I was exhausted.
The conference organizers had arranged a car for me, and the driver met me after baggage. He was just a little older than I am, very energetic, and we struck up a conversation right away. When he found out I had flown in from San Francisco, he told me that his daughter lives there, or near there – Union City. I told him my husband and I lived in Berkeley, and he seemed to know a fair bit of the local Bay Area geography.
The drive into the city center turned into an impromptu city tour, and a historical introduction to Austria. I was regaled with information about the countrywide use of spring water as tap water, the utter absence of street crime, the great art museums, how highly Austria’s neutrality is valued by OPEC, the best wine shops, the pedestrian friendly city center, the rational design of the numbered city districts, how to read the street signs, and on, and on, and on. It was quite awesome.
Considering the fact that I obviously had a local expert on hand, I decided to ask the driver about local cookies. I planned to cookie roll the next day, and I didn’t really have a good lead on a quintessential Viennese cookie.
At first, the driver wanted to tell me all about the famous Viennese strudel and the many outstanding varieties of kucken – but I quickly explained that it had to be a cookie, like a biscuit. (Kiyash had advised me before leaving on this trip to use the word “biscuit” to better communicate what I was looking for – and he was right!) To explain why I specifically needed a biscuit and not a struden or a kucken, I vaguely mentioned that it was a kind of project I’m doing in different cities around the world – getting local cookies. I left out the rolling, the spelling, and the Sisyphus part. He took my question quite seriously and thought for a moment before offering up what he thought the best cookie for the project would be.
It was the vanillekipferl, he decided – a kind of small, crescent shaped, power-sugared, nutty shortbread. He explained that it was a very old, traditional cookie, dating back centuries. He mentioned some great time of poverty in Austria, during a royal era (my history is a bit foggy on Eastern Europe, and I didn’t quite follow his references). He said, to my delight, that apparently one faction of people living in Vienna would throw these cookies at the other, poorer faction, “to taunt them, because they had no food.”
This was definitely the best history I’d heard of any cookie ever.
And of course, any cookie with excellent aerodynamics would certainly have outstanding rolling affordances as well!
So I said I was absolutely certain I would use that cookie, and I had him spell the name twice so I would remember it. “V-a-n-i-l-l-e k-i-p-f-e-r-l.”
As we neared my hotel, I explained my purpose for being in town – to talk about games at a scientific meeting – he talked about having studied digital aesthetics at university, and he told me about his interest in new media and architecture. I thought that was a very interesting coincidence – and having just published an essay and a design manifesto in Space Time Play, a book on the relationship between architecture, public space and games, I gave the driver my business card just as we were pulling up to the hotel. I told him I’d send I’d email him my article if he wrote.
This seemed to catch him off guard a bit. The last thing I remember as I was dragging my suitcase up the red carpet toward the hotel lobby was him looking me directly in the eyes, smiling, with an expression I interpreted as somewhat happy surprise to have had made a small, but meaningful, connection on the ride over.
I went to bed immediately – I hadn’t slept on either of the flights over – and I was extremely confused and groggy when the phone in my hotel room rang about an hour and a half later.
The woman at the front desk said, “Someone has just dropped off milk and cookies for you, and the porter is outside your door right now if you would like to accept them.”
With my earplugs still in, I stumbled over to the door, opened it, and the porter began apologizing quite profusely when he saw how asleep and bedgraggled I looked. He was holding a pint of milk and a box of cookies in a small, clear plastic grocery bag. Along with the pint and cookies, stashed inside the bag was the name card from the airport – the sign that the driver held up so I would find him at arrivals. Here’s what the surprise special delivery looked like, and from another angle.
They were vanillekipferl cookies.
It felt quite strange and magical. I thought at the moment I should take some photographs of me being startled and half-asleep with the cookies, and so I did, including one of me holding my earplug while I ate a cookie. At the time, this detail seemed really important to capture. I actually about five or six, okay or maybe seven or eight, of the cookies before going right back to sleep.
I dreamed about the cookies all night long.
The morning, I went cookie rolling with them in Stadtpark. I considered a few different locations for the installation – a small statuary of penguins, a funky bridge over the Danube canal. But I knew the ideal location as soon as I saw it. And so with the help of an unexpected skateboard park, I was able to get quite a good amount of rolling action, down a ramp, before the final spelling of the word commenced.
The word was “grund” – “reason” in the local German language. What an interesting juxtaposition – reason from magic, “grund” created out of a box of utterly fantastic, magically appearing cookies.
As it turned out, the shape of vanillekipferl is ideal, I mean IDEAL, for spelling “grund”. It is hard to express how overjoyed I was to discover the perfect match between the shape of the cookies and the shape of the letters.
In fact, in the great history of cookie rolling (two and a half years and going, unbelievably), I would say that only the affordances of stroopwaffel for spelling “Sisyphus” in Utrecht compares to the affordances of vanillekipferl for spelling “grund”.
This experience in Vienna was without a doubt a perfect illustration of why I cookie roll. I am taken out of the otherwised tightly controlled agenda of my trip, and I am left open to unexpected encounters. And it is with the help of a concrete and absurdly specific mission, that I find my strongest connection with local reality.
See for yourself.