It is customary for traditional Austrians to have what is called a ‘Stammtisch’. This means a table in a bar or restaurant that is reserved for the same group of people at the same time every week or month. When I first came to Graz I thought it would be a great idea to have a Stammtisch for the English language teaching assistants so that we could drink, exchange lesson ideas, plan trips together and get to know each other better. During the first week here I was hoping that someone else would organise it because I was dreading having to speak German to anyone at the point, especially a drunken Austrian pub proprietor. However, no one did it so I decided to bite the bullet and ask in the dingy restaurant across from my building if we could have it there. I understood approximately 20% of the conversation, but it seemed we had the table reserved for every Thursday for the rest of the year. And, so that was it, Alt Wien was to be our Thursday night home from then on.
Alt Wien looks from the outside like it has gone out of business. Net curtains hang limply in the window, turned yellow from cigarette smoke. The sign, written in old German script, looks out across a busy urban crossroads, but is so faded it seems unlikely to draw in any passers by. Upon opening the door the first thing you become aware of is the smoke. Your eyes water and your lungs close up as you look around and see battered old Austrian men in faded jackets clutching their thousandth cigarette in work-worn hands. The smell that lingers in the air is a combination of old cigarettes, burned schnitzel fat and stale beer. It is a uniquely Austrian smell.
The two people responsible for running the joint are Joanna and Herr Karl or ‘Herr Charlie’ as he liked us to call him. Joanna is approximately fifty years old and a life-long waitress. Portly and broad faced, she is virtually impossible to understand, but always smiled and welcomed us and told me on more than one occasion that my face ‘shines’, which is a compliment. I think. Herr Charlie turned seventy during that year. He is short with white hair framing a smooth, smiling face. He always told us stories about horses stolen by the circus and about the war, stories he would tell with completely disregard for whether we could follow them or not. I was always quite fond of Charlie and made a point to ask him how he was. When I missed Stammtisch on a few occasions, he’d ask if I was ok and would feign jealousy if someone said I was out with a male. I thought this was grandfatherly affection. At Christmas Charlie gave us schnapps, at Easter he gave us eggs, on Abi’s birthday he got his drunken musician friend to sing a song and play harmonica for her. Actually it wasn’t her birthday, but we just said it was when it seemed likely she would get an embarrassing song, but I digress. We thought he was a nice, slightly eccentric, old man.
At one of the last Stammtischs we noticed Charlie sitting perplexed at a table with an iphone. We asked him what the problem was and he explained that he was totally frustrated programming all the old stuff from his old phone onto it. We sympathised, returned to our beers and thought nothing more of it. Some minutes later Charlie came up to my friend Josh and nudged him on the shoulder. He gestured that Josh should watch something on his phone. Josh watched the video with a bizarre expression on his face, Charlie burst into laughter, slapped Josh on his back and then walked off. Josh lowered his forehead to the table, his shoulders visibly shaking with rising hysteria. Eventually he lifted his head and explained that the video had been hardcore, full frontal, no holds barred pornography. In some way it was funny because he chose Josh, the most ‘inappropriate’ one of us to show the video to, which demonstrated a real understanding of our characters, but at the same time it completely changed our perception of Charlie from a kindly old man to an ageing porn addict. From then on whenever he smiled it looked like a seedy ‘what are you wearing under that jacket’ smile rather than a ‘welcome to my humble establishment’ smile.
Those Thursdays at the Stammtisch were an interesting time in my life. The mix of characters; high brow American intellectuals, vulgar English comedians, harmonica-playing regulars and the odd Austrian who came along with us for the ride, meant it was rarely dull. The dowdy interior, including a broken disco light suspended in one corner, doilies on all the tables and bizarre temporary art exhibitions like the one of nuns and another about the Middle East, gave it a certain charm. The terrible service, the bonding over 0,5 glasses of Puntigamer, the telling of off-colour jokes, the awkward silences that would fall over the table when it became apparent that some characters are not supposed to mix, even though anything was possible in the fantasy world behind the doors of Alt Wien…That is the stuff I remember when I cycle across the crossroads and see the net curtains hanging limply in the window, turned yellow from cigarette smoke. Thursdays will never be quite the same again.