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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

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.

An Ibiza Drinking Story That Won’t Make You Want to Start the Revolution

Apr.18.17

An Ibiza Drinking Story That Won’t Make You Want to Start the Revolution

by Chloe Olewitz

Hierbas in Ibiza

The DJs spinning Balearic beats along the coastline of Ibiza time their sets to play the sun down into the sea. Rhythm and blues vocals croon over the meditative bass drone of some remix or another, and the air perks up with the smell of licorice. I trace the wafting aroma like a cartoon character following my nose to treasure.

Licorice in the air is the mark of Hierbas Ibicencas, an aniseed-forward herbal liqueur that forms the backbone of local drinking culture. Far away from the resort mess of San Antonio—and still tucked into the corners of authenticity that remain there—Hierbas is hailed as the true taste of Ibiza. Its lineage has been shaped by the passing centuries, from medieval monks brewing medicinal potions to secret formulas crafted by famous island families.

Perched atop the sea-facing wall of a neighborhood beach bar, I nurse a Hierbas on the rocks. The sun is falling into the Mediterranean on Ibiza’s western coast, but on this side, further east, the colors of the sky gently tint my glass as they darken slowly into night. The Hierbas is thick and syrupy, like medicine. It coats my glass and catches the oranges and pinks and reds of sunset at the sea.

Some say Hierbas is an elixir inspired by the mysterious island of Es Vedra, a tiny rock formation believed to possess rare magnetic properties. The urban legend persists, the magnets and the magic, superstitions lingering in spite of a definitive lack of evidence that there is anything geologically special about this place. Others swear by the medicinal history of Hierbas.

There are at least as many experiences of Ibiza as there are ingredients in its local drink: thyme, peppermint, rue, rosemary, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, orange, and fennel layered between an aniseed base and the rest of a secret recipe. This place can be sanctuary, a hedonist’s retreat, or an escape from reality. Then there are the locals, families descended from the ancient people of this land and the history of Carthage and the gods, the Moors and the Vandals, Muslims and Catholics and Jews.

The ice in my glass melts, diluting the color and the heft of what Hierbas remains. Parents call their suntanned children away from the receding tide and the emptying beach. Back inside the bar, an Ibicenco couple downs shots of Hierbas before dinner. Dos chupitos. They pay no mind to the summer tourists. Dos más.

Once this island gets its claws in you, there’s no escaping its pull. Ibiza clings to consciousness like the legs of that last Hierbas crawling reluctantly down the inside of a rocks glass. Many of us carve some sense of home into this rock. Maybe it’s the sea, maybe it’s the dark. Maybe it’s the aniseed.

Everybody Seems to be Eating Brains These Days

Apr.17.17

Everybody Seems to be Eating Brains These Days

by Evangeline Neve

Chhang in Patan

It was mid-afternoon, and we were gathered in one of the many nooks and crannies in the science laboratory where my boyfriend works, discussing what to do for Trevor’s goodbye. He’d been interning at the lab here in Kathmandu for several months now, and his flight was leaving just after 11 p.m. that night.

We tossed around ideas, some outlandish and others less so, but all tempered by the fact that he did, in fact, have a flight to catch. Interesting places were mentioned, cool bars suggested. Trevor was having none of it. “I want chhang,” he insisted.

So it was that five of us packed into a small car and headed into the back alleys of old Patan, just over the river from Kathmandu and one of the valley’s ancient three kingdoms. Experienced local foodie Raj led us through a maze of alleys in the falling darkness until we reached a door, and a restaurant.

Within minutes a plastic jug—the cleanliness of which certainly wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny—landed on our table, filled with chhang. Metal bowls were placed in front of each of us, to be topped up at our leisure. Chhang is sometimes called Tibetan beer or sherpa beer, but in my opinion, that’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s a cloudy brew, sometimes thick with particles from the grain that birthed it, usually rice, and it can run the gamut from vinegary to sweet, carbonated to watery, and anything in between. It’s always homemade, and therefore not standardized. It’s also not highly alcoholic—usually, but who knows?—which means you can quaff large quantities.

We filled and re-filled each other’s bowls, and were soon enjoying the stream of local drinking snacks Raj had selected: creamy brain chunks, fried fish, spicy buffalo meat sekuwa (a local BBQ), and a plate filled with offal of an indeterminate nature.

Another plastic jug of chhang was ordered and duly dispatched, as the volume of our cheerful group rose to an embarrassing volume. I looked around apologetically at the locals who filled the other tables, cheerful and red-faced, to apologize for being those loud foreigners that I always make such an effort not to be. However, instead of being bothered, they were instead highly amused—clearly we were a great source of entertainment on a usually predictable Monday evening at the local watering hole. We nodded and smiled at them, and they laughed with us as Trevor—who had already expressed his distaste for eggs—tried the brains and proclaimed, unhappily, “They taste just like eggs!”

We turned down the suggestion of a third installment of chhang and finally headed into the night, filled with chhang and not a little tipsy, to make sure Trevor made his flight on time.

If you have to leave Nepal, I can’t think of a better sendoff.

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