Kakania or k. & k.

KuK Kaffeehaus, 2011 watercolor

There, in Kakania, that misunderstood State that has since vanished, which was in so many things a model, though all unacknowledged, there was speed too, of course; but not too much speed. Whenever one thought of that country from some place abroad, the memory that hovered before the eyes was of wide, white, prosperous roads dating from the age of foot-travellers and mail-coaches, roads leading in all directions like rivers of established order, streaking the countryside like ribbons of bright military twill, the paper-white arm of government holding the provinces in firm embrace. And what provinces! There were glaciers and the sea, the Carso and the cornfields of Bohemia, nights by the Adriatic restless with the chirping of cicadas, and Slovakian villages where the smoke rose from the chimneys as from upturned nostrils, the village curled up between two little hills as though the earth had parted its lips to warm its child between them. (…) Here one was in the centre of Europe, at the focal point of world's old axes; the words 'colony' and 'overseas' had the ring of something as yet utterly untried and remote. (…) The administration of this country was carried out in an enlightened, hardly perceptible manner (…) by the best bureaucracy in Europe, which could be accused of only one defect: it could not help regarding genius and enterprise of genius in private persons, unless privileged by high birth or State appointment, as ostentation, indeed presumption. (…)And besides, in Kakania it was only that a genius was always regarded as a lout, but never, as sometimes happened elsewhere, that a mere lout was regarded as a genius.

— Robert Musil, A Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), tr. by Wilkins/Kaiser

There is a lingering of a perfume from a world of yesterday, a world that has since vanished, concentrated in certain coffeehouses of the most emblematic cities of Mitteleuropa, Vienna-Prague-Budapest. By some curious will, it has wafted its way even to places it never originally occupied, to the far-flung Hessian city of Darmstadt, where it has revived the initials k. u. k. (pronounced “Ka und Ka”), or kaiserlich und königlich. Those initials that once gilded all the workings of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy now grace the front of a conscious-looking café just behind the city’s transport hub, Luisenplatz.

Situated on Carree 1 with a view of Darmstadt’s Central Station, Café KuK seeks to recreate the Imperial and Royal of its initials to the letter. Its walls, painted the yellow of Schönbrunn, are adorned with framed prints of flowers and 19th century vistas, women in petticoats with gloved hands, purse and parasol. They hang in their prettiness above its wall-length mirrors. Among the ornaments, an engraving of Sissi l’impératrice in all her petulant grandeur. The sheltered interior is doubly warmed by numerous modest but bright chandeliers. Hot chocolate served in porcelain teacups as well as coffee with orange liqueur and whipped cream, known as the Maria Theresa, are the beverages of choice, especially on such overcast wintry days.

The café ignores Herr Musil, who was rather hard on everything that was k.k. or k. & k. Rather, its muse is a certain A. Polgar, urbanite and wit of Viennese society and lover of its cafés. His fond observations on coffeehouses (or rather, a certain Café Central), are sprinkled all across the menu’s pages, some of which I will reproduce here:

Das Kaffeehaus ist eine Weltanschauung, und zwar eine, deren innerster Inhalt es ist, die Welt nicht anzuschauen. Was sieht man da schon!

The coffeehouse is a worldview and one, to be sure, whose innermost essence is not to observe the world at all. What does one see in it anyway?

Die Bewohner des Kaffeehauses sind Menschen, die allein sein wollen, aber dazu Gesellschaft brauchen.

The inhabitants of coffeehouses are people who want to be alone, but need companionship for the purpose.

Teilhaftig der eigentlichen Reize dieses wunderlichen Kaffeehauses wird allein der, der dort nichts will als dort sein. Zwecklosigkeit heiligt den Aufenthalt.

The only person who partakes of the most essential charm of this splendid coffeehouse is he who wants nothing there but to be there. Purposelessness sanctifies the stay.
KuK Kaffeehaus patrons, Darmstadt, 2011 watercolor sketch

How true these notes are of KuK’s clientele, and of the café itself, we shall verify at present. For the most part, the patrons of this smug little corner in the city of science and art nouveau are those approaching or in their autumn years. They make their entrance in fur coats, felt hats, abundant scarves, canes or wheelchairs, and settle in their favorite spots after a drawn-out peeling ritual (although the felt hat is often kept on). Half arrive alone and sit alone, the other half join a table of senior friends. They ostensibly occupy themselves with their cake and Sudoku puzzles, chat discreetly with their neighbors, perhaps after a morning of aquatic exercises at the Jugendstilbad.

A silver-haired gentleman in tweed sits a table down from me, a glass of König Ludwig Weissbier in one hand and the Frankfurter Allgemeine in the other. He frequently peers over his paper and spectacles, shifting his eyes now right, now left, at the waitresses shuffling to and fro in black vests and long white aprons.

Of course, such a pretender to the atmosphere of Habsburg glory would not be complete without a choice selection of newspapers, international preferably, for its clientele. Indeed, by the entrance next to the coat racks and baby carriages, one finds fresh copies of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Die Zeit, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel, and selections from the NY Times. Here, one can spend hours poring over its pages without the slightest disturbance. The service is brisk, but friendly, and never attempts to shoo away a client who dallies after long finishing his Hawelka-Becher sundae, despite the rarity of an unoccupied table.

Although we barely tipped the median age of the café dwellers, I would not say that Café KuK is unpleasant for young people. On the contrary, from half past two to half past four in the afternoon, there was never a dearth of company, such that one has only to observe the world of the café.

And although the charm of the antiquated is Café KuK’s aim, it nevertheless has evolved a progressive view of the meaning of k.&k.:

Kunde und König       Client and King
Kunst und Kultur       Art and Culture
Kaffee und Kuchen       Coffee and Cake
Kellner und Koch       Waiter and Chef

Some practical information:

Kaffeehaus KuK
Im Carree 1
64273 Darmstadt

Opening hours
Monday - Saturday 09.00 - 22.00
Sundays & Holidays 10.00 - 22.00
Monday - Saturday 09.00 - 21.00
Sundays & Holidays 10.00 - 21.00

Lunch served from 12.00

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