Schmäh and Coffee House Culture in Salzburg

Image showing bustling coffee shop in Vienna. Mostly wome of all ages are talking intently to each other in an opulent surrounding that is light and airy, the closest woman with her back to us has grey shoulder length hair and is reading an Austrian language paper and two women aged between 18 and 20 are talking to each other around a table facing us. Towards the far end of the room is a rack of newspapers and the general feeling of the room is that it is one of many.

Café Culture, Salzburg. Thomas Bernhard preferred the first floor balcony in Café Bazar as this gave a better breeze from the river. He produced most of his 18 plays, 22 works of prose, 5 books of poetry and 250 articles in Salzburg’s coffee houses. You can find his name in the guest book at Café Bazar and he is known to have enjoyed the upper floor of Café Tomaselli. (c) Carole Edrich 2016

“We go to the coffee house for everything. To read or to be alone, to concentrate or learn something, for the news or to watch people. I like to look around and think; ‘What is he doing? Where is she going? A good coffee house is like a club, you can do everything there.” Johann tells me so I ask how I’ll know if people want to talk. “We are not stupid we have different sized tables! You choose a table for what you want. There are tables for one two or three or more. Tables for every situation and every emotion. Every coffee house has a minimum of two rooms and the ceilings are very high so that you don’t have to smell each other.”

This banter is the epitome of the Austrian quality schmäh (pronounced ‘shmay’). Considered an expression of charm, it can be delivered as jokes, comments or tricks and always expresses a friendly, ironic sort of naughtiness. Schmäh reflects its subversive historical background, having grown from the way that below-stairs servants made fun of their masters and results in a harmless anarchic battle of wits in a style that has gone on in coffee houses for hundreds of years.

While coffee house traditions in other parts of Austria have become somewhat diluted, those of Salzburg have not. The 300 year-old Café Tomaselli and its marginally newer counterparts the Cafés Bazar and Fürst still have waiters in dinner jackets, pastry bars and special holders for a range of international newspapers. The prolific Thomas Bernhard produced most of his work in these places. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father were habitués. So were Max Reinhardt, Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann, Arturo Toscanini, Arthur Miller and many more. Johann, a very young 60 year-old told me that different types of people traditionally visit at different times. ‘Older men like him’ he says stay until exactly mid-day. “What about the ladies?” I ask. His response is deadpan; “that depends on their age.”