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From my city to yours: Eugene Quinn on reigniting Vienna’s coffeehouse conversations

The pandemic paused travel, but it also made meeting strangers more difficult. But one Viennese resident, and alternative city guide, is set to reignite the age-old tradition of enjoying good conversations with inventive style in the Austrian capital.

Vienna’s coffeehouses are where great thinkers, artists, poets and painters once set the world to rights.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 1 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 1 Oct 2021, 12:28 BST

Eugene Quinn is a guy on the move. With a restless, rebellious and ever-ingenious spirit, he walks miles each day across Vienna, mapping out the city in his mind and dreaming up his next socially minded, eco-conscious, boundary-pushing project —most of which seek to challenge the way we view the world.

One such project is the Coffeehouse Conversations initiative. It was born from a desire to bring people from all walks of life together — gay with straight, young with old, right-wing with left-wing, Viennese with tourists — and engage them in deep, thought-provoking conversations.

In Vienna’s coffeehouses, where great thinkers, artists, poets and painters once set the world to rights, Eugene arranges regular coffeehouse conversation events to get strangers talking, philosophising and broaching life’s biggest subjects — an increasingly precious occurrence in a digitally obsessed, fast-paced, pandemic era. The aim is to ignite the spirit of debate that once raged in these coffeehouses a century ago, back when Klimt was painting kisses, Freud was uncovering the psyche and Trotsky was planning his next political moves. 

The conversations today are, Eugene says, liberating and therapeutic. And in a city so grand, where passers-by can sometimes feel unapproachable, these conversations provide the fast track to Vienna’s true soul.

Tell us about Vienna and your relationship with it.

I find Vienna is much misunderstood. There’s a gap between the fantasy of the city and the reality. Many visitors come for chocolate cake, waltzing, horse-drawn carriages and palaces. But this is a dynamic, modern place, too, and our project creates new stories about this complex, diverse city.

Before I moved here from London, Vienna was off my radar because all I knew were the Sissi and schnitzel cliches. Vienna may have the most famous soundtrack of any city in the world, as well as a rich cultural history, but personally I like the beauty, space and opportunities here.

Tell us about your Coffeehouse Conversations initiative. What gave you the idea and what does it involve?

We all love stories. Once a month, we invite strangers to sit down one to one, with a menu of questions and two hours together. So far, we’ve encouraged people from 76 different countries to get to know Vienna better by engaging with the locals. It’s an opportunity for travellers to find out what motivates and excites the Viennese. For residents, it’s a chance to tour the world without leaving the city they call home, having dinner with somebody from China, the Congo or Los Angeles.

We aim to revive the spirit of intellectual engagement and late-night debate that raged 100 years ago. Freud, Klimt, Wittgenstein, Stefan Zweig and Mahler were coffeehouse regulars in the radical Vienna of old. And still today, the cafes have a timeless, cosy thing going on: of silence, intimacy and theatre.

Can you give us a taster of what’s on the conversation menu?

The question menu is based on Oxford scholar Theodore Zeldin’s book, An Intimate History of Humanity. He finds dialogue in the 21st century to be increasingly banal and says we should be more ambitious. I developed a version of the event in London, then realised it would fit well with the bohemian, writerly qualities of the coffeehouses here in Vienna. Because the questions are so unusual, people don’t just think about the person in front of them, but also about their own biography and experience.

Questions include: What was your best-ever mistake? What have you learned from travel that you brought into your life at home? When did you last change your mind about a major issue? Which song or piece of music has most inspired you?

As an immigrant, I want to show that we bring richness and new impulses with us when we move countries. We want people to take a social risk and meet strangers out of their comfort zone. The experience is like having a big, surprising conversation with a stranger on a long train journey, where you both open up on big subjects and realise what you have in common.

Read more: Meet the maker: the farmer reviving Vienna's passion for snails

Why should we talk more to strangers when we travel — especially in the wake of a pandemic?

Last year, when the borders were closed, the world became smaller. We need to break down the barriers and angst and open up again with international dialogue. There’s great opportunity in talking to strangers. People value social rituals, even more so in a digital age. Life is a collection of stories to connect you with others. In lockdown, many of us stopped collecting new stories to tell because so little had happened. Now we’re reminded of the value of life. With so many contacts moving online last year, there’s a new desire to get offline and meet up face to face.

How would you recommend spending a day in the city?

I recommend downloading the walking app from wienzufuss.at. Take a morning stroll through funky Neubau for unusual art, food and music, then have lunch in a beisl, the simple wood-panelled bistros that serve lunch for around €8 (£6.80). Walk through MuseumsQuartier and read a book on one of the Enzo seating installations, which change colour every summer. My favourite street in Vienna is Favoritenstrasse, for its Fellini-esque colour and craziness and its worldwide music, food and chat. Then go for dinner in a heurige (wine tavern) up in the hills to watch the sunset over the vineyards, with a glass or two of gemischter satz white wine.

Read more: The inside guide to Vienna's eclectic music scene

What’s your favourite place for meeting people and striking up conversation in Vienna?

The Donaukanal is great public space, with street art, pop-up bars and parties, and you can bring your own drinks. Yppenplatz, in the wild west, is always lively and fun. Head up to the Donauinsel for sports, big skies and naked sunbathing. Every good Viennese adventure ends late at night over drinks and philosophical debate at a wurst (sausage) kiosk. But there’s a stylish melancholy in the Viennese that can be challenging for those arriving from the more joyous, talkative Anglosphere — the humour takes some getting used to.

Tell us about Whoosh and the other projects you’re currently involved in.

We’re an art collective of 11 people from seven countries. We work with galleries and museums to design progressive tours that interest locals: 90% of people on our walks are residents. We want to play with what Vienna means. Our alternative tours include Smells like Wien Spirit (20 fragrances that tell you you're in Vienna), midnight tours (the city is friendlier at midnight than midday), a tour of the worst architecture in a beautiful city and even a naked tour.

I’m involved with the climate ministry to meet ecological goals, inspiring more people to walk and fewer to drive. We want to paint a more optimistic, green future, with excitement, vision and healthy adventures.

Check out Eugene’s events on the Whoosh website. Coffeehouse Conversations costs €11 (£9.50) per person, excluding refreshments. 

Discover more stories in our From my city to yours series

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