Even with rain spitting down on a nearly freezing evening, the Christmas market in the courtyard of Vienna's Schloss Schönbrunn, a former Hapsburg palace, is filled with shoppers. "I see the other crazies are out," Vienna native and my good friend Ernst Franz says to me. With us are his wife, Branka, and my brother Neil, whom I have dragged along on this trip in hopes of sparing us both a holiday at home, with our large and loving family asking a million questions about his recent divorce and my umpteenth breakup. The Schönbrunn market, one of several Christmas markets in Vienna—including the touristy but undeniably majestic-looking market in front of the Rathaus (city hall)—is Branka's favorite. "There's plenty of room. It's not, you know…," she says, lifting her shoulders to her ears, the international sign for "packed like sardines". We're checking out the stalls filled with antique ornaments and wooden figurines when I spot it: a big black pan full of chopped cabbage and pasta. This is krautfleckerln, the warm, comforting food I've been looking for, not only to drive the chill from my bones but to give me that remembered flavor of Vienna. "You have to taste this," I tell my brother, handing him a steaming, buttery plateful. "I used to live on this stuff."
I first came to Vienna ten years ago as a student interested in central European politics. Next door, in Germany, the Berlin wall had fallen. To the east and north, former Communist states—Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland—were open to explore (although to the south, the former Yugoslavia was tearing itself apart). Vienna was smack in the middle of it all. In fact, it had once ruled it all; from 1282 until 1918, the city was the capital of the Hapsburg empire, which at its peak stretched from Spain to Russia and from Poland to the Adriatic Sea. For centuries the city has straddled East and West, the modern and the traditional, the aristocratic and the modest, and its history fascinated me. I was drawn to its beauty, too—to its Gothic spires, Baroque domes, and gilded architectural flourishes—and to the art and music and philosophy that the city fostered. The culinary landscape was something I would have to figure out once I got there. As it turned out, though, I had guidance.
I met Ernst Franz on the day I arrived. I was with my dad, who had been to Vienna before and was not the kind of man to let his only daughter fly off to Europe for the first time unescorted. He took me to dinner at a little restaurant he liked, called Daniel, where he introduced me to his friend Ernst—the restaurant's maître d'hôtel, a broad-shouldered young man with kind eyes and a thick brown mustache. Ernst remembered that my father had mentioned I'd be coming to Vienna, and he promised that he would keep an eye on me.
From that evening until I left several months later, Ernst and Branka looked after me. There were many dinners at their home with their two toddlers, phone calls to ask how I was getting along, and a glass of sekt (Austrian sparkling wine) on a summer day to bid me farewell. So, when Neil and I were planning our Christmas on the road, I could think of no place I wanted to be more than Vienna.
For many people, the flavor of Vienna means elegant cakes, like the city's beloved sachertorte, or a fancy pastry from the Demel bakery, or hearty meats like tafelspitz—boiled beef served with its vegetable-infused broth, creamed spinach, browned potatoes, and apple–horseradish and cream–chive sauces. I couldn't afford such extravagances then, but even my modest tastes of Vienna were memorable—and, like so much of Vienna's food, reflected the influences of the lands the city once ruled. With guidance from Ernst and Branka, I ate German-style sausages; roasted chestnuts on the way to class; and, at their house, crunchy backhendl (bread-crumbed fried chicken). Every now and then I'd splurge at a gasthaus, a combination pub and café, where I'd fuel up on semmelknödl (bread dumplings, a Czechoslovakian specialty) and goulash, a gift from Hungary. Vienna's most famous dish, wiener schnitzel (tender veal in bread crumbs), is actually a tweak on Italy's costoletta alla milanese, supposedly imported by an Austrian field marshal who was stationed in Italy in 1848. The real thing, served at places like Weibel's Wirtshaus, was often beyond my means, so I'd go to such hangouts as Schnitzelwirt to have tasty, inexpensive pork schnitzel.
At seven in the morning on Christmas Eve, Ernst (now a trainer with an insurance company) and I meet at the Naschmarkt, Vienna's oldest open-air market, to get fish for tonight. (The Franzes, like most Austrians, observe the Catholic tradition of eschewing meat on Christmas Eve.) Ernst buys two glistening wels (a kind of catfish) as well as silvery hecht (pike), and we head out.
At the Franzes' second-floor flat in a tidy, commercial neighborhood, a rosy-cheeked Branka greets me with an exuberant hug. She peers over my shoulder, looking for Neil. "Couldn't get him out of bed," I say with a shrug and follow her into their kitchen. It all looks so familiar: the warm, wood-paneled cabinets, the little wood-burning stove, the cozy U-shaped kitchen table. I remember sitting at that table, anxious because I couldn't understand half of what was being said and wanting desperately to be understood myself. My language ability hasn't improved much, but in ten years I've realized that the feeling can come through even if the grammar is all wrong.