coffee house culture and their reputation for serving a good coffee is not without merit. It’s not just the coffee itself but the whole experience. The following picture sums up what to expect – tray service with a side-biscuit and always a glass of water to cleanse the palette.

A fine tradition
A fine tradition

The global coffee chains would have you think that coffee is served in a paper bucket but the Viennese believe that quality surpasses quantity. I’m with them. Furthermore there remains a proliferation of successful independent coffee houses while the large chains are barely in evidence outside the touristy first district.

Civilisation

In general terms I must applaud the locals for their good taste when it comes to what they eat and drink. Clearly they have their heads screwed on. Perhaps one reason for this affinity is the seemingly ageing population. My perception might be skewed but there seems to be a larger than average elderly population. This might explain the rather traditional and conservative outlook that permeates every day life here.

Take dress sense – the people you see on the street are classy and never trashy. This may not be a fashion mecca but you don’t generally see too much skin (certainly no tattoos) or crippling high heels. Vienna remains a place where a hat remains a stylish way to keep your head warm rather than a “fashion” statement for the look-at-me generation.

A man around town
A man around town

It has to be said that the senior citizens here do have something of a reputation for misery and intolerance. They aren’t likely to smile in public and won’t think twice about admonishing a stranger if they decide some social more has been transgressed. I’m hesitant to be critical at this point as it’s my aim to behave likewise at this age.

Bah humbug!
Bah humbug!

In the central First District the rules are different, as the people on the streets are more likely to be tourists. You wouldn’t judge London based on Buckingham Palace or Ireland based on Dublin.

A big welcome
A big welcome

But there’s a welcome regardless and people have got time to help if asked.

Its a fair cop
Its a fair cop

When my German failed me from time to time (ie: the times I tried to speak German) the locals were generally friendly and keen to respond in English.

There was something else too – something from a memory. People here seem to have time to stop and talk. The modern phenomena of scowling faces marching head down and focussed towards who knows what, oblivious to their environs, has yet to make it here. Could this be related to the prevalence of local businesses that line the city streets? Imagine working where you live, shopping where you live, knowing your neighbours? That no longer happens in suburban Britain but here outside the heart of Vienna it feels like this is still a way of life. For now at least.

Take this simple sighting of a coffee grinder in the foyer of a local supermarket…

Easing the daily grind
Easing the daily grind

This is remarkable for at least two reasons. (1) The supermarket freely offers a facility for customers to grind their own coffee beans after purchasing them. (2) It’s not locked down. A business promoting the principles of civility and trust. When did you last see that in your home town?

The community spirit doesn’t stop there. The local transport system is superb – integrated, reliable, efficient and cheap.

As easy as A to B

How did we ever fall so far behind in the UK? Privatisation? The consequences of such a good public transport system include fewer cars on the street, less pollution and more time spent alongside your fellow man as opposed to solo journeys in sealed metal boxes.

Viennese society is geared up for sociable co-existence and the locals respond to this environment accordingly.

One for all
One for all

One of the aspects I particularly like about city life here is that you can go for a beer of a coffee on your own without any stigma, and that applies for women as well as men. Indeed many regular coffee house customers will go for a quiet drink on their own but within a shared environment where they can watch proceedings from their table. People understand this unwritten social contract, none more so than the waiters who know all the rules.

All for one
All for one
The airport dilemma

Departure gate or taxi rank? That was the question posed and I think don’t think there’s a simple answer. On one hand I love the civility of this place, the standards it aspires to and the values shared by its people. A few days here only goes to expose so many failings back home. On the other hand I’m used to a slightly more outward looking environment. For a capital city there’s not the cultural diversity I’m used to nor the internet connectivity one takes for granted at home. It’s almost like some grand old village on a massive scale with this rich history that still sets the tone for modern living. I wonder how long it will be before the bubble bursts.

An eternal fountain?
An eternal fountain?

So for now it’s Goodbye Vienna but I want to return before too long. If I get nostalgic I’ll just watch a DVD of The Third Man with cake in one hand and beer in the other.