Street scene

I’m sitting in the front window of a bakery idly stirring a cappuccino, my laptop open before me, looking out the plate-glass window at Viktoria-Luise Platz. I did not know this platz existed a week ago; now I can’t seem to stay away.

There’s a man standing on the sidewalk holding an envelope and a pen. He has stopped in front of the bakery, but he’s looking intently at the business next door. I can’t see what it is from where I sit.

He looks confused. He looks, dare I say, lost. He is pacing now, crossing the street, looking back at the storefront with a look of utter bewilderment.

I turn back to my laptop. I have come here to work, knowing there will not be a Wi-Fi connection. I told myself before entering to ignore any little signs that might suggest “today’s Internet password is …” I recall Jonathan Franzen once telling an interviewer that he had to go to extreme measures to block out the Internet so he could get some work done:

Franzen not only removed the wireless card from his Dell laptop but, just to be sure, permanently blocked its Ethernet port.

“What you have to do,” he explained, “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw the little head off it.”

Yeah. I’m not going to those lengths. But I have to get off the Internet if I’m going to make progress on this nonprofit report.

But once again my attention is drawn outdoors. Now a van has pulled up, and the driver has gotten out. He’s standing in front of the bakery, staring in disbelief at the same store next door. He shakes his head in disgust and climbs back in his van.

I lean forward to try to see what’s over there, but all I see are a few wisps of smoke coming from a man seated at a table out front.

This square is just a few short blocks from our flat, but I never would have found it without these wistful words from a friend, “You’re so lucky to live by Viktoria-Luise Platz. My favorite square in the city.” We were in her car at the time, and I had no idea what she was talking about, but I jotted down the name and looked it up on my map later. The square lay in a little district I hadn’t seen yet. The streets around it are so heavy with traffic, I couldn’t imagine anything lovely could be hidden within.

Six streets converge on this quintessentially European square, with walking paths, a curved stone pergola, and a central fountain that is irresistible to dogs and small children. Apartment buildings ring the square, and restaurants, dressmakers, and apothekes fill every storefront. I’ve chosen a mostly empty café nearest the U-bahn entrance, the most lovely subway entrance I’ve seen outside of Paris.

The man with the envelope is back. He may have walked the entire platz to see if the correct establishment lay elsewhere, but he has returned, the small envelope and pen still clutched in his hand, as if he has a quick check to write that must be written today, and he can’t believe no one has shown up to receive it. He walks across the street to the platz again, and I can tell by the uncertainty in his step that he’ll be back.

My report is not writing itself. I turn my attention to it, struggling to begin the massive reorganization I can see in my head but am loathe to undertake on the screen. I force myself to start cutting and pasting, and the reordering begins to take shape, and now I’ve spread out more papers across the counter, and I realize there’s a man seated two stools down I hadn’t noticed before. This is a good sign; I’m working now.

My drink is drained; I worry I’ve overstayed my welcome, but the place remains largely empty except for the steady stream of customers who come for a donut, leave with a waxy bag.

The man from the van has not moved. He has been sitting there behind his windshield for a good half hour. Now he emerges again, agitated. He stops and stares at the place next door; I sit and stare at him.

He looks at me and I jump; now he is coming into the bakery. I know before he enters that he won’t order anything. He asks some questions of the young woman behind the counter, and I understand the words four or five, and later.

After he leaves, I decide to call it a day. In spite of all of my people-watching, I’ve made some progress on my work. I pack my bag, return my dishes to the young woman, exchange a Tschuss and head outdoors. I can’t resist turning to see what’s next door. It’s a curious storefront, a restaurant it seems, and the canopy over the outdoor seating says “Osteria Ribaltone.”

Italians, I smirk, not likely to open their doors until four or five this afternoon, relaxed business hours, the better to tweak the patience of the punctual Germans and derail their entire afternoon. I wouldn’t know a thing about that.

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