Author: Petra Hurtado
Are you a breakfast person? Do you enjoy reading your newspaper over your morning coffee while munching on a croissant? Or do you usually just rush to the coffee place around the corner to grab a coffee in a paper cup on your way to work? I am a breakfast person. I’d rather get up half an hour earlier so I have time to enjoy my morning coffee with some Italian biscotti or Austrian bread with homemade apricot jam than sleeping in and having to rush out the house with an empty stomach. However, have you ever enjoyed your city for breakfast? Walking through a city in the morning when everyone and everything is waking up is one of the most beautiful ways of exploring a city.
When I lived in Vienna, I had a 15-minute walk to work. There was a Konditorei (the combination of bakery, pastry store, and café) at the corner of the building I used to live in. Their cakes and pastries weren’t just delicious but each of them was its own unique piece of art, delicately designed and decorated with colorful glazes of sugar or chocolate. My daily walk to work started in an aroma of freshly brewed coffee mixed with the sweet vanilla scent from the bakery. Sometimes I would buy one of their Topfengolatschen (curd cheese pockets) with seasonal fruits on top and have them later at work. Once I had crossed the street, the surrounding car traffic cut off the morning sweetness and brought my mind back to reality. Why are people still driving in Vienna, where walking is the most joyful thing to do? I was glad that I could escape the traffic noise and the exhaust for part of my daily commute, walking through Arenbergpark, a small park in my neighborhood that I approached like a shipwrecked person searching for refuge on a green little island. I usually took my time walking through the park to get some greenery into my senses, smelling the grass and the trees, listening to the birds, and watching people playing fetch with their dogs; biophilia for breakfast, the innate desire to be connected to nature. Two concrete giants interrupted the nature idyll, two of Vienna’s flak towers, reminders of the city’s 1940s, pieces of history. The mix of nature and historical monstrosities surrounded by beautiful Gründerzeit architecture nurtured my mind on my way to work, like the brain-boosting raisin bran promised it would in a commercial on TV the night before. Sometimes I took a little detour and explored parts of my neighborhood that I didn’t know much about. A Turkish café in a little side street; should I go in and ask for a thick, sugary Turkish coffee? I usually started work around eight o’clock when most of the storefronts were still shut. However, there used to be that flower store at the corner of Wassergasse and Landstraßer Hauptstraße. When I passed by the store, the owner had already put outside some of the plants and flowers she was going to sell that day. I could smell the lilies and roses; an inspiration for what flowers I would buy later on my way home from work. Would you mind saving me those yellow and orange tulips for tonight?
In Madrid, my lifestyle changed with the pace of Spanish culture. Late dinners, long nights out, and no time for long breakfasts at home. On my way to the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, where I studied, I got to know a new breakfast culture that I learned to love and embrace. My daily one-Euro café con leche at the tapas bar next to the metro station, a one-shot espresso with a splash of milk. No need to sit down, everyone was having their café con leche while standing at the bar, maybe reading the newspaper, talking to friends and colleagues or simply watching the results of last night’s soccer game on the TV screen. Some people had pinchos with their coffees, little bites to eat served on a toothpick that usually ended up on the floor after the daily ritual. A bar floor covered with little wooden sticks and paper napkins and I knew Madrid was awake.
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New York, USA
Almost the opposite was the case in New York City. The morning hours were the time when the city seemed to be the cleanest. The waste management company had already picked up the trash from the sidewalks and a street cleaning machine made sure the Big Apple was presentable to the tourists and business people that come here every day. People walking to work in expensive designer suits, carrying Starbucks paper cups in one hand and checking their emails on their smartphones with the other hand, while homeless people were waking up in a store entrance. Should I get a bacon-and-egg sandwich and a non-fat skinny-something-mocha for breakfast? Or should I just skip breakfast and try to get to the top of the Empire State Building before the line gets too long?
Last summer, I decided to ride my bike to work in Chicago. It was a daily 45-minute morning bike ride from the Uptown neighborhood in the north of the city to downtown Chicago. It was beautiful getting a taste of all the different neighborhoods and observing them while they were waking up. People waiting for the Clark Street bus in the Lakeview neighborhood, reading the news on their phones or sipping their paper cup coffees. A smell of Arabica beans at every corner, Starbucks competing with Donkin Donuts. The area around Wrigley Field, one of the oldest baseball stadiums in the U.S., was almost empty in the morning and looked unreal; it had been so crowded after last night’s Cubs game. The bar scene south of the stadium was still a mess, bar owners were trying to clean up the remainders of last night; I guess the Cubs must have won. A breeze of stale liquor was touching my nose. Once I passed this stomach-revolving part of the city, I entered into a more delicatessen-like area. A French bistro on the left side of the street made me want to stop for fresh croissants, Maison Parisienne. Suddenly people weren’t waiting for the bus anymore, instead they are waving for cabs. At this point, the busses going downtown were too full to get in. In the Gold Coast, I changed from Clark Street to State Street; more trees and less traffic, trying to inhale some oxygen. However, once I hit the so-called Viagra Triangle, a neighborhood park surrounded by bars and restaurants where at night you can see many elder men with suspiciously young looking girls (therefore the name), the stale liquor taste was back. A mix of café owners starting the day, putting chairs and tables outside, and bar owners ending the night, cleaning theirs. The Pancake House on Bellevue was already serving breakfast, including, of course, their famous pancakes. Crowds of people in business suits were rushing down Rush Street; I was wondering if that was where the street name came from. Some early-bird tourists trying to shoot a selfie on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile with the Hancock Tower in the back; a nurse running with her coffee in her hands towards the hospital southeast of there. My eyes followed her east and I could see a golden medallion, like a freshly made pancake, in the sky, the sun rising above Lake Michigan, making the calm water look like a sea of lights.
Every time I had been visiting the city of lights, I was reminded that even though Paris had so many sights to see, the actual monument was the city itself and its people. I could spend the entire morning, sitting in a bistro, watching people passing by. What a cliché, right? If there is any city in the world where you should live all the clichés that you were told about, then it is definitely Paris. In order to feel the spirit, l’esprit de Paris, you have to live it, especially for breakfast. I ordered a petit café with a croissant on the terrace of the bistro Le Petit Poucet at the Place de Clichy, getting ready for my morning entertainment: “people watching”. On their way to work, men in elegant suits and women in perfectly fitted dresses, shoes matching the purse, maybe a little bit of lipstick, not too much though. Some stopped briefly at the newspaper kiosk across the street from the bistro I was sitting in, getting the morning edition of Le Monde before they disappeared underground in the metro station. A young couple strolling around, looking lost, probably tourists like myself. A woman in a colorful summer dress riding her bike with a basket on the handlebars, transporting her groceries and a bouquet of flowers. Every now and then, I saw people walking by with their freshly baked baguettes under their arms. No wonder Fendi called their strapless purses baguette; that was exactly what it looked like. Where else would you get inspiration for design if not in the capital of style and fashion? And where else in the world could the simple act of buying freshly baked bread become a fashion statement? The streets of Paris, like a red carpet with a fashion show walking by, while I was sipping my coffee in the first row. Suddenly a refreshing scent of tuberose mixed with cigarette smoke touched my nose when an old couple was sitting down next to me. Even smoking looked elegant here. It was almost noon. I totally forgot about my original plans for the morning, visiting the Louvre and getting lost in thousands of pieces of art. Instead, my gaze got lost in the art of life, Parisian life. Maybe I should order a croque monsieur and a glass of rosé. Soon the bistro would fill up with people taking a break from work, enjoying la vie en rose in the city of love. Yes, this cliché is true as well. In Paris, you can’t help falling in love … with the city.
*) Photo Vienna Arenbergpark: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wien_03_Arenbergpark_k.jpg