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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

A Traveler’s Toast to Dead, Drunk Men

Feb.29.16

A Traveler’s Toast to Dead, Drunk Men

by Jen Kinney

Chacha in Georgia

The tombstone near the top of Albano Pass was the most elaborate so far. Further down the mountain they were just metal plaques strung on posts between the mile markers. Shepherds, probably, who had fallen off the road’s sheer edge while guiding their herds from Tusheti, the mountain region we were headed to, down to Kakheti, the lowland wine region we’d come from.

Twenty miles and over two hours in, we were just half way. The highest pass in the Northern Caucasus range was almost 10 miles ahead of us, the town of Omalo 20 miles beyond that—almost at the Russian border—the valley floor dizzingly far below. Uri was calm in the driver’s seat, easing the car around hairpin turns; Christine was chatty. But Yuval and I clutched our hearts every time Uri threw the Jeep in reverse to let another car pass. The road was barely 12 feet wide, and clung hoveringly to the mountain as though static electricity held it there. Herds of cows swarmed our car at the narrowest passes.

We stopped to rest at the stately tombstone on its windy ridge. It was sheer black marble and embossed with the silvery likenesses of four men: youngish, paunchy cheeks, thick eyebrows, vaguely haloed. At the base of their tombstone was the fender of a car and a bottle of chacha.

A clear alcohol made from the grape skins and stems leftover from winemaking, chacha is the Republic of Georgia’s version of grappa, a Georgian moonshine that burns in the sinuses and doesn’t easily loosen its grip the morning after. Before we even set out on this road, supposedly one of the most dangerous in Georgia, we heard about this tombstone. The men apparently died driving off the road, drunk. Tied to one of posts of their gravestone is a khantsi, a drinking horn, central to Georgia’s culture of ritual toasting. By tradition a toastmaster, the tamada, announces the topic for each round, and the assembled drink up, the whole horn at once.

Travelers are meant to toast here, too; to the dead, drunk men or to their own safe passage, we weren’t sure. We didn’t take the chance. On the way up Uri and Yuval—an Israeli couple in a rented Jeep with whom we’d hitched a ride just that morning—had told us it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Jewish tradition, it is the day God writes every living being’s name in the Book of the Living or the Book of the Dead.

We left the grave and trundled on for hours instead—our stomachs jilted and empty, the gas tank dwindling—to Omalo, a town of about 50 Georgians with a nearly equal number of Israeli travelers. We toasted chacha to the road from the safety of our guesthouse, while Uri and Yuval told us about life in Israel, about state-issued gas masks, climbing onto rooftops to watch missiles explode like fireworks during the Gulf War. The town below us was silent in late October, nearly the end of the season for tourist and local alike. The road would close by November, impassable in the snow.

Photo: Christine Armbruster

Remember, People: Do Not Get in the Car with the Self-Professed Bad Man

Oct.17.17

Remember, People: Do Not Get in the Car with the Self-Professed Bad Man

by Michael Standaert

Beer in Ngapali Beach

Last year, long before the current wave of terrible violence began, I was in Ngapali Beach, a white-sand, beach-resort town in Rakhine State, having drinks with Sara—a hotel manager—and a local artist.

Our conversation got around to the “troubles” a few years ago. After news spread that Rohingya Muslims had raped a Rakhine girl, a Buddhist, violence ensued. As a result, tens of thousands of Rohingya had been moved to camps to the north of Ngapali Beach, around Sittwe.

Sara told me that during that time, right in front of where we were now sitting on the beach—where boys had been playing soccer just an hour before—a large group of local men had emerged from the shadows into the light from the bar, machetes in hand. They’d heard that “two boats with Muslims” were out there on water, and said if they came ashore they were going to kill them.

Sara finished her white wine and the local artist left after downing his lassi, and I was alone with the last of several caipirinhas. The bar keep made them strong and rummy, squeezed in several small limes and added brown sugar, on the right side of sweet.

There was still a little light, so I walked south down the beach to a clump of restaurants and ordered a local beer. A European couple, the only other customers, left after tiring of a slightly drunk local who was talking to them, wanting to take them to a disco. Each time he said disco, he’d wiggle his hips and shake his arms. Being alone after they left, I attracted the man, who sat down close to me and ordered a beer.

His name was Momo, he said. “I’m a bad man. Bad man. But good father. I own that restaurant there,” he gestured across the road, now dark. “I provide for my family. Take care of my parents, my wife’s parents.” But he was still a bad man, he laughed, because he liked disco.

I didn’t feel like walking back to the hotel, so decided to check the place out. We passed my hotel and about a half-kilometer on, took a left down a dark road into jungle. I could see neon and Christmas lights strung around a large wooden building. I asked if this was a disco, as he called it before. “KTV,” he said.

I decided I didn’t like the vibe of the place. It stank of mildew. Sweat. I stayed close to the door, which was still slightly ajar. He was talking with the doormen, asking about “girls, I want girls.” I could tell they were wary of having a foreigner in here while Momo was trying to line up KTV girls. The doormen were shaking their heads. I grabbed Momo and said, let’s go, some other time. He tried to tell me there are other places, but I convinced him to drop me off at my hotel.

“I’m a bad man,” he said as I shook his hand. He drove off, steady, not a swerve.

The Three Things You Must Do in Veracruz

Oct.16.17

The Three Things You Must Do in Veracruz

by Martina Žoldoš

Lechero in Veracruz

They say there are three things one must experience when visiting the port of Veracruz: the aquarium, the biggest in Latin America; live street music and dancing; and lechero, the famous coffee, served in the 200-year-old Gran Cafe de la Parroquia.

It’s was a typical Saturday noon, hot and humid, and visiting the aquarium seemed the smartest thing to do. We got badly sunburned the day before, so the beach was out of the question. Besides, cooling off in an air-conditioned space and admiring sharks, barracudas, rays, yellowfin tuna meant killing two birds with one stone: my daughter had been daydreaming about sharks since we first mentioned the possibility of taking a short trip to Veracruz.

After visiting the aquarium it was time for a big dose of caffeine, so we headed to Gran Café de la Parroquia, the original one, in front of the main dock. In the last few years, the city has witnessed an invasion of modern replicas of this café that lack both history and soul. I superstitiously avoided them, although this meant I almost always had to line up for a free table in the old one.

Ordering and serving lechero is a special process. One waiter brings you a strong espresso in a glass (not a cup). Then, you have to knock a glass with a spoon to call another waiter, who fills your glass with a stream of milk as he holds the pot several feet it. The origins of this peculiar way of serving the milk are a mystery, but the origins of knocking the glass with a spoon are well-known.

Back in the late 19th century, a streetcar passed by Emparan and 5 de Mayo streets every morning at 6 a.m. As the streetcar approached the café, the driver rang the bell to announce his arrival. The owner would order one of the waiters to run out and deliver the coffee, without the driver ever having to stop. This routine went on for many years, until one morning the bell didn’t ring: the driver had passed away. When the word spread that he had died, patrons and waiters of La Gran Parroquia stood up and knocked their glasses and cups with spoons to commemorate the driver and his long coffee habit.

As I was sharing this story with my parents, who were visiting the café for the first time, a woman in a traditional, colorful dress with a wooden board in her hands and a man with a guitar stepped in. The tune of La Bamba and the woman’s tapping began to fill the room.

Aquarium, lechero, and live son jarocho, all in one day.

Let’s Drink to One Last Fascist-Free Weekend

Oct.13.17

Let’s Drink to One Last Fascist-Free Weekend

by Alexa van Sickle

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Sekt in Vienna

The new delicatessen on the corner seems to sell pasta, condiments, wine, and not much else. But they have a couple of metal tables set outside, and it’s an unseasonably warm day in Vienna, pushing 70 degrees Fahrenheit in mid-October. There are 72 hours left before Austria’s snap national election. It was called in the Spring, when the lumbering governing coalition of the center-left SPÖ and the center-right ÖVP—which has governed almost non-stop since the end of World War II—collapsed.

I settle at a table with a sekt—Austrian sparkling wine. Just across the street is a poster for the “new” ÖVP—currently leading the polls, rejuvenated by its new leader (and after Monday, perhaps Austria’s youngest-ever chancellor) Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old foreign minister. Kurz has been dubbed the “Wunderwuzzi”—a backhanded compliment that marries the terms “Wunderkind” and “toddler.”

These campaign posters, which are now all over the place, invite mild defacement. “Now. Or Never.” Kurz says on one. (Someone scrawled “Never” on Kurz’s forehead.)

The SPÖ’s campaign against Kurz was dirty, breaking a long-held taboo against negative campaigning here. Austria has not escaped our brave new world’s tide of political farce, and this scandal has it all: Facebook, George Soros-linked anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, shady political strategists, bribery. To recap: the SPÖ is accused of being responsible for a Facebook campaign smearing Sebastian Kurz—with pages claiming he was part of a “dubious” George Soros-funded political network and accusing him of having a secret plan to increase immigration from Islamic countries.

The news magazine Profil claimed that the sites were run by Tal Silberstein, an Israeli strategist whom the SPÖ chancellor, Christian Kern, had hired to mastermind his campaign. Silberstein, a negative campaign guru of sorts, was fired in August in connection with a money-laundering scandal in Israel, but Profil say his team continued to run the pages. In another twist, Peter Puller, who worked on the SPÖ campaign with Silberstein, claims the ÖVP once offered him 100,000 Euros to switch sides. The ÖVP denies this and is threatening to sue.

The new dirty campaign notwithstanding, the worst part of all this is that the SPÖ’s mess could well end up giving the far-right, proudly xenophobic Freedom Party (FPÖ) a larger piece of the electoral pie. The FPÖ and the SPÖ are jostling for second place with around 25 percent of the vote each. The most likely outcome of Monday’s poll is that that the FPÖ will enter a governing coalition with the ÖVP.

This is what happened 17 years ago. I remember the night when the “Blue-Black” coalition was announced: it was Feb. 19, 2000, five months after the election. A friend and I stumbled into the 150,000 people in Vienna protesting the FPÖ entering government. (We were teenagers. We had spent the evening getting my friend’s hair dyed purple and turquoise.)

Back then, the FPÖ’s rat-like but charismatic leader, Jörg Haider—who died in a car crash exactly nine years ago this week—had brought his party back from the political wilderness by campaigning on an anti-immigration ticket, despite Austria having the second-lowest immigration in the European Union. This time around, Austria has taken in one percent of its population in refugees—that’s more than Germany, proportionally—and Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ’s leader (who was once arrested at a mock Hitler Youth march) has amped up the party’s xenophobic and nationalist flavor. A winning combination.

The SPÖ broke another long-held taboo this year—the 31-year, self-imposed ban on governing with the FPÖ—apparently because the party has cleaned up its act. In the months leading up to this week, it has not ruled out entering a coalition with the FPÖ.

The FPÖ has been increasing its vote share over the years, even in more liberal Vienna. This week, I saw people eagerly taking FPÖ pens and pamphlets from volunteers at my local U-bahn station. I scowled and shook my head to signal my disapproval of all this as I took cell phone snaps of a poster on which an airbrushed Strache stated “Islamization has to be stopped,” while on a bench mere feet away a young woman in a hijab scrolled through her phone.

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Outside the confines of right-wing Burschenschaften—the secretive fraternities to which many of the FPÖ’s top brass are linked—and beyond explicit anti-foreigner soundbites, far-right politicians have a few other gambits: celebrating the 333rd anniversary of defeating the Ottomans after the siege of Vienna, to show the importance of “defending Western civilization”; reviving the pan-German nationalism—the notion that Austria belongs to German territory and culture—that the party had dropped under Haider’s leadership; liberal use of the word Heimat—the term for both a homeland and cultural identity that, to some, still carries an unsavory soil-and-blood charge. And, of course, wearing blue cornflowers, which were once associated with the Nazis.

The party says it has moved past its past. (It was founded by a former SS officer.) Apparently that’s enough for lots of people to vote for them. But only last week, the party had to suspend a member who allegedly did a “Heil Hitler” salute at a meeting in Styria province. They also recently had to expel a high-ranking party operative in Tyrol, who had displayed Nazi paraphernalia in the back of his pharmacy. Austria’s Mauthausen Komitee, a research group named for the Nazi concentration camp east of Linz, published an information booklet this year detailing 60 cases of Nazi-related incidents involving FPÖ members. As the booklet’s title notes, that’s a whole lot of isolated cases.

Still, there are 72 hours left before these people might have a seat at the table. It’s Friday, it’s sunny, and the FPÖ is not in charge, for one more weekend at least. Let’s drink some sparkling wine to that.

Sometimes You Just Have to Get on a Flight to Frankfurt and Drink Japanese Fruit Drowned in French Brandy

Oct.12.17

Sometimes You Just Have to Get on a Flight to Frankfurt and Drink Japanese Fruit Drowned in French Brandy

by Deborah Wei

Mispelchen in Frankfurt

Because my siblings and I have always been very close, people are sometimes surprised when I tell them my sister now lives in Germany. We chat on a daily basis, so most days she feels no farther away than my brother does in Wisconsin. But there are limits to how much you can shrink the distance between you and your favorite people. Sometimes you just have to get on a flight to Frankfurt.

My brother, my husband, and I all flew in one week in August and crowded happily into my sister’s apartment. We tagged along with her to the grocery store and the neighborhood bakery that first morning, entertained by the mundane things that feel novel to travelers. I quietly marveled watching her bustle about in fluent German, a language that is hers but not ours.

That night, we went out to a neighborhood Apfelwein (apple wine) tavern. In a garden tucked between apartments, a small crowd ranging from boisterous 20-somethings to graying regulars lingered over Apfelwein and plates of handkäse, a local cheese. The atmosphere was convivial, everyone happy to be outdoors in the short central European summer.

We sat at one of the long tables and ordered a round of Apfelwein, served in a traditional blue-patterned jug called a bembel. Though we had been warned that apple wine was an acquired taste, I liked its vinegar sharpness. We talked German and American politics and laughed over stupid inside jokes.

We had drained our glasses and were about to call it a night when the server appeared with a bonus round—my sister’s boyfriend had ordered us a surprise. Snifters of apple brandy appeared on the table with an apricot-like fruit speared on toothpicks and soaking in the liquor. We raised our toothpicks with their wobbling fruits in a toast (“Prost!”) before taking a bite and a sip. The sweetness of the fruit and the warmth of the brandy was the perfect contrast to the sting of apple wine.

Internet sleuthing later informed me that this was mispelchen, a popular digestif in Apfelwein taverns. Calvados is served with the medlar fruit, sometimes translated as the adorable “little apple.” But medlars are not apples. And mispelchen is not even made with the true medlar native to Europe. No, Frankfurt’s mispelchen is actually the “Japanese medlar”—a loquat. The loquat somehow made its way from China to Spain to Germany, where it partnered up with a French spirit to make mispelchen. It pleased me to learn that this local favorite is in fact a heady dose of multiculturalism. Not unlike the American children of Taiwanese immigrants getting tipsy in Germany.

On our last night in Frankfurt, we went back to the same Apfelwein garden. Another round of mispelchen appeared after we emptied a bembel or two. This time, the mispelchen was not a nightcap. The lush burn of the fruit and brandy fueled us on to another bar, and then another, to stretch out the hours we had left together.

You Had Us at Hormonal and Super-Athletic

Oct.11.17

You Had Us at Hormonal and Super-Athletic

by Kelsey Menzel

White wine in Serbia

Your first thought when you hear “Serbia” probably isn’t wine. Maybe it’s Yugoslavia. Or Nikola Tesla. Or neither.

A member of a a British university’s basketball team tells me that, at first, he thought he was packing for Siberia. “And I was like, isn’t that cold?” he says. I nod and sip my dry white blend. I am surprised to be sharing my once-cozy hotel in Belgrade with him and his nine teammates, who are here for a pre-season tournament. I hadn’t planned on sharing my two bottles of white wine with a group of hormonal and super-athletic 18-to-22-year-olds, but here we are.

Serbia loves wine, and the local wine industry is booming right now. Small family vineyards thrived for hundreds of years, up until the communist era, when winemaking was controlled under large, state-owned cooperatives. While some favored family wineries were allowed to remain open during the 60-year period, many were forced to halt production. Starting in the 2000s, though, the economy grew stronger and local, family-run wineries began to reemerge. This was good news for Serbia—and for any visiting tourist who likes a glass of white or red alongside a fascinating history lesson. One winery in particular, just a few hours away from Belgrade by bus, had its vineyards totally destroyed after World War II. After a 40-year hiatus, they’re back.

Intrigued by this story of exile and renewal, my friend and I took a day trip from the capital city in search of these hundred-acre vineyards. We planned to walk through the town of Topola on to the nearby winery, maximizing the shrinking hours of fall daylight before heading back to Belgrade on the last night bus home.

Topola was blanketed in damp orange leaves and the muted, friendly sounds of small-town commerce when we arrived. There was a bread shop, a locals’ bar—closed, at 2 p.m.—and a pizza joint. Bone-white orthodox churches sprinkled the landscape, and we could see vineyards in the distance.

We took a brief, self-guided tour through town and ended at the winery. With hundreds of acres of thriving grapes set behind a sprawling, sterile central headquarters of production, it doesn’t feel much like the quaint little winery I had pictured. There was also a 13-minute promotional video.

But in the tasting section, stern portraits of past generations watched from their places on the walls, and a warm fire crackled in a corner. Looking out at the vines soaking up the last of the day’s sun, it wasn’t hard to imagine drinking from an old family recipe, passed down for hundreds of years and finally brought back to life after a long hiatus. My wine was light, dry, and storied. So we smiled, finished our tasting, and took several bottles home to share with the basketball team, who were just finishing up their Saturday night game.

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