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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Even a Droplet of Good News Makes a Lack of Alcohol Tolerable

Dec.27.16

Even a Droplet of Good News Makes a Lack of Alcohol Tolerable

by Michelle Arrouas

Virgin Mojitos in Tehran

I stood in a corner of the gallery’s rooftop terrace, watching the locals and waiting for a concert to begin. All of the guests appeared to be in their 20s, and most of them seemed to subscribe to the same style-bible as the arty youngsters in hipster capitals worldwide: jeans, skinny; plaid shirts, crumpled; hair, messy.

Despite the familiar feeling of being the gallery’s least-fashionable guest, there was no doubt I wasn’t home in Berlin anymore. The women’s hair was covered—however creatively—by headscarves, which were discreetly being pushed back to reveal more hair. The drink in my hand was a virgin mojito, all lime and mint and not a trace of rum. And just behind the gallery, the Alborz mountains rose sharply, giving Tehran its dramatic backdrop. The polluted chaos of downtown Tehran, with its frenzied traffic, traditional bazaars, and morality police enforcing religious rules, seemed further away than the one-hour drive it had taken us to get here.

We’d been picked up by the organizer of that night’s concert, which was part of the SET festival for experimental music. He had invited my boyfriend to play when he’d heard we were traveling to Iran, and on the drive to the gallery he had told us about recent developments in the music scene. He said there were fewer restrictions, venues were getting fewer visits from the morality police, and female vocalists—who have been banned from solo performances for mixed audiences since the 1979 revolution—were being tolerated.

As I made my way to the bar for another drink, I struck up a conversation with a musician, Sara, who had performed at the gallery the night before. She looked like a rock star: short hair, small scarf, red lips, and golden glasses. “The independent scene is improving rapidly, and the audience is growing. It’s a very young, curious, open-eyed audience and a very lively, hopeful scene,” she said.

Babak Baharestani, the owner of the gallery, agreed. From behind the bar, he was watching the group of youngsters with a content look on his face. He’d opened the gallery to bridge the gap between the contemporary art scene and the public, and he had reason to believe he was succeeding. “When I was a student about 10 years ago there were perhaps five or six active galleries, some of them governmental. Today, the number of galleries in Tehran is around 40 or 50, and almost all of them are private,” he said.

Like other people on the art scene, he attributed part of its scene’s growth and energy to the easing of religious rules, and also, like others, he didn’t seem that surprised. The relaxation of the stifling rules had been cautiously expected. The relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected three years ago after pledging to ease political and cultural restrictions, and offering Iranians more liberties in their daily lives. Still, the reports that some religious rules were being relaxed, and Iran’s improved relations with the West following last year’s nuclear deal, were pleasant droplets of good news in a year that’s been a torrent of bad news.

The doors to the concert space opened, and as I watched the energetic crowd fill up the space, I finished my second drink. I didn’t even mind that it wasn’t alcoholic.

Nothing Like a Little Unmediated Animal Flesh to Send You Running for the Fruit Pavilion

Apr.25.17

Nothing Like a Little Unmediated Animal Flesh to Send You Running for the Fruit Pavilion

by Rob Kunzig

Kvass in Riga

Step this way, into the Fish Pavilion at the Riga Central Market in Latvia, where the stench of fish oil and smoked flesh fills the room to its vaulted ceilings and immediately manifests as a metallic tang in the back of my throat. Vendors in rubber aprons smack around live carp, which smack back, gills heaving. I watch a bucket kick itself across the tile and catch a glimpse of wet black fin inside. And here’s a semicircle of severed pike heads, apparently decorative, vaguely conspiratorial.

If you’re someone like me, this is a strange place for an afternoon snack. But I’m here to sample two Latvian institutions under the roof of a third: smoked sprats and kvass, a sweet near-beer, all washed down under the roof of one of Europe’s largest bazaars.

Kvass seems to have its roots in Russia, though good luck selling that to a Latvian—they’ll say it’s a Baltic thing, or an Eastern European thing, and while we’re at it, the Russians didn’t invent pickles, either. Like prison wine, kvass is easily brewed at home: combine rye bread, sugar, and brewer’s yeast, and let ferment for a few days. The result is a sweet, mildly yeasty beverage that couldn’t get a toddler drunk. In the summer, Latvians sell it from drums by the roadside.

A half-liter pour costs 80 euro-cents (or 90 American cents) at the fish pavilion. There’s space nearby to stand and use it to wash down my plastic-bagged kilogram (2.2 pounds) of smoked sardines. It’s a little sticky on the lips, but not syrupy, with a pleasant fizz that almost makes me forget that this could have been brewed under someone’s bed.

Like kvass, smoked fish is a pillar of the Latvian diet. Much of the fish Latvians eat is caught, processed, and sold in Latvia. Plants line the coast, and Latvian expats will cut off a finger for a tin of Rigas Gold, a particularly famous brand of smoked sprats (small herring) preserved in vegetable oil.

I pinch apart the sprat’s gold foil skin to get to the dark, greasy flecks of meat inside. It’s pungent, salty, and meager. Like steamed crabs, this is a deliberately difficult meal, meant to be enjoyed slowly over conversation. It counters the lingering sweetness of the kvass, and I can briefly imagine having one more.

Far from the poise and polish of Riga’s old city, the market feels unvarnished, post-Soviet. Wide-eyed American tourists expecting a wholesome farmer’s market should prepare instead for Russians in tracksuits to flick cigarette ash on them. Inside the pavilion is a picture of abundance, even if it looks like a grindhouse flick: see the trays of jello-like livers, or the basketball-sized cow’s heart, or the various animal appendages impaled on meat hooks.

I’m an enthusiastic carnivore, but like most Americans, I’m used to a little mass-market mediation between me and my animal flesh. Seeing it—smelling it—makes me want to move on to the fruit pavilion. I manage one sprat, but I can’t do two, forget the full kilo.

I bring the bag to a Latvian friend and ask him if he likes sprats. He gives me a look I’m now familiar with.

“Of course,” he says.

The Universal Struggle to Get to the Bar Before Happy Hour Ends

Apr.24.17

The Universal Struggle to Get to the Bar Before Happy Hour Ends

by Saba Imtiaz

Wine in Amman

It is 5 p.m. in Amman, and I’m frantically dialing my bank in Pakistan to complain why a transfer hasn’t gone through. My Urdu seems accented and strange, as if I haven’t spent most of my life speaking the language.

I rush out of the house. It’s a Thursday night, the start of the weekend, and I want the same ritual as that of people working in offices everywhere–to get a drink. I emerge to the beginnings of rain, and shrug on a jacket and wrap my head in a scarf. It’s April, and yet I am still dressing like early winter.

I almost run to the stop for servees cabs: the shared-taxi service that runs in older Amman neighborhoods. There’s a queue stretching down the pavement. The servees cabs seem to be practicing their version of surge pricing. One servees says it won’t go downtown. Behind me is a guy dressed in head-to-toe workout gear, and incongruously holding crystal prayer beads.

We shuffle along in the queue. A guy passes by with a roll-on suitcase with a seemingly pregnant woman in tow, wearing a burqa and niqab. They ask for directions, and the queue is split between saying it’s a 10-minute walk and advising them to take a cab. They head off on foot. “Some people like walking,” says crystal beads man, to no one in particular.

I am itching to get going. What if happy hour is over and I have to pay full price—money I really can’t afford to throw away–for a drink?

A servees rolls up, and I don’t even care if it’s not going downtown. It’s going somewhere. Four of us pile in and pay the driver; a little over a quarter of a dinar for a ride that would cost four times that in a cab. I then take another servees to go to a different neighborhood. My head is throbbing slightly; I’m starting to wonder if the running around is worth it for a drink.

I disembark at Café de Paris in the Jabal al Lweibdeih neighborhood. Nine years ago, when I last lived in Amman, it was perhaps the only café here, a bare-bones place that served passable coffee, with large windows looking out onto a sleepy little neighborhood. Now this district is where the hipsters and expats hang out, and Café de Paris is now a bar—all dark wood and old-school stools. In the corner, a street artist sips his beer.

I strip off my jacket and ask the bartender: “Is it still happy hour?” “Until 8,” he says. I could have taken my time, I guess, but I’m here now. My glass of red wine arrives. I watch out the window. Other people come in and light cigarettes. The staff brings in what seems to be a week’s worth of vegetables.

I take a sip. It’s okay wine, but this is my sole luxury this week. I am glad to not be home writing another pitch or checking my bank account. It’s finally 5 p.m., and I’m like everyone else, trying to let go.

When Living in a World of Absurdities, Try Whisky

Apr.21.17

When Living in a World of Absurdities, Try Whisky

by Niren Tolsi

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South Africa’s largely peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 was feted as a “miracle,” yet 23 years later, we are not Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow children”: race and class tensions bubble on the surface, often popping angrily into the nation’s eye like blobs of fat from a frying pork sausage.

The country’s new constitution is considered one of the most progressive globally, but the scandal-ridden administration of President Jacob Zuma appears increasingly authoritarian and unconstitutional. Zuma has also set up a shadow state of spies and intelligence networks while the repressive policing of grassroots communities who organize politically is pervasive.

These are the things we live with, but often try to drink away.

Drinking is something that South Africans—according to the World Health Organization, the 19th booziest nation in the world last year—do well. This tradition stems from celebrating life—especially when it could be taken so quickly by the apartheid state’s police and army in previous decades—by living hard. This inclination now often begins with “Phuza Thursdays” (Drink Thursdays) all the way through the weekend into “No Regrets Mondays.”

South Africans’ red eyes and the bleariness of the past few weeks have not been from a typical hangover, though. It started with the national mourning of Ahmed Kathrada, the anti-apartheid struggle veteran and Robben Island prison contemporary of Nelson Mandela.

At Kathrada’s funeral, politicians and activists held him up as a paragon of the anti-apartheid struggle, a non-racialist whose ethics and morality were disappearing from a new generation of politicians more interested in self-aggrandizement and conspicuous consumption. The president was criticized for destabilizing the economy by pursuing a kleptocratic agenda of “state capture.” This was to allow his network of businessmen cronies to gain control of government through their politician lackeys and then pillage the state’s coffers.

The country was on tenterhooks, expectantly waiting for Zuma to drop the hammer on the much respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, considered one of the few remaining people in the Cabinet standing in the way of widespread looting.

A few days after the funeral, Zuma did sack Gordhan. In the dead of night. He announced a Cabinet reshuffle that sent South Africa’s currency, the Rand, plummeting, and saw ratings agencies downgrade South Africa’s credit rating to junk status.

Borrowing, and drinking, was going to be a lot more expensive.

People were riled. Leaders of Zuma’s own party, the African National Congress, broke ranks and criticized his midnight reshuffle. Opposition parties took to the streets in protest, and even the chattering classes left their dinner tables for the barricades, all calling for Zuma to resign.

Public opinion was turning against a man more interested in the fortunes of his family than that of the country. But this just sent Zuma’s own spin machine into overdrive. “White monopoly capital” had to be destroyed, his defenders said, for “radical economic transformation” to happen: hence Gordhan’s sacking. Government was going to act in radically new transformative ways so as to address socio-economic inequality, the new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, said. The ostensibly radical Black Land First movement, which had been chanting down capitalism while calling for urgent land redistribution, went off to defend the mansions of the notorious Gupta family—Zuma’s businessmen cronies—from protesters.

South Africa is a country of absurdities, my friend Master T agreed, pouring a double-shot of Glenmorangie whisky into a glass.

Absurdities, indeed. The kind that started to flow more easily than the amber nectar down our throats. The new buzzwords of “radical economic transformation” to destroy “white monopoly capital” was dreamt up by an anodyne-looking blonde working at a British publicity firm, Bell Pottinger, it was revealed. The campaign—paid for by the Gupta family—had extended to “paid Twitter” and “bots” trolling relentlessly on social media and the setting up of pro-Gupta online news sites (the family already owns a news channel and a newspaper). Even the Black Land First movement was allegedly nothing more than a Gupta front. Gigaba, the new finance minister, reprimanded one of his advisors for suggesting that the amorphous, yet to be defined, “radical economic transformation” could include nationalizing mines and the Reserve Bank and appropriating land. Then Gigaba jetted off to Western capitals to reassure investors that not much had changed.

Whisky brings warmth and lucidity, but there is never enough ethanol to act as an eraser for the absurdities of this life.

I took another glut, nevertheless, and asked Master T why he had also bagged us some 2M beers from Mozambique. “To drink to Zuma’s days in exile there,” he chuckled.

South Africa is a place of absurdities, but we have learned to laugh in the face of them. Whisky helps.

Asking for a Friend: Does This Slovenian Spirit Actually Exist?

Apr.20.17

Asking for a Friend: Does This Slovenian Spirit Actually Exist?

by Dave Hazzan

Ruda in Ljubljana

On our final night in Slovenia, our hosts asked us if we would like to try some of their ruda. It came in a clear, unlabelled glass bottle, with sprigs of grass and slices of lime inside. It was the color of mint-flavored Listerine. They said they’d made it themselves from a local herb they’d collected out in the hills. It tasted quite pleasant for a hard liquor, like a limey, herbal schnapps.

Slovenians are hard drinkers, even by Central European standards. They consume a respectable 11.6 liters (about 10 quarts) of pure alcohol a year, which places them 24th on the World Health Organization (WHO)’s rankings of the heaviest drinking nations.

They have two major beer breweries, Lasko and Union, both of which produce very little for export. What they do export, a lady at the Union brewery told me, mostly goes to Slovenians abroad, like Melania Trump. Plus there are all the local artisanal and microbreweries. (Which is not to say Melania drinks Lasko or Union. I’m pretty sure she’s blasted 24/7, but that’s just a theory.)

Slovenians are also incredibly proud of their wine, and boast 28,000 wineries around the country. This equals an astonishing one winery for every 71 people. Again, most of that is drunk happily at home.

Finally, on the spirits end, there’s a whole line of brandies and liqueurs to send you over the edge. Borovnicke is a special kind of nasty, a sweet, syrupy blueberry liqueur that tastes like Robitussin. On the other hand, there is Viljamovka Paradiso No. 4, a clear pear brandy that is mellow, slightly sweet, and a brilliant accompaniment to an evening watching Slovenians go about their business in the central market.

But there is no ruda on the menu. Our hosts told us you can’t buy it at a shop or find it on a menu. You’ve got to roll up your pants, get out there into the wild, and pick the ingredients yourself.

I went online to verify this information for myself, and I could find nothing. Ruda doesn’t exist at the Slovenian liquor store. It doesn’t exist on Google. It doesn’t exist on any websites dedicated to Slovenian liquor, country liquor, or liquor of any sort. Ruda is not real—except we drank it.

Had our hosts played a joke on us? I had double-checked the name and spelling when they gave it to me. Had they invented the stuff? Were they giggling away, because they’d really just fed us grass and lime ethanol?

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume ruda is all over Slovenia, just kept hush. It’s in the cities, in the hills. Ruda exists if I will it to.

The Surreal Historical Coincidences of Today’s Berlin, Plus Beer

Apr.19.17

The Surreal Historical Coincidences of Today’s Berlin, Plus Beer

by Bella Peacock

Beers in Berlin

Berliners are moths to the light, unanimously drawn outside by the first rays of sun. Joining the congregation, I grab a beer from the Spätkauf, the term for the iconic convenience stores run by cheerful Turkish men that speckle Berlin’s street corners. In summer, the stores become the city’s most vital institution, providing cheap, cold beer on warm afternoons.

I’m on my way to Tempelhof, to where the sky is wide open. Once an airport, the field is now Berlin’s biggest park, a flat grassy expanse that stretches the entirety of a city suburb. Completely cleared with two huge concrete runways rolling down the center, the area has changed little since the airport’s closure.

Riding down wide streets, I follow the curve of the airport terminal. The building is steely, with tall, narrow windows. It has the clean, masculine geometry typical of Nazi architecture. The airport, largely built and designed under the Nazi regime, was once at the heart of Hitler’s vision of ‘World Capital Germania.’ The terminal was intended to be the gateway to a Europe commanded by the Third Reich. Today, it has become Germany’s biggest refugee camp. That’s some serious irony to mull over a beer.

While I chase the best plot of grass, I watch a father fold himself into a miniature convertible Range Rover with his toddler, the pair squealing as they race down the runway. A man wearing only tiny green hot-pants and a pair of rollerblades spreads his bare skin over the ground, evidently also keen on catching the sun. I choose a spot inside the community garden, beside a shelf of plant-filled shoes and tomato vines staked on bed springs. On top of a makeshift crate platform, I crack open my beer.

The first sun of the summer is a sigh of relief. After months of hibernating in my bedroom, the air against my bare skin makes my body feel loose and shiny. Or perhaps its the beer. My friend tells me a story about how the giant dismembered eagle’s head at the terminal’s entrance was actually a part of a much bigger statue, now mysteriously missing in some kind of controversy. I’m not sure if it’s true, but certainly Tempelhof, like Berlin in general, has become a sort of myth. Between its Nazi past and the stories of candy bombers throwing sweets to the West Berlin kids below, there’s something surreal to the place.

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