Back when Columbia was in-person, I made a regular habit of walking down Amsterdam to the Hungarian Pastry Shop. My trips usually started the same way: I would order and attempt to pay at the counter (with the cash I withdrew specifically for this event), only for the server to tell me, once again, that you pay when you leave. I’d take up too much space walking down the narrow corridor between tables and utter a consistent stream of apologies, primarily directed at the chairs I hit in my wake. I’d excuse-me my way to a table, pull out my laptop, and see that it had 9 percent battery remaining—barely enough to open a saved PDF, let alone write my essay. I’d confront the truth I’d known all along that intense productivity was not my top priority in coming here.
Hungarian is, in many ways, a set: a backdrop for intellectual chit-chat with a former professor, an opportune layout for a meet-cute, or the ideal lighting to write a close reading analysis on Judith Butler. Dozens of people, against all reason, sit at Hungarian to work on their laptops. There is no objective justification for this being an ideal place to get work done—the people who cram into the adjoining tables at Hungarian are all about ambiance. I am one of them.
I have not sat inside the Hungarian Pastry Shop in seven months, and neither has anybody else. The pandemic has stolen an immeasurable quantity of life’s pleasures—most of which are significantly more consequential than the ability to sit in a cozy coffee shop—but when I miss my favorite corner of Hungarian, I’m actually missing the darting eye contact with the man across from me, the chance encounter with a classmate I’ve been hoping to befriend, the background noise of human interaction making it almost— but not quite— impossible to stay focused. I’m missing the world where sitting near a stranger didn’t carry the risk of transmitting a potentially lethal disease.
While its interior tables will spend their first fall without Barnard or Columbia students this year, the shop is very much still operating. Word on the street is that it accepts credit cards and sells iced coffee now. It has an Instagram account where it posts about streetside seating and take-away boxes of croissants. The pandemic has forced Hungarian to take a step toward the modern era that it has for so long resisted, chipping away at its stubborn and sentimental relics.
When I fantasize about a post-pandemic world, I often find myself back at a wobbly table at Hungarian. I imagine sitting under the yellow light of sconces, surveying the posters of books written in these very chairs, enjoying my coffee and croissant in a world where such mundane aspects of life carrying such immense risk seem ludicrous.
The real post-pandemic world, if and when it ever arrives, will almost certainly not be so dreamy. At the very least, Hungarian will have lost some of its antiquated tendencies—I’ll probably pay for my next croissant with a card, and the coronavirus has already rewired my brain to wince at the thought of sharing unventilated air with people outside my pod. Despite this, I trust that Hungarian and the people behind it are committed to upholding its spirit. I doubt they feel like investing in Wi-Fi, and unless they do some serious rewiring, there won’t be outlets anytime soon.
I’m cautious by nature, and therefore cautious in my optimism that the pandemic will eventually subside and restore the parts of life it has halted. But experts tell us that a combination of a vaccine and effective treatments will bring the day that coffeeshops and seminars are once again safe, and on that day, the coffee at Hungarian will have never tasted so sweet.
Enjoy leafing through our second issue!