Follow Roads & Kingdoms on...

5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Searching for the Hungary I Loved in the Budapest of Today

Mar.31.17

Searching for the Hungary I Loved in the Budapest of Today

by Ryan Andrej Lough

banner-5-oclock-2

Pálinka in Magyarország

Budapest. Late March, early evening. I return to the circus of the U.S. tomorrow. I spent most of the day on an industrial island of post-Soviet ruin, soaking up the rays on the sandy shores of the Danube. It’s been unseasonably warm, but that’s become common in our epoch. The warm sun pairs well with cold beer when you’re trying to slow time. As the sun began to dip, a sense of natural progression leads to a bar.

I’m in the city’s 13th kerület, or district, recounting the last week here over a tall, cool Pésci and a side of meggy pálinka, a sour cherry brandy. We’re at a dingy basement haunt I know well, Dongó. The two libations combined are still under 800 Hungarian forint at this joint. That’s less than five bucks for a half-liter of beer and a shot; an upside to Budapest that always brings a little joy.

Except for the prices, this basement haunt has changed considerably since I last visited, in August 2015. For many years, Dongó had been a haven: for the city’s literary types, socialist thinkers, musicians of the more classical ilk, and all those who sought refuge from a confusing world over a few fairly cold beers. Now, however, that intellectual and quasi-socialist spirit seems to have left. In 2017, the outspoken nationalist and nativist-leaning conversations of Dongó’s clientele fill the air, and there is a slight sense of unease. Throughout my last week in Hungary, I’ve noticed this shift, most pronounced within the confines of drinking and eating establishments, which, in my opinion, is where you find the beating heart of most societies.

I lived in Budapest for several months in 2015 while working on a film. I fell in love with the city, and the country, for all that it was, and is: a territory that has been consistently reshaped, physically and culturally, by several different empires and influences over the span of millennia. I tried to obtain a residency permit to stay. It was a 90-day process, but two weeks before it was finalized and I could call Budapest home, my visa processing was suspended indefinitely. Not because of my status, but because in August 2015, the flow of incoming refugees was seen as a crisis by the Hungarian government, and so anyone attempting to enter Hungary was denied official entry unless the person was of Hungarian origin. I was forced to leave immediately, as I had overstayed my time in the Schengen Area in order to complete the residency permit process.

I had the good fortune of having a country to return to at that time. Many others—the refugees that were attempting to enter the country, many from Syria—did not have this good fortune. As I was departing Budapest during the thick of the migrant influx in Europe, I witnessed the physical quarantine of refugees and migrants that the government had been rounding up. These humans, these families, were left to bake in the heat without water on the hot August asphalt near the central train station. This was the first time I really took notice of the current Hungarian administration’s policies.

Hungary has long been a battleground between eastern and western ideologies, and in many ways it still is. The monumental ruins, structures, and façades of empires past, grayed and cracked from time, give a sense of where Budapest, Pécs, and the other great Hungarian cities once stood within the world’s societal pecking order. Soviet monuments litter the country, in villages and urban centers, reminding many of the transitional and turbulent occupation during the Cold War. Despite the tumult, the Hungarian spirit persists. It’s a tough, resilient core, coated by a sour, humorously pessimistic shell, motivated by a need to retain a sense of cultural identity in a land that always seems to be shrinking. This uniquely Hungarian persona is charming, and it’s hard not to fall in love with an underdog. However, the party in power, Fidesz, and the current (and only) rival party, the ultra far-right Jobbik, have shamelessly used this need for a cohesive cultural identity while exploiting chinks in the social armor, and have ruled for the last several years with autocratic policies under the guise of making Hungary great again.

I asked several Hungarian citizens what they thought of the current political climate, both young, progressive intellectuals, and the more nationalist, nativist types that prefer a conservative approach. Many people from across the spectrum told me that they are worried about the influx of Muslim migrants because they don’t share Hungary’s western cultural values, specifically gender equality and gay rights. Others stated that unless Hungary focuses on helping Hungarians, the country’s economic and cultural influence will be perpetually stymied by outside influence and manipulation. But many other responses to my inquiries were barely responses at all: nothing to offer, or no interest in the details. How has an intellectual center of Europe become so willingly disassociated and ambivalent to their government’s actions? Even as the Hungarian government is setting up border prisons and rounding up “illegals” in a Gestapo-like manner, many citizens seem unaware or uninterested. As I prodded deeper, it became clear that a disproportionate percentage of Hungarians are unaware of what their government is doing.

Throughout the week, I traveled out of the city to neighboring towns. From the window of trains, as the concrete turned to foliage, I noticed a society crumbling into economic despair, a market slowly crumbling since the fall of Communism. I saw ramshackle villages and rusted out and abandoned industrial zones. Nationalism was fervent in these areas. Roma people are ghettoized as outsiders on the fringes of the cities and towns, and the “native citizens” commonly fly the flag of the old Hungarian Empire as a show of support for Hungarian Unity. Some municipal signage in these villages outside of city centers is written in the old runic Magyar language, legible only to Hungarians who proudly and actively support far-right nationalist traditions. One thing was clear to me in these towns: this rural population either does not know of or is not concerned by the allegations of autocracy being lobbied at the current government, or the criticism levelled at the nation’s reactionary response to the refugee crisis.

Over the last few years, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government and his political party, Fidesz, has absorbed or gained control of all Hungarian media. And the Hungarian media reports only propaganda that benefits the Fidesz government. There is no Hungarian coverage on the border camps, the immigrant beatings, the human rights atrocities, or the other authoritarian actions committed and enacted by the government. Several publications from around the globe cover these stories, when they can gain access or find a trusted lead, but that is becoming rare in a time where the Orbán government and its allies have strangled the media with an iron fist. These stories covered by large, reputable publications can be found as front-page news throughout the world, but not in Hungary. While I’ve been in Hungary, as the news of the border camps and the inhumane treatment and reports of tortuous methods employed by the guards within these camps are leaking out, I couldn’t find any information without searching five or six pages deep in Google search, and that only when using carefully selected key words. When using a Hungarian internet connection, typing “current news in Hungary” or something similar into any search engine produces only saccharin, weightless, feel-good blurbs and Hungarian national unity puff-pieces. There is absolutely no coverage from external sources if the stories casts any question about the policies of the current administration. Orbán, for a time, has succeeded in controlling the media and creating an uninformed and confused society.

There is a rising political and cultural counterbalance. Another political party, Momentum, has sprung up in Hungary in recent months. Momentum is a grassroots political party, started in a dingy basement by young activists weary of the authoritarian practices that have dominated the Hungarian parliament since the Soviet era. Their policies and agenda are an obvious rebuke to the Orbán regime, and they have gained a considerable following in the last few months throughout the country. Given the tight control of the media by Fidesz, Momentum spreads their information through social media: Facebook, Twitter, and smaller alternative news sites like the Budapest Beacon. For many in Budapest, and the whole of Hungary, Momentum brings hope. The wariness that most Hungarians carry as a badge of honor, however, doesn’t allow this hope to rapidly foment into rabid fervor. Instead, it’s a slow build. Something to keep an eye on. Additionally, assistance-related and fact-based sites, like Migszol, have begun popping up in Hungary in recent months, attempting to bring attention to the authoritarian practices of the Orbán regime, and providing information to a population that may be unaware of what’s happening behind the scenes, a common occurrence in areas outside large urban centers.

Things change, obviously, and we’re all a part of that change. This basement tavern isn’t as interesting to me as it once was. Maybe I was a bit foolish to expect that this place would’ve retained the same charm and character after nearly two years away. I’m going to head over to the outer neighborhood of the 8th kerület, known for its large population of Roma people, lower-income creative types, and young thinkers, and an exceptional café known as Csiga. My former neighborhood. It’s a dear friend’s birthday tonight, and we’re due to have a few more drinks in good company before I leave this confusing, pessimistic, wondrous, and beautiful city again. But certainly not for the last time.

More of a Capitalist Parasite Than a Fascist, TBH

Apr.28.17

More of a Capitalist Parasite Than a Fascist, TBH

by Aleks Eror

banner-5-oclock-2

Bourbon in Belgrade

Earlier this month, Serbian citizens went to the polls to elect their new president. Reigning prime minister Aleksandar Vucic was more than just a clear frontrunner: he was already the president-elect in all but name. The election itself was a mere formality, and no one with a shred of political literacy truly thought that he could be denied the presidency. Instead, the vote became a referendum on Vucic himself and his five years in power.

Optimists saw it as an opportunity to build some momentum around a long-feeble opposition that could perhaps weaken his stranglehold on government at the next parliamentary elections. But the playing field wasn’t just uneven, it was farcical: the campaign period would last a mere 30 days–the absolute minimum allowed by law. In that time, each opposition candidate had to scramble together 10,000 signatures to get their name on the ballot slip, all while Vucic was out on the campaign trail.

I watched the results roll in from the comfort of my sofa in Berlin as I sipped on a bourbon, my standard evening ritual. The result was expected: a landslide victory for Vucic, totaling 56 percent of the popular vote. But despite its predictability, the outcome still outraged a sizable minority of the electorate, prompting thousands to take to the streets to protest “against the dictatorship.” The protests continued daily, reconvening every day at 6 p.m. to march through Belgrade and other towns and cities, demanding Vucic’s resignation. Their numbers grew steadily until Easter rolled around, and then… well… then they decided to take a break for a few days, drawing much condescension from cynics.

Labeling Vucic a dictator gives him too much credit. Dictators have an ideological grounding, whereas Vucic is a hollow man who believes in nothing but his own interests. He’s not a fearsome autocrat in the Putin or Erdogan mold—he lacks the vision for that. His main aim is to get rich, consolidate power, and construct a system that will remain subservient to him after he has left power so he stays rich and never has to do a day of honest work in his life. He’s more of a crony capitalist parasite than a fascist, that’s not a redeeming quality.

Those that took to the street weren’t contesting the result; they were incensed by the nature of the victory. No candidate had ever won the presidency in the first round. Vucic’s effortless and unsubtle win reeked of arrogance and showed how little he fears his neglected populace. It pierced through the veil of plausible deniability that allows Serbs to avoid facing up to some uncomfortable truths.

The protests were rudderless, lacking direction and a tangible purpose. They were a howl of impotent rage rather than a coordinated campaign of civil disobedience. Many want to see Vucic deposed, but no one has any idea of who or what could realistically take his place. Vucic is the target of their anger, but he’s only an avatar that represents the dashed hopes of the post-Milosevic years. A former minister in Milosevic’s government, one who stood before the national assembly in 1995 and threatened to kill 100 Muslims for every Serb hurt in the Bosnian war, Vucic is a reminder of how little has changed 17 years on. The question is if things ever will.

Some three weeks later, I am back in Belgrade visiting family, and yet another protest had been scheduled on the evening of my arrival. The city is choked by a thick world-weariness that always seems to hang in the air, but the protest’s rallying point offered up a small oasis of defiant camaraderie. I can’t say I fancy their chances, but I’ll hope for the best as I sip on my bourbon in the evenings.

Photo by: Lazara Marinković

India’s Dying Breed of Raspberry Soda Purveyors

Apr.27.17

India’s Dying Breed of Raspberry Soda Purveyors

by Rohit Inani

Raspberry soda in Bombay

“VS Naipaul once said that Bombay is a crowd…” I began to say, but G wasn’t listening to me. She was looking out of the taxi window to the sea and, farther away, to the Bombay skyline. It was the end of February and it was an unusually hot afternoon, and a breeze was lapping her face, throwing her wild afro-curls out of the window.

We were battling a heavy hangover and decided to visit a bookstore in Colaba, an old British quarter still wearing the badge of colonialism with pride. Just a week before we downed a couple of beers each at Alps, a cheap bar with long hanging lamps just across the road from the Taj Mahal Hotel. Later, under the shade of tall, leafy trees in the backyard of a 19th century library, we sat on a concrete bench and listened to two men debating Donald Trump and democracy. Blah, Blah, Blah. TRAMMPP, one of them said. G looked at me and frowned. We left, looking bored.

It was a Sunday and the bookstore was empty. We bought a few books. In the evening we walked to Horniman Circle Gardens, a large, leafy park surrounded by India’s premier banks, high-fashion luxury brands, and a few iconic cafes. But that evening there were also two or three police vans, curious onlookers and paparazzi marveling at a possible high society party at the classic Town Hall. The building is also home to the Asiatic Society of Bombay, where the original manuscript copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy is preserved. In 1930, Benito Mussolini offered the society a million pounds for the copy but the society bluntly refused. Mussolini was furious.

G said she strongly felt it was a Page 3 party and walked up to a cop to enquire. Bollywood and Dante under the same roof? Hah!

We left the scene and asked a man at the next turn for Jimmy Boy. Located at a quiet and breezy street, Jimmy Boy is an old Irani cafe founded in 1920, and then known as Cafe India. In 1999, the family changed the name to Jimmy Boy, keeping in mind the changing times, and put Madonna and the Spice Girls on its evening playlist. Jimmy Boy is one of only a handful of Irani cafes—the once-ubiquitous canteens set up by India’s Zoroastrian Irani immigrants—still operating in Bombay.

We sat at a marble-top table looking out on the street and marveled at the trademark bent wood chairs, high ceiling and a slightly tilting crystal chandelier. G loves Irani cafes. Outside, it was turning dark now, and we asked for two raspberry sodas. A quintessential Parsi beverage, it is fizzy and plays havoc with one’s sweet tooth. Bottled by the Pallonji company since 1885, today it is on the brink of extinction, thanks to a lack of demand and the gradual decline of the Parsi community. Some still call it the Rose of Persia.

“How do you like it?” I asked. But G wasn’t listening. She closed her eyes in excitement and drank through the straw, grooving her head in slow motion, and outside, on the empty street, night fell.

Not Bursting with Flavor, But Goes Nicely with Impeachment Celebrations

Apr.26.17

Not Bursting with Flavor, But Goes Nicely with Impeachment Celebrations

by Mitchell Blatt

Beer in Seoul

The long, grassy square in front of Gwanghwamun gate was filled with people raising candles and waving signs. Some were sitting on the grass enjoying beer or soju and snacks. At the very front was a stage where rock and pop artists performed. “Alright, it’s a glorious day,” one singer crooned.

The cause for celebration? South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye had been removed from office that morning following her impeachment over a massive corruption scandal. It was the first time a Korean president had been removed by democratic means, and it was due in large part to the protesters at Gwanghawmun, who came out in the hundreds of thousands for candlelight vigils.

I was drinking a large can of Hite beer, mingling with the cross section of society reveling in their victory. Two men in their 40s, Kevin and Kyu, invited me to sit and eat street food with them.

The contrast between their youth and the scene in front of them couldn’t be greater. In the 1960s and 70s, activists who protested against the authoritarian abuses of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, who rose to power by military coup, could be arrested and tortured. In 1980, Park’s successor, Chun Doo-hwan, sent the military to suppress an uprising in Gwangju, causing hundreds of deaths. After the sacrifices of so many, South Koreans finally won democracy for themselves in 1988. These past few months, the power of people exercising their democratic rights was on full display.

While Korean beer isn’t bursting with hops and flavor, it does have a nice smoothness that makes it cool and satisfying. Hite is the best-selling beer and has fueled American and Korean soldiers out on the town and democratic activists through the past half-century. Today’s Hite Brewery got started in 1933 as Chosun Brewery.

That night, with the music, the spirits, and the historic occasion, the beer couldn’t have tasted better. After three months pressing the legislature for Park’s impeachment, then three months more waiting for a ruling by the Constitutional Court, the mood of Gwanghwamun changed from one of anxiety to celebration.

A traditional Korean music troupe played the zither and banged drums and danced in a circle. Park’s critics posed for pictures in front of a papier-mâché statue of Park in prison garb. When the music stopped, Koreans gathered in the middle of the square held fireworks in their hands and set them off in a shower of red, yellow, and green.

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.

View All 424 Drinks