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Drinking the World Every Afternoon

A Fortifying Drink While Resisting Thieves and Scoundrels

Feb.10.17

A Fortifying Drink While Resisting Thieves and Scoundrels

by Alexander Lobov

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Palincă in Bucharest

During these past weeks, as many in the U.S. pondered the meaning of resistance, they may have missed the news of relatively effective resistance happening in Romania. The country has been experiencing nightly protests in the thousands since Jan. 18, peaking on Feb. 5 at over half a million.

That night, I was in Bucharest’s Piața Victoriei—Victory Square, where the government sits—and pretty much every Romanian I know was also in attendance. The square was completely full; roads were blocked and people were streaming in from every direction.

We were sharing a plastic water bottle filled with homemade palincă from a northern province, Maramureș, shipped into Bucharest to keep us warm. We took turns drinking the clear, sweet spirit, which is distilled from a fruit mash according to traditions dating from the 14th century. It fortified us while we braved the sub-zero temperatures in the square.

We were protesting corruption and wondering how it was possible that after all the progress Romania has made—putting corrupt politicians behind bars, enforcing laws–suddenly, the political situation seemed to be regressing.

After the country’s most recent elections, a new government was sworn in on Jan. 4. It marked a particularly strong showing for the Partidul Social Democrat (PSD): a nominally center-left party that many see as primarily standing for corruption and the enrichment of associated cronies. Politics in Romania have been complicated of late, with coalitions changing and cabinets resigning frequently. But this was the strongest showing for PSD in a very long time.

While Western media celebrated this as a victory for a traditional European center-left party in the face of a far-right populist onslaught, many Romanians knew better. The PSD came to power on the back of an older form of populism: tax cuts for pensioners, a higher minimum wage, and free public transport. But its appetite for corruption did not appear to have diminished during its period in the political wilderness. In fact, it seemed enraged by the striking success of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate—the body charged with rooting out and prosecuting corruption—which has a 90 percent conviction rate and has convicted hundreds of high-level politicians and members of the judiciary, many of whom were PSD cronies.

In a move Trump would be proud of, the government made known its plans to push policies weakening the penalties to corruption through as emergency decrees, rather than going through Parliament. This intensified protests that were already simmering after drafts of the law were published the week before. Jan. 29 marked the largest protest since Romania’s anti-Communist revolution in 1989: 90,000 took to the cities around the country, including 50,000 in Bucharest. This record would soon be broken repeatedly.

The government looked like it would back down at first, but then passed the decrees anyway the night of Jan. 31. Prisoners indicted under anti-corruption statutes would have their sentences halved, some would be freed immediately, and corrupt acts of up to 200,000 lei (US$47,600) would be decriminalized. Outraged at this brazen legalization of theft, 300,000 Romanians took to the streets on Feb. 1.

On Feb. 5, the government announced it would rescind the emergency decrees. But by that point, Romanians weren’t in a trusting mood: 300,000 protested in Bucharest alone. In the square, we were surrounded by cries of “Hoți! Hoți! Hoți!” (Thieves!) and “Demisia!” (Resign!). The Romanian flag was everywhere, either in its current form or the revolutionary flag with a hole in the middle. At one point, cardboard cut-outs of key members of government were wheeled out wearing striped prison garb.

Each swig of the palincă seemed to focus my mind on the meaning of these protests. Romania has seen tremendous gains since accession to the E.U. in 2007. It has enjoyed some of the best rates of economic growth in Europe, a substantial improvement in quality of life, and a litany of small victories against its endemic corruption. Nearly every Romanian I spoke to in the square said they just wanted to live in a normal country, be part of the European community, and be led by people who were not thieves.

Romanians truly were bucking the far-right fascist trend. But their government was still letting them down. At the protests, you could see the children of ‘89 proudly waving banners again, grizzled pensioners, students, and young professionals. There were families with children; some had even brought pets. It was a resolute atmosphere of non-violence, and many said these protests had succeeded in uniting the country.

In the aftermath of these protests, the government has promised to rescind the decrees but will still try to pass them through a Parliament dominated by their own party. And of course, the PSD refuses to resign. Romanians continue to hit the streets on a nightly basis, cautiously hoping for better. As temperatures look to dive deep into negative Celsius territory, one thing’s for sure: more palincă will be necessary.

Photo by Jake Stimpson / Flickr Commons

Tolerance, Tension, and Many Moscow Mules: A Dispatch from Beirut Pride

May.22.17

Tolerance, Tension, and Many Moscow Mules: A Dispatch from Beirut Pride

by Anthony Elghossein

Moscow Mules in Beirut

It’s 10:19 p.m. A woman honks her horn. (No reason.) A pack of young men, doubtlessly dreaming of conquests—or shawarma—guzzle beers outside of a store. In Mar Mikhael, a grimy district that has served as an enclave for Beirut’s pseudo-hipsters and garden-variety boozers since 2013, a familiar cacophony rises: beats, banter, horns, squealing tires, and roaring engines.

A crowd cheers. They’re at Radio Beirut—a bar, radio station, and performance venue—to celebrate Beirut Pride week, the first LGBT awareness campaign of this size and scope in the Arab world. An intrepid young man has scaled the balcony to hang the rainbow flag above the bar. Edging past a skeptical bouncer, I order an Almaza Draft—an unimaginative pilsner that means much to me emotionally, despite its generic taste. Comfort Brew.

This beer is weak. I order a Moscow Mule: vodka, ginger beer, and—in a Beirut twist—cucumber and basil instead of lime. Before I can take a sip, I spot Hadi Damian. He’s the frenetic, but friendly, Francophone who “initiated” Beirut Pride. “Are you having fun?” he checks, hugging me. “Alright, finish your drink. You’re coming with me.”

With his friend Danya, we race through half of the 23 bars flying the rainbow flag that night. At one bar, the flag seems to have gone missing. “It’s probably one of our younger folks,” Danya reassures me, though I’m more concerned about my next zesty beverage. “They’re all excited and keep asking about where they can buy a flag.” The flag causes some commotion at another bar. “The owner was incredibly helpful and supportive last night,” Danya explains, “but his staff, being macho men, huffed and puffed about it tonight.”

We careen down a nearby alley, stopping at another three bars—all owned by straight Lebanese men, all flying the flag and handing out bracelets. At Barclays, we order more Moscow Mules. Between asides on Paris, Seattle, and the merits of unisex fashion, Hadi explains that, “Beirut Pride is not a movement. It’s a platform. It’s collaborative, and is not affiliated with any political party or embassy. We don’t even take corporate money.”

That’s all great, though it sounds a tad rehearsed. Even so, people—gay, straight, Lebanese, foreign—must pursue self-fulfillment and self-expression under their state’s governing laws and society’s prevailing norms. Sure, Lebanese judges have sometimes interpreted laws progressively, but those laws, like Penal Code Article 534, which essentially criminalizes any sexual act that is deemed unnatural, make progress precarious—and subject to arbitrary and capricious courts.

Even in the Beirut bubble, far too many people—including activists, writers, and lawyers who should know better—often mistake consumerism, hedonism, escapism, or exhibitionism for liberalism. And they mistake separation for tolerance. Gathering in hedonistic hotspots, they put on liberal airs because, as my new-found friend “Q.I.” says, “they feel pressure to pretend like they’re open-minded. They want to drink and dance. But they’re not really liberal.”

S.P., the gay son of a Lebanese government official, chimed in: “Just look at the venues that agreed to host events, but cancelled under pressure, or for what they said were ‘commercial’ reasons. Garbage.” On May 14, under pressure for the League of Muslim Scholars, a hotel cancelled Beirut Pride’s launch—a full day of presentations and forums on LGBT issues and rights.

On the other hand, Beirutis enjoy and assert a robust sort of self-expression that just isn’t possible in most of the states and societies of the Middle East. Hundreds of people flooded Mar Mikhael—or turned up to events all week—to celebrate Beirut Pride. For all its faults, Beirut can be a tolerant place. It is, at least, a place that tolerates its tolerant spaces.

There’s No Un-Hearing This Scientist’s Explanation of Fermentation

May.17.17

There’s No Un-Hearing This Scientist’s Explanation of Fermentation

by Steele Rudd

Ginger Beer in Sydney

I’ve been to maybe half-a-dozen tastings in my life. A flight of whiskies at a Scottish distillery; a beer sampler at a brewery in Sydney; and a couple of cellar-door wine evenings.

Most of them have been shambolic affairs, although there’s a pattern to them. At first everyone’s a gourmand, sincere about the early vanillin note on this one and the woodruff aftertaste on that one. But after you’ve gone through 10 or 12 varieties of shiraz, it’s a bit different. Your teeth are redder than a betel addict’s, everything tastes like second-hand tea leaves, and you might as well have gone to the pub.

I’m hoping this one will be a little different, partly because it’s ginger beer on show tonight but mostly because my host is kind of a mad scientist. Dr. Cain is a microbiochemist with an alarmingly Biblical name and a sideline in brewing moonshine. (This ginger beer is not sweetened, carbonated soda, but the boozy kind, made from fermented ginger, yeast, and sugar.)

She’s agreed to talk me through her latest concoction. Apparently, there’s a connection between her day job and her beer job. “Being in the lab is very much like cooking,” she tells me, “and a lab protocol is kind of like a recipe.”

Except, of course, that home brewers are a less pedantic bunch than microbiochemists (without insult to either). “The first thing I did [when beginning to brew] was take a bunch of protocols, extract the relevant information, worked out the formulas and wrote my own.”

That kind of specificity doesn’t sound like my kind of fun, but I guess fun comes in different flavors—and I can’t argue with tonight’s. The good doctor cracks a bottle and decants it into a wide-bottomed glass like a brandy tumbler. The taste is definitely gingery without being overwhelmingly fiery; sweet but not sugary; sour but not in a scrunch-up-your-nose kind of way. There’s a very distinct flatness to it that I’m not used to, something syrupy that goes beyond the absence of carbonation. Another taster describes it as “not the teeth-fuzz variety of ginger beer.” It reminds me of nothing so much as a Spanish cider, and I could happily drink it all night.

“Being a microscientist,” Dr. Cain explains, “and being quite aware of sterility, winemaking is such an inexact process.” She uses the example of roasting lamb in an autoclave as illustration. She doesn’t agree that brewing is an art, calling that “flowery,” and is prosaic about fermentation. “When [the yeast] eat the sugar, they basically shit out the alcohol.” At this point I decide that Dr. Cain is the kind of brewer that puts the poetry in the bottle, not on the label.

When the ginger beer’s finished, we move on to wine (vermentino, a Sicilian white that’s been making headway in Australia) and the conversation spirals away. Dr. Cain tells me about Iberian grapes and Manuka honey; about the looming antibiotic apocalypse; about suicide genes in seedless fruit. We discuss transporting hazardous or delicate biosamples, and the cost involved; and enzymes that can slice themselves apart spontaneously or on command. It’s the most informative tasting that I’ve ever been to.

Another Reason to Hate Manchester United

May.16.17

Another Reason to Hate Manchester United

by Alec Herron

Bitter in Manchester

In 1819, sword-bearing cavalry charged a gathering of 80,000 political reform protesters on St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, killing 15 and maiming hundreds more.

The day, now commemorated as the Peterloo Massacre, would spur industrial unionism and inspire the creation of The Guardian newspaper.

Local legend has it that as thousands scattered the streets of Manchester in panic, one of the Peterloo wounded was carried into the Sir Ralph Abercomby pub, and lay dying on the bar.

Just shy of 200 years later, the Sir Ralph Abercromby has seen Manchester grow into the world’s greatest industrial city, survived a direct hit of incendiary Second World War bombs, watched the city fall into post-industrial rot and rise again to its current creative-industry led rebirth. It retains the countryside aura of a time when it sat on the edge of a burgeoning mill town.

At a circular oak table I sip a pumped bitter. The pub fills with Londoners-in-exile, there to watch their capital soccer rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea in an FA Cup Semifinal on three plasma screens.

The walls are pure Manchester. Profiles of players from local side Manchester United are joined by a graffiti mural of the 2015 Stone Roses resurrection. In 2014, the Manchester United captain, Wayne Rooney, led the players’ Christmas party to the Sir Ralph Abercromby from an upmarket restaurant.

Now a pair of former United greats want to knock the pub down.
Gary Neville, known for his defensive prowess and astute decision-making, has transferred the skills that earned him captaincy of the England national team to the world of real estate. Along with Welsh winger Ryan Giggs, the pair have opened luxury hotels, upmarket nightclubs, and restaurants headed by Michelin-starred chefs.

Their latest project comprises two of the tallest towers in a predominantly low-rise city. Thirty-two stories of luxury apartments, ‘leisure space’ and a five-star hotel will be named after the patron saint of British police, St. Michael, alluding to the demolition of the Bootle Street Police Station next door. The pair have promised to retain the jobs lost from the Sir Ralph Abercromby, and will install the 1950s oak bar in an allocated ‘leisure space.’

But the pub’s locals have rallied on social media, and along with other citizens are voicing their complaints to the developers. Video visualizations show the towers imposing over the 19th-century Manchester Town Hall and surrounding Victorian and Georgian streets, underlining the opposition of Historic England, a British government heritage agency.

Neville announced that he has asked the local government council not to consider the St. Michael’s plans just yet, while they make “refinements to the project,” giving some hope to opponents of the plan.

Manchester recently bulldozed another early 19th-century boozer, the Smith’s Arms. That time, it was in a partnership between Manchester City Council and the Abu Dhabi royal family-owned Manchester City football club, Manchester United’s eternal rivals.

Intrinsically linked to radical politics, industry, and soccer, Manchester’s modern renaissance leaves a bitter taste, at a pub that carries all three in its heart.

Let’s Pick Garlic All Day and Drink Some Cherry Wine

May.15.17

Let’s Pick Garlic All Day and Drink Some Cherry Wine

by Chris Malloy

Visciolata in Italy

After sun-blasted days working the garlic harvest in a rural part of the Apennine Mountains in Le Marche, Italy, after hoeing bean plants or feeding pigs or husking barley or whatever we were doing that August, there was always visciolata.

“Christof!” the farm’s patriarch addressed me after my first day. Paolo was roughly 50, tan as a catcher’s mitt, short, and pure pazzo (crazy). “Have you ever tasted visciolata? NO!? You are in for A TREAT.”

The garlic was down the mountain in Paolo’s lowest field. With his blue tractor he dragged a blade through clay soil, freeing bulbs. For eight hours a day I followed with his sons and wife and others, lobbing garlic into the cart hitched to his ride. Sometimes he slit a bulb and we gave him shit.

Sometimes he pretended to fall asleep at the wheel as he careened down the slope. After a few lines of garlic we’d stop for a drink, looking across the expanse of low hinterlands down from Paolo’s fields at distant Mount Strega.

After work, after sausages made from his sheep and risotto flecked with zucchini from his field, after rivers of local Verdicchio wine, after the day had blazed out and the dusk had faded to deep night, it was time.

Vi-scio-la-ta. Cherry wine. The drink is legend in the western wilderness of Le Marche. Like so many Italian aperitivi and digestivi, visciolata occupies a zone somewhere between food, booze, and medicine. I have heard of vintners cutting visciolata with grape wine. Given the flavor of the visciolatas I tried, I’d be surprised if the bottles Paolo got from his neighbors were made from anything but 100 percent cherry.

Visciolata was poured at night. In the glass, the cherry wine is dark as liquid roses. Swirl it, and behold the surprisingly syrupy viscosity. The aroma of candied cherries and cinnamon and vanilla punches you in a distant part of the mind, in a zone of old travels and youthful dreams of the exotic and songs from past decades.

Stars burned over the mountain. Torches glowed around our outdoor table on nights we had a large crew done laboring on Paolo’s farm. A sip of visciolata melted the stress, but not the memory of the day’s work. The sweet, dusky cherry flavor had a narcotic effect. People savored their two fingers of cherry wine and relaxed, tired but happy, happy to be on Paolo’s farm and alive. People drank and joked. People watched the planets and shooting stars and galaxies. People slapped down briscola cards.

Cackling rang out from our clearing and through the mountains of Le Marche, black but for a few lighted farmhouses.

Listening to Strangers Fight About Politics While Drinking Alone Is Strangely Satisfying

May.12.17

Listening to Strangers Fight About Politics While Drinking Alone Is Strangely Satisfying

by Adee Braun

Suze in Paris

I had ordered a meal of two appetizers. “First the pumpkin soup, then the warm goat cheese salad?” the potbellied waiter repeated back to me, genuinely looking for direction in this new land of first-course dinners. “Yes, that’s it,” I assured him. I sat in the enclosed porch of a random Parisian cafe that was draped with string lights while the River Seine winked in the near distance. It was 5 p.m. and I was severely jet-lagged. All charm was lost on me.

As I ate, I flipped through that morning’s edition of Le Monde, which I had bought earlier when my phone battery was near death and I realized that eating dinner alone while staring at random people would not make me, or them, feel great. Page one featured the platinum-haired Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right party, the Front National. The French election, mere weeks away, was brewing in an eerily familiar way.

With my confusing but delicious dinner over, I ordered a glass of Suze—a gentian-based French aperitif. It came to me in a slim Collins glass stacked with three nuggets of ice. It was an inviting yellow, the color of French butter, and tasted like an uprooted lawn dusted with sugar.

Around the time I was down to one-nugget-and-a-half, I heard the hard “r”s of American English coming from a man whose back was turned to me a few tables down. His curly head betrayed the whispers of a balding crown. It took me a few minutes to realize that his dinner mate was speaking English as well. The words “political ideology” coated in a French accent burst from her corner several times. She was leaning in and gesticulating in a precise way. She seemed earnest and practical, like someone who bags her lunch each night before work.

The ice in my Suze began to melt under the robust space heaters, giving way to new flavors. Flowers and herbs now grew in the sugary lawn that was my drink.

I scanned the headlines of the latest election polls as my waiter went outside to shuck oysters for the bickering Franco-American pair. Two dozen half-shells later and the Franco-American pair was still going at it. I heard the word “Trump” a few more times from the American. More demonstrative pantomiming from the French contingent. I sipped my drink and decided that whatever they were arguing about, the European had a better perspective on fascism.

By now, the ice nuggets were nearly all melted, but my diluted Suze still had a bite.

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