It’s the early 2000’s. I’m 26 and I don’t like beer. I’ve recently returned from a trip to France and nothing can compare to wine. Arguing that they are only different in kind rather than one being a manifestly better kind is sophistry perpetuated by peasants and philistines with coarse palates and large bellies.
My first acquaintance in London is a woman who later singlehandedly becomes responsible for turning my neck attached to a head turgid with pessimism and fear towards creative writing. Frances “Fran” Sora is a New Yorker, blond, Italian, with hips like a gangster’s loaded holster, and bright green eyes set behind broad lids that make her look as if she’s high or amused or both. Like me, she’s in London to teach: her subject is English; mine is Chemistry.
We head to a pub for supper on our first night. I’m 26 and I don’t like beer. To tell the truth, I don’t really like any alcohol. I started drinking wine at home with the parents and began abusing all kinds of drinks in college, but I honestly don’t care for it that much. If I could experience the same effect with a pill, I would take it because I like how it makes me feel.
At the pub, I’m too puzzled by the presence of curry on a pub menu to notice the enormous size of an English pint pulled by the bartender, which Fran drains within minutes. I’ll soon learn that curry is as popular a take out item in the UK as Chinese or pizza in Toronto and that Fran is a heavy weight beer drinker.
While we wait for our burgers and fries, Fran drinks another pint to my half. I’m astounded by her gastro-capacity for the BEvERage. Where does she put it? She hasn’t visited the ladies room in the 30 mintues that we’ve been here so it’s all still there in her body.
“Want another one?” she says, looking at my still half full pint glass.
She’s clearly unimpressed with my beering skills, probably disappointed with her first acquaintance in her new home country, thinking that skinny girls are no fun, especially lightweight Asians who can’t finish a bloody pint.
Earlier that day, we went to the local grocery store and I bought a box of Weetabix. It’s a popular breakfast cereal in England, but virtually unknown in the US. I opened a package and started munching on the super dry cereal on the walk home.
“No offence, but that looks a like small bricks of hamster bedding,” she said. “Tastes like it too, she said after trying a bite and tossing the rest of it away. “How can you eat that stuff?”
I wonder if she’s remembering this as she gets up to go to the bar for more beer.
“Never mind. I’m just going to order you another one. Drink up little lady!”
Two years later, I’m on a solo trip through Central Europe. I teach to travel and so far I’ve been to Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Greece, and Italy, most of the major stops of a traveler in Western Europe. Over the course of my travels, I’ve come to realize that I can pretty much handle anything, any change of plans, and that often plans are at best a loose guideline. Also, trying to hit every tourist stop results in not seeing anything well. In fact, the goal is doomed to failure from the start, the goal being to learn the city’s soul and own it.
I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s song “Don’t Think Twice” wherein he sings, “I once loved a woman, a child I’m told/I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul.” If I were to interpret this song to suit my needs for this blog post, I would say that traveling taught me to enjoy what a city has to offer or is willing to give or show me and for God’s sake, don’t get busy and root around for “essences” or that “intangible something”. Stop at a bar, order a beer, and sip it instead of wondering if I’m getting the “true” or “real” experience of city X or place Y.
And while I’m at it, this is the same attitude I take with people. People are like destinations. I no longer try to get at their soul, so to speak. I take and enjoy only what they’re willing to show and give, because the truth is no matter how long or hard I try I will never reach their soul or know them completely. In fact, they will probably never really know themselves completely because the idea of completely knowing a creature that by nature changes–grows and twists and breaks and shrinks and glows–is impossible.
I find what I consider to be a piece of Salzburg’s heart in Stiegl, a popular Austrian lager and taken for granted in that part of the world. It becomes my gateway beer. I’m bowled over by it. My bowels are bowled over. I finally understand why someone might love beer. I drink lots of it and try other brews, falling in love with beer as I make my way through Krakow, Prague, and Vienna.
Today, I can down three pints like the best of Fran. I finally understand her enthusiasm for the oldest fermented beverage. And I have an immense respect for the elastic quality of the human stomach.
But I will never allow her to order a double vodka and Red Bull for me ever again. That’s another story.