I am only sipping the second glass of that “fascinating, but subtle poison, whose ravages eat men’s heart and brain” that I have ever tasted in my life; and as I am not an American anxious for quick action, I am not surprised and disappointed that I do not drop dead upon the spot—Aleister Crowley, Absinthe: The Green Goddess
You have to wonder if there isn’t grace in the duality of every adventure: the good and bad, the wild and tame, the sage and silly, the risky and safe, the well-planned and wonky. They are all the same to a traveler who wanders without judgment, without bias, without expectations. But how does one do that? We are only human, we teethe at the breast of our subjectivity. We breathe our limitations: we inhale preconception and preference; we exhale segregation and reprisal.
Some travelers, though, seem to possess a method or skill, or grace: they do not resist the chaos of the corporeal world; they allow their spirit, or a portion of their spirit, to walk out on a balcony at the edge of everything and stand above the mind and the physical universe, almost sacred or spiritual and untainted by what surrounds them. This spirit portion observes from above, while the rest of the traveler—the body, the mind, the backpack—trudges through the joys and traumas of the road. Then the valleys and peaks, the fun and faulty encounters of their life in motion, become one—equal, similar. Like two sides of a coin, the same but different.
In Prague in August, during the height of tourist season, you might feel the need to begin cultivating this little balcony for your spirit. I’m not sure I’ve described it well, but it’s easier to write about than to actually do, and maintain. If you have tried doing this before and slipped backward, you might begin to think that receiving a little help from the Green Fairy may be just what you need.
On the Old Town side of Charles Bridge, you walk down narrow cobblestone lanes late at night surrounded by a crush of tourists even thicker than daylight hours. You pass the Hemingway Bar, touting a “refined venue for serious cocktails.” But it’s crowded, rowdy, and loud. Perhaps you understand the concept of herding a piece or two of your spirit onto a balcony as an observer and braving all the monkey wrenches in life, but tonight you decide Shakespeare was right: discretion, sometimes, just might be the better part of valor. So you bypass this chaos and head to Absintherie, a small inviting joint specializing in—obviously—absinthe and located just off the tourist routes, serving numerous brands of absinthe and a myriad of absinthe cocktails. The kind of place a Local would frequent to get away from…um…travelers like you.
For decades, absinthe was illegal, a world-wide ban, but the lithe and fair young barmaid—let’s call her Brigita—tells me it was always “available” in the Czech Republic. Now I’m not evaluating here or being cynical, but can we truly believe the words of a 20-something barmaid? Perhaps, she meant it was “always available” during her lifetime? Or maybe, it actually was always available in Prague, illegal-moonshine absinthe smuggled in from Spain? Part of me—the part of me that wishes I’d become a gun runner—wants to believe that illegal absinthe was somehow always available in Prague, that Brigita is correct.
I’m not a drinker. But, I’m no tea-totaling abstainer, or judgmental about drinking, you understand; I just never quite acquired a taste for alcohol, especially the hard stuff. On top of that, I’m a lightweight when it comes to holding my liquor—I feel one beer; two beers, and I’m tipsy; three beers, you don’t want me behind the steering wheel while you sit shotgun in our stolen Corvette. Perhaps, it’s that 1/16th alcohol-intolerant Iroquois blood slinking through my veins?
Yet, I have sat in a room where the ceiling was spinning, or on a beach under a heaving galaxy of stars—I’ve tried stuff, once. Or twice. Like shooters of mescal with a worm in Tijuana (which resulted in being mugged near the torta stand off Calle Benito Juarez at 3am), rum coolers on the island of Terre de Haut (that resulted in a motor scooter and baguette fender bender), pisco sours in Cusco (which resulted in hugging sacred stones and moon howling at Sacsayhuaman), margaritas made with Silver Patron tequila in Mazatlan near Canons surf beach (which resulted in a lost surfboard and, some say, an unwed mother), a cashew feni binge in Goa with a gang of Brazilian coeds in bikinis (which resulted in a chipped tooth and sand in our Schlitz), a debauch of coconut arak on the island of Sulawesi (this resulted in a mind-expanding encounter with dead ancestors of a Toraja tribe, and their water buffalo). Oh, and my very first episode: chugging gin while my high-school buddies chugged beer (which resulted in a half-naked drama of “flashing” through the Harford Drive-in Theater and the first scar on my face). I never developed a passion for beer or wine, but I’ll drink a fine pilsner some times, especially on hot August nights, if the brew is ice cold in a long-neck bottle (or maybe if I’m ever surrounded again by a bevy of Brazilians).
Yet, I know absolutely nothing of absinthe. I have heard the tales, the hype, the rumors: it will give you psychedelic hallucinations, it will heighten your awareness, it will expand your consciousness, it will enhance your artistic talents, it’s an aphrodisiac, it’s addicting, it rots your brain, it’ll rankle your vision, you’ll consort with the Green Fairy. Who wouldn’t want to try a drink like that? And then maybe dance your spirit onto a balcony above the daily grime of dualities.
After the world-wide ban on absinthe in the early 20th century, manufacturers brewed an imitation absinthe, flavored with anise—there would be no mind-expanding side effects from this drink, and most likely, a heavy, sickly hangover. Although licorice has long been one of my favorite flavors, I never considered even trying the fake stuff. It’s just that the real absinthe was illegal, and alluring with all those possibilities of sex and psychedelics and grand poetics and fairy muses. So naturally, I’ve always been curious to try it.
A little too late (I’ll tell you why later), Brigita informs me that a couple centuries ago when it was legal and popular, especially among artists and writers—Picasso, Van Gogh, Hemingway, Baudelaire—absinthe was meant to be sipped as an aperitif before dinner. In those days, drinkers always diluted the absinthe with water, and added sugar to sweeten the bitter taste of the wormwood (a type of sagebrush, for pete’s sake) and its numerous other herbs and botanicals. Perhaps, the idea was to create a more satisfying experience by turning something close to high-octane rocket fuel into a more palatable poison.
Art Nouveau poster for Absinthe Cusenier 1
I sit at my door, smoking a cigarette and sipping my absinthe, and I enjoy every day without a care in the world –Paul Gauguin
There was a certain ritual to the affair, along with some interesting paraphernalia. First, they used various styles of absinthe glasses, most had stems and were marked for proper proportion, or had a reservoir meant to hold precisely one ounce. Also, they employed special spoons—flat, perforated, and notched to secure them while resting on the rim of the glass. A sugar cube was placed on the spoon atop the glass. Then, cold water was slowly drizzled onto the sugar while it dissolved; the prevailing ratio was one ounce of absinthe to maybe 5 ounces of cold water. As the absinthe is sweetened and diluted, it turns a murky, opaque shade of green. This is called la louche, or ladling. Apparently, the slow dripping of the cold water into the glass liberates the essential oils of the various herbs that make absinthe do its bizarro thing to your head.
During the world-wide ban on absinthe, bartenders touting the fake stuff created a “ritual of flames” (ala Sambuca perhaps) where they poured some of the liquor onto the sugar cube and set it on fire, creating a stimulating visual sensation before drinking—who doesn’t love a flame. Even in Prague today, if you wander into a tourist bar or absinthe pub, you’ll see a line of unknowing coeds standing at the bar, the bar tender manifesting their concoctions with pizazz, then lighting them on fire. But no self-respecting absinthe connoisseur would set her drink on fire: this sacrifices the alcohol content; it mitigates the mental effects of the botanical essences; it changes the aroma. Not to mention, murders the Green Fairy.
In the tiny bar Absintherie, the best stuff is 70% alcohol and five times the price of the good stuff, which is also 70%. To compare: Sambuca is 42%, Johnny Walker Black Label 12 year old is 40%, Bacardi Rum is 35%, brandy (the stuff you fire up on cherries jubilee) averages about 45%.
I peruse the menu. It’s late, I’m tired, and I’m unsure which absinthe to choose—making decisions is not my strong suit even at my mental best—so Brigita suggests I do not go with the King of Spirits Gold, the heartiest and boasting a bloated price tag. She doesn’t like the taste and says it’s over priced, and heavy on the wormwood, which overtly emits its distinctive and brazen bitterness. But if I’m going to try this only once, I want to see what all the fuss is about. I don’t want things spinning in the ceiling or sky, but I do want the best stuff, the best experience; I want to observe my body and mind under the influence of a known disaster. I want to see green fairies spread their wings, I want to feel brain cells wither, I want to feel horny, I want to see my fingers melting, I want to see light bending. But I let Brigita talk me into her favorite brand, Beetle Absinthe—well, she is a lithe and fair young thing, and I’m…well…not and evidently easily persuaded when tired after a day of wandering the hills, bridges, and atavistic alleyways of Prague.
Brigita serves the absinthe to me along with a bottle of water and a glass and spoon. At this time as she pours a bit of water into my water glass, I am still completely clueless about the process of drinking absinthe. I am unaware of the ritual and rigmarole I’ve just told you, which Brigita tells me later—as I said, “a little too late”—when paying the bill. So at this moment, I figure the water she pours (probably a proper proportion to mix) is meant to be drunk as a back, to wash things down. I do not perform the mixing ritual. Or set it on fire.
I think I may possess a bit of an ego, because when I was young and drank other hard liquor, I trained my face not to flinch with the horror that was frolicking inside my mouth. “Drink like a man, like Dirty Harry,” my ego would dictate. When we drank tequila and others rushed for the lemon and salt to kill the taste, I sat with a poker face and slowly reached for the lemon, only because it was expected. Real men don’t need lemons. So I don’t even think of using the water as a back to wash things down here in my booth in Absintherie. And I don’t know enough to move through the ritual. The spoon makes no sense. I move it to one side. And I’m not having coffee, so what’s with the sugar? The water glass and bottle become merely two objects in a poorly-composed still-life photograph on the table before me.
I’m not so naïve that I sling the stuff back like a shot of mescal (as I did in my 20’s and had nothing to lose and was fearless and unstoppable and like a rock rushing against the wind and nothing could harm me, and…OK, dumb). But only a cretan would shoot liquor at 70%. But get this: it turns out, some connoisseurs do drink the stuff neat. So I don’t look completely inappropriate for not mixing the drink.
I hold the small glass by its stem and lift it to my nose to test the aroma. This is not Pilsner Urquell nor Chateauneuf-du-Pape nor Kahlua. I take a tiny sip. You know how when you’re driving down the road at 180 miles an hour in a stolen Corvette, and you crash into a brick wall? Yeah, that’s what the first sip of neat 70% Beetle Absinthe feels like as it fries the synapses in your brain. An explosion at ground zero inside your skull just behind your third eye, and blasting back to your crown.
Your eyebrows and hair flash backward in a stiff wind. Your nostrils flare. Your vision slowly disintegrates into the heavy strokes of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. As the flavor and sensations and tingling roil around your palette, this is your first thought: whoa, heavy duty shit here. And my ego is sorry to admit, but my mouth purses into a puckered oval, my jaw drops slightly as both eyebrows rise. Luckily, no one else is nearby to see my facial expression. And my ego gets its macho act together for the second and ensuing sips.
Beetle Absinthe, neat, does not taste bad. It doesn’t actually taste much at all, certainly not overpoweringly bitter. There’s too much exploding going down for it to taste like anything besides 101 red hot chili peppers tap dancing in running cleats (not pirouetting in Swan Lake) inside your mouth, forgoing your stomach altogether and boring straight from your tongue into your brain. One good reason to mix it with water. The flavor is more herbal than single malt, more towering inferno than oak cask.
To be honest, after the first sip and its attending shock wave, I don’t mind this stuff at all. I’m actually rather surprised at how much I like it. I am completely alone in one corner of Absintherie, exactly what I desired when I found the place, away from madding Brazilians, and everyone else. If a sliver of your spirit could observe from a balcony, wouldn’t it be interesting to note how one moment you relish braving a beach of Brazilians, and in another moment in time, you can’t be bothered.
I take tiny sips and savour the evolving odd rush, the warped high. I watch people outside wandering past Absintherie, one lady wears stilettos. I stare at the life-sized mural painted on the wall: Van Gogh sits at the bar with a bandaged head and sketches on paper. A black cat sits on the stool next to him. The bartender stands behind a bottle of open absinthe, a glass of the stuff in front of him. Another customer offers Van Gogh’s ear to the Green Fairy who sits on the bar alluringly leggy and green; she seems amused, as though withholding inspiration or about to wreak havoc with a buttload of fairy dust.
One theory suggests that Van Gogh was high on absinthe the day he sliced off his ear. Another says he was simply barking loony. At one point, I imagine sitting here with these characters near the end of the 19th century, when shaving razors were elegant lethal weapons, or implements of self destruction—before the onslaught of “progress” and when the sun went down, you wound your clocks, you lit your lamps, you fed your horse. And your maid dumped your chamber pot.
After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were —Oscar Wilde
I lose track of time. Perhaps an hour later, I’m still staring at the mural, sipping, perhaps teetering on the ledge of someone else’s balcony? And I begin to understand why people become addicted to something as powerful as this. But some of the rumors you hear are wrong. I see no hallucinations (well, besides the cat in the mural who climbs off the bar stool and sashays over to my table, purring like a bullet). My skin does not melt. Light does not bend. Nobody gets horny.
But the rumor about absinthe raising your consciousness might be true. I believe I see things more clearly now. I believe I could write a poem, paint the sky. I believe I now understand why man is so clearly unforgiving to the earth, and why a god is needed, and why even though some followers claim their god is merciful, here on the physical plane, perhaps no god can be merely merciful because there are two sides to everything here. I imagine at this moment, I have maneuvered a small piece of spirit onto the balcony at the edge of myself and am simply observing the physical realm. But perhaps all that may just be the absinthe talking? But then again …wait… that’s the point, isn’t it? So…maybe we should just discount everything I’ve written in this paragraph.
But I do believe the bit about absinthe affecting your vision is real. When you finish drinking your Beetle and pay Brigita (and finally learn the mixing ritual) and begin walking your final steps back to your airbnb apartment, you imagine seeing people with surprised faces under lamplight, white elephants frolicking with porcelain dinnerware, and red lips kissing Gucci handbags (or is it Louis Vuitton?).
And trees look like you wandered right into a Van Gogh painting, which makes you wonder if Van Gogh was actually a genius, as some say, or merely painting precisely what he saw on an absinthe buzz below the edge of his own private balcony.
Got tight on absinthe last night. Did knife tricks – Ernest Hemingway
See previous posts on Prague here:
Find more Lucile’s Photo Rehab: #Photo Rehab
See more DP Discover Challenge here: Mixing Media
1 Cusenier Ritual Poster: AllPosters
2 Abu Dhabi Weekly
3 Forest and Baby painting courtesy: 8 Point Art Café, Kollam, Kerala