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A beloved, albeit ambivalent, saying about Vienna goes: “When the world ends, I’m heading to Vienna, everything there happens 50 years later.” Actually, the jury is out on whether the original statement predicted it would take Vienna 10 or 50 years longer to end and whether the Austrian who declared it was the composer Gustav Mahler or the satirist Karl Kraus. Regardless of who the sage was, and however long Vienna would need to catch up with the rest of the world, it is exactly this saying that came to mind yesterday evening while dining at the Pfarrwirt.

What you won’t see when you visit the convenient online-reservations section of Pfarrwirt’s professionally done website is any indication that this restaurant has a smoking and non-smoking section and has reserved the superior seating for the friends of Phillip Morris. The reservation form poses all the necessary questions EXCEPT a preference for smoking or non-smoking.

Screenshot from Pfarrwirt reservations page

In fact, nothing, NOTHING, on the carefully crafted website, complete with a gallery of room-by-room photos, gives any visual or written indication that your dining experience will begin by navigating through a hanging cloud of fumes to arrive at the non-descript back room sectioned off for non-smokers. Assuming, of course, you are lucky enough after-the-fact to secure a non-smoking table. (Unfortunately, we weren’t).

Immediately upon detecting (smelling) our dire reservation mistake two minutes after being seated at our first charming table, the staff was professional enough (or accustomed to such last-minute requests by unpleasantly surprised guests?) to swiftly re-situate us to an alternative table directly outside of the glassed-in, far smaller, non-smoking section (which, not surprisingly, was full). This new table was where hope went to die. Instead, of counting our losses and high-tailing it out of there, we recklessly remained seated and ordered, falsely believing that the two bouncing, bright-eyed 6-month olds at each of the tables next to us would guarantee a smoke-free evening.

Au contraire.

Ten feet away, three perniciously determined nicotine addicts worked their tobacco-stained way through enough Marlboros to make up for every non-smoking diner present.

The Pfarrwirt boasts that it is Vienna’s oldest restaurant. Nestled in an enchanting, cobble-stoned square beside a picturesque church more than seven centuries (!) old, I don’t doubt that it’s true. The whole locale oozes in so much Old-World charm, you want to bundle it up and preserve it on the front cover a Christmas greeting card. Assuming, of course, that you don’t mind if the golden-winged cherubs wishing you “Good Cheer” all have Pall Malls dangling from their pouty, angelic lips.

When you go out to dinner, and particularly when you are entertaining guests from abroad, you really want three things from your restaurant of choice: 1) savory meals (and quality wine) 2) professional staff and; 3) an atmosphere that imbues you with the sense that everything has come together in effortless perfection.

Sign for smoking section at Pfarrwirt

Sign for smoking section at Pfarrwirt which, without the slightest hint of irony, advises: “Smoking endangers your health and the health of those around you.”

Pfarrwirt achieves the first two of the three. The food was good (not great but good – though the chocolate mousse was great), the wine selection okay, the staff attentive but not overbearing (though when I kindly suggested a smoking/non-smoking button option on the website, our waiter seemed to imply it was my mistake for not mentioning my preference in the “Your message to us” box at the end of the page), but when the place reeks of cigarette stench so stifling that every non-smoking diner feels asphyxiated, no stretch of the imagination can describe the dining experience as “imbuing a sense of effortless perfection coming together.” In fact, if you venture to close your eyes in an attempt to grant them a temporary break from the stinging fumes, rather than the fine aroma of Schnitzel inspiring illusions of a visit to one of the city’s best restaurants, the pestilent odor of Lucky Strikes conjures up images of a fenced-in courtyard of a high-security prison facility. With main courses ranging in price from 12 to 30 Euros, you expect a high quality dining experience that will be impossible for Pfarrwirt to ever achieve as long as it persists in allowing a nicotine haze to permeate its air, penetrate its food, and invariably taint what-could-have-otherwise-been a (positively) memorable experience.

Two out of three ain’t bad, but it ain’t nearly good enough. In fact, in this case, it was highly disappointing.


For a restaurant that once had a smoking section and then decided it was time to go completely smoke-free, check out a local favorite – the Schöne Perle. No, it is not Vienna’s oldest restaurant and it does not look so quaint that it belongs on a Christmas card, but you will be guaranteed good food, good service, and a smoke-free atmosphere. (Reservations recommended). Save room for the Susi Torte for dessert. Decadence embodied. Usually one serving with forks for everyone is the way to go!



“Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them.” – Joseph Addison was a publisher and ran an academy in the 1700s that taught ladies the language of fans

For hundreds of years, women have used accessories as tools for secret communication.

Brooching Diplomacy

Evidenced by recent events, Madeline Albright has never been one to keep her opinions to herself. In former times, however, she expressed her ideas with a bit more subtlety and charm. As US Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeline Albright was in charge of monitoring the sanctions against the Iraqis at the end of the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein did not take kindly to her tough stance. A meeting between her and her Iraqi counterparts was followed up with the publication of poem in the government-controlled Iraqi press entitled “To Madeleine Albright, Without Greetings.” The poem included the line: “Albright, Albright, all right, all right, you are the worst in this night” and ended with a reference to her as an “unparalled serpent.” Ms. Albright’s attire for her next get-together with her Iraqi counterparts included a golden snake brooch.

Kaffeesiederball Fan 2016

Kaffeesiederball Fan 2016

In 1997, when Ms. Albright was appointed as US Secretary of States and thus became the highest ranking female civil servant in US history, she continued using her brooches as an essential part of her “personal diplomatic arsenal.” While balloons, butterflies and flowers signified optimism during diplomatic talks, crabs and turtles indicated frustration. After the Russians were caught tapping the State Department, and even listening in on Ms. Albright’s office, she engaged in the next round of talks with the Russian officials wearing pin with a gigantic bug on it. Stinging message on its way? Ms. Albright donned a wasp pin. Time and again, she accentuated her polite talk with no-nonsense pin speak.

In the same manner, women over the centuries have used ornate fans as both a fashion accessory and a communication tool. Fluttering signals could indicate that the lady in question considers you infatuating or a flop.

Fanning the Flame

Fan from Kaffeesiederball 2011

Fan from Kaffeesiederball 2011

Fan held high at the chest, spread open and pointing downwards: Better luck next time, this girl’s taken.

Fan spread open and the top is lightly pressed against the lips: Shut up, get over here and kiss me.

Fan spread open at shoulder height with pinky finger extended outwards: Take a hike. You’re a total bore.

Fanning self slowly: Nothing to see here, keep moving, I’m hitched.

Fanning self quickly: Engaged. Catch the glint of the rock on my finger as I vigorously bat this fan back and forth.

Fan spread open, pointed upwards and pressed against the heart: I love you.

Campari Fan

Campari Fan

Placing the fan on the right check: Why yes!

Placing the fan on the left check: No way!

Fan closed and pressed against the ear straight up and down (not angled like a telephone!): Call me, maybe. Definitely.

Opening and shutting the fan: You are cruel.

Twirling the fan in the left hand means: We are watched.

Fan closed and pressed against the lips: Get over here and whisper sweet nothings in my ear.

Fan closed and pressed against a coffee cup (or wine glass, beer mug, whiskey flask…): I’m thirsty, sweetcakes, and you look like the perfect man to buy me a drink.

Kaffeesiederball Fan 2014

Kaffeesiederball Fan 2014

But the thing about communication is that it is a two-way street and only effective if the person on the receiving end understands the message being sent. While the press and even Vladimir Putin became quite skilled in recognizing Ms. Albright’s “Read-My-Pin,” codes, it is easy to imagine the young men throughout the ages have had quite a time at making heads and tails of the slow, rapid, hand-switching, waving, fluttering signals of fans to the point where there must have been some Cassanovas-in-waiting who got so frustrated that they simply surrendered and walked away. But take heart. It is equally important to recognize that sometimes, a fan is simply just a fan.

Interested in learning more? Check out these sites:

Wikipedia page of Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy – a fan manufacturer from 1827 from Paris:

Exhibition of 200 pins used by Ms. Albright during her service as US Secretary of State:

Black Wooden Fan

Black Wooden Fan




Edmund de Waal: Bringing to Life the Shadows of Vienna, Family and Memory

An hour with the internationally acclaimed sculptor and author of the New York Time’s Best Selling novel, The Hare with the Amber Eyes

…continues to speak like a message in a bottle, that has been cast – surely not always in the powerfully hopeful – belief, it could wash up on land somewhere, sometime, on a heartland perhaps.
Paul Celan  (Bremen Speech (1958) see German version on  Planet Lyrik )

Netsuke of a Dog (image from Wikicommons)

Netsuke of a Dog (image from Wikicommons)

When Edmund de Waal’s ancestors fled Austria decades ago, I doubt any of them could have imagined the reception he would receive in the Vienna Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum) on a very cold and wet Monday evening in January. The waiting list began weeks before his scheduled talk and I barely managed to finagle a spot after an initial “Sorry, we’re full.”

Vienna Art History Museum, Austria

Vienna Art History Museum, Austria

The place was packed and at first, all the fold-out chairs taken. A friend and I assumed standing room in the very back of the grand black and white marbled hall and were eventually rescued by a kind security guard who rearranged a long red velvet bench for us. Finally a good view.

I admit, the crowd surprised me. After all, the museum pamphlet description promised a yawn-evoking evening at best (here a quick and dirty translation of the German):

For the series “Artist Choice”, author of the best-selling novel, “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” and successor of the Euphrussi family will curate an exhibit with objects from our collection. De Waal is fascinated with the sometimes labyrinthine paths that museum objects take and the changing meanings that often go along with them. In addition, he will address the history of the objects’ owners.”

Well, yes, he did do that.

But such a description is akin to describing Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as a cemetery dedication. Because de Waal’s talk was not a bunch of historical facts strung together about lifeless objects. No. His talk felt more like an appeal of a great master to his students to do more when journeying through life.

His message? Open your eyes. Recognize connections. Draw out the shadows hiding in the corners and bring them back to life. Frame the seemingly insignificant and hang it on the wall. Remember to pause and bring forth the dab of gold in the background. Recognize the breathturns and blank spaces of the page as a significant part of the text’s message.

Charles Ephrussi, by Jean Patricot, 1905 (Image in Public Domain, Wikicommons)

Charles Ephrussi, by Jean Patricot, 1905 (Image in Public Domain, Wikicommons)

De Waal asks, “What do you do with the responsibility that comes with the pursuit of memory?” He says he embarked on his research seeking perhaps some “pseudo-American closure of the whole bloody thing” that happened to his family before, during and after fleeing the Nazis. But rather than bringing De Waal closer to a conclusion the story and his investigations drew him ever deeper, ever further, until at some point, he (and no doubt, much to her dismay, his wife as well) must have realized there would never really be a closure, just more layering.

De Waal’s talk was a masterpiece of sadness, humor, reverence, incomprehension, resilience and forgiveness. The location was touchingly suitable – downright fitting that his words should echo through the same halls that house masterpieces by Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Dürer and Bruegel – and hundreds of other objects that embody all the different kinds of lives he mentioned – lives that eternally and simultaneously exist in ever-changing landscapes of meaning evolving from the creator to each individual beholder, day in and day out, for centuries. Messages in a bottle cast in the hopes of landing somewhere, sometime in someone’s heart.

Thank you, Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna for finding a spot for me on the guest list. And thank you, Edmund de Waal for opening our hearts, minds and eyes in your hour long layering of memory in a city where every cobblestone is layered with hundreds of years of hundreds of people’s memories – some beautiful and others terribly, incomprehensibly tragic.

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The Writing on the Wall

Secret Code of Resistance Fighters on St. Stephan’s Cathedral

“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

When you stand at the very heart of Vienna – on St. Stephan’s Square — look closely at the wall on the right side of the front entrance portal.


O5 chalk inscription

“Strange. Not only do the Viennese have graffiti on their church,” you might think. “Those crazy Austrians put up a glass case to preserve it.”

And thinking that the O5 had something to do with preservation and Austrians you would already be a bit into the story behind the writing on the wall.

The “O” is the first letter of the German name for Austria: “Österreich”

And because the “Ö” is equivalent to “OE” the first two letters for the name Austria would be “OE.” Since the letter “E” is the fifth letter of the alphabet, the symbol “O5” was a secret code for “OESTERREICH” – “Austria.” Of course, some might even say the 5 stands for the five letters of “AEIOU” which was a Habsburg campaign slogan from Emperor Friedrich III (1415 -1493), first inscribed into his coat of arms and then added onto many buildings and works of art throughout the empire. Sources vary about the exact meaning of the letters and historians still can’t agree but one of the many possibilities is:  Austria erit in orbe ultima, Austria will last forever.

On 12 March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria into the German Third Reich and Austria ceased to exist. Three days later, from a balcony overlooking the Heldenplatz in Vienna, Hitler announced, “As leader and chancellor of the German nation and Reich, I announce to German history now the entry of my homeland into the German Reich.”

Good-bye Austria.Chalk O5 sign of Austrian Resistance Movement

But not everyone was waltzing for joy alongside Hitler. Sometime in 1944, a symbol began appearing throughout the streets of Vienna – hurriedly scribbled on house and church walls – the symbol was O5 and originated from a medical student, Jörg Unterreiner, who was part of an underground group fighting to resist the Nazis and restore Austria.

So the writing on the wall of St. Stephan’s Cathedral is not a case of an errant graffiti artist who strayed from the banks of the Danube Canal or an elementary school’s teacher demonstration that this country should finally dump the chalk and invest in some white boards for the classrooms, it is rather a powerful reminder for all who walk through the heart of the city that, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

For more information about the resistance, visit the online pages of the Document Archive of the Austrian Resistance.

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