By February 2, 2016 0 Comments Read More →

Stoking Up the Creative Fire: Absinthe versus Coffee

The-Absinthe-Drinker-by-Viktor-Oliva-1901-A post in which I ramble about Prague, absinthe and espresso.

“After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad. Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane.”

And that is what Oscar Wilde had to say about absinthe, or that was at least part of his observations if quotes on the internet are ever to be believed. I have no idea if Wilde ever wrote on absinthe but this drink has a long, myth-soaked history of stoking the creative fires within artists and writers. Van Gough, Hemingway, Rimbaud and Baudelaire are just a few of the famous imbibers of the highly alcoholic, aniseed flavoured drink. Absinthe is a great drink but one which unfortunately seems to scare people who have never indulged. Tales of hallucinations and the fact that it’s been banned in many countries at some point or another, have helped to create the legend surrounding this drink.

I first drank absinthe about ten years ago during a holiday in Prague; a freezing January in which I did nothing much but wander the city’s cobbled streets for eight days, catching the usual tourist sights before the sun, what little sun there was, died on me at around four o’ clock, and if I wandered the Old Town’s circular winding streets and lanes after dark I would usually become lost for hours. But such is the atmosphere and beauty of this city that you can visit the same spots – Wenceslas Square, the Old Town and Charles Bridge – and never become bored of stepping back in time.

I’ve got Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, book and film, to thank for the inspiration that forced me to visit the Czech capital, even if it was during the height of winter.

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Each day I would wander down a freezing Wenceslas Square and buy a pack or two of extremely cheap cigarettes before stopping for a coffee and then taking in the National Museum or an exhibition, a Dahli showing was held when I was there, and then at around five or six I would head to a restaurant or bar for a meal and a few drinks, which came to around £3; at first I would tip the waitresses more than the price of the meal because I couldn’t get used to the currency and how inexpensive everything was, especially compared to rip-off Britain. Another plus point was that back then there was no smoking ban in Prague’s pubs and restaurants, but I’ve just read that this is about to change, dammit. You gave it a good shot, Czech Republic.

During most of my time there I didn’t speak to a soul. My ‘conversations’ in bars or shops usually consisted of saying ‘hello’ in Czech and then whoever I was speaking to would assume I could speak Czech or that perhaps I was Czech and they would ramble on, and I would stand there not understanding a word, acutely aware of how the conversation was going to end, which was with me eventually admitting in English that I couldn’t speak the language, end of conversation. If you want to get more out of any foreign trip always learn a little more of the language than, ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’.

Prague winter

I can’t clearly remember that first glass of absinthe because on my second last night in Prague, completely bored by nearly a week of zero conversation, I had left my hotel after drinking a lot of very cheap vodka (I think back in 2005 it was around £3 per bottle in Prague) at around nine at night and headed to the nearest bar, where I do remembering ordering absinthe but then I was awoken the next morning by other hotel guests passing by and looking into my room because I hadn’t bothered shutting the door before crashing out on the bed. I had little recollection of getting home the previous evening let alone what the absinthe tasted like.

Before I’d tasted a drop of this ‘dangerous’ drink I’d heard the tales of how it sends you into a world of Disney-like animation, and there was also a line from a Tim Roth film called Deceiver, which had been stuck in my head ever since I’d heard it. I can’t remember the exact quote but it goes along the lines of, “He drank a bottle of absinthe and then peeled his skin off with a knife, thinking he was an onion” and to me this line had the air of a dare rather than a cautionary note. On my last day in Prague I bought some Monte Christo cigars, only £2 each, and I headed to a store and bought a bottle of absinthe. I can’t remember the name of the particular brand – this store sold plenty of varieties, but it came in a slim bottle containing the green substance which lay in wait to ‘alter my mind’.

Three days after my arrival home I opened the bottle one evening. A quick search online brought up plenty of videos showing how to pour just enough water to get that ‘louche’ effect, which turns the drink cloudy, and I also experimented with pouring the absinthe over a sugar cube, suspended over the glass on a perforated spoon, and then setting fire to the cube. I gave up on the sugar and fire method after the second drink because I assumed I was simply burning off the alcohol and instead continued only with the water mixer.

After the first four or five drinks I didn’t feel much of a difference apart from a little drunkenness, and I began to figure that all of these stories were little more than the usual hardened drinker’s tall tales. But then, almost three quarters through the bottle, I began to experience a strange sensation, one which I’ve never had before or since when drinking alcohol.

I can only describe it as a sort of clarity of the mind in which you’re aware that you’re drunk but your mind is completely focused, or so it seems – maybe the effect is similar to lucid dreaming.  If you’ve ever indulged in acid, it’s similar to that first ‘hit’ when everything changes in an instant, except with absinthe there are no visuals, at least not for me, and although I seemed completely clear-headed whilst at the same time fully aware that I was sort of drunk, I have no way of knowing if that’s what I would have looked like to anyone else.

No matter how much absinthe you drink, you will not look like Johnny Depp drinking Absinthe,  unless you are in fact Johnny Depp

I tried to write. I wrote something that seemed at the time to be highly perceptive but when I looked at the sheet the next day it was complete gibberish. A few lonely, coherent lines sat amidst a page full of ramblings, but at least I hadn’t reached for the onion peeler. Absinthe fails as a writing aid, for me that is, or at least it did that time. I wouldn’t advise drinking alcohol as an writing aid at all, because all that happens after the third or fourth drink is distraction, turning on music and hitting the internet…but it must work for some, given the history of those famous hard-drinking writers. I mean they can’t all be tall tales, can they?

Let’s move onto coffee or as a writing friend recently called it, “The Elixor of the Gods”.

I didn’t start drinking coffee until a relatively late age, around my late-twenties. When I moved to London for the third time I worked two jobs, five days per week and I felt permanently tired, and thus I began a caffeine, nicotine and pro-plus tablet habit that helped to suppress the appetite and keep me going from eight in the morning until midnight, and also gave me an almost permanently wired state of mind.

Nescafe instant coffee, fooling people into thinking they're drinking coffee since 1938. "It tastes like a shit took a shit in a cup." - Nescafe's first customer.

Nescafe instant coffee, fooling people into thinking they’re drinking coffee since 1938.
“It tastes like a shit took a shit in a cup.” – Nescafe’s first customer.

I started off on the crap instant stuff, which really shouldn’t be called coffee because it seems to be just flavoured water, and I don’t understand how companies that have been making this gravy for years can’t get their product to taste like actual coffee. Then I moved onto filtered and the habit took hold. This was around the time where no matter where you wandered in central London you would see people going about their daily business clutching on to a Starbucks or Pret coffee, pretending they were in an episode of Friends. I use coffee every day now – I say use because it is an addictive drug – as way to kick my arse awake every morning, and for years I’ve made it in a drip-brew machine.

But a few weeks ago, two friends, who had previously owned a coffee shop, gave me a Krupps Coffee Maker, which I think they used as back-up to the gargantuan steel monster of a machine they had in the shop. I was more than happy because my drip-brew had broken down and I was using a cheap, five quid cafetiere, which I’d bought at a car boot sale. So I accepted this gift gratefully, and a few days later before sitting down to write I decided to give the machine a go. It did take a bit of effort to work out the ‘coffee in the handle’ method and I was slightly confused by the tiny cup which sat underneath.

Nevertheless I eventually worked everything out and filled the cup with superb tasting coffee…but not enough. So I made another and another and another, pouring each small cup into a mug until the large mug was filled, and I did this with two mugs. I’ve got to admit that while writing for those two hours I was under the impression that I was on some sort of creative high, coming up with amazing ideas, new characters and plot points, “I’m on fire today!” type of thing. But I’ve also had enough coffee in my life to know that shaking hands, a racing heart beat and a certain amount of dizziness isn’t the usual effect of drinking two mugs of coffee.

Rereading the pages the next day, I couldn’t work out whether I liked what I’d written or not; it was completely different, in some aspects, from the rest of the book but I decided to rewrite some of it and after a little tweaking these pages are staying in, sorry. I also checked up on the coffee machine on YouTube to find out that it was an espresso maker. So I’d actually drank about six large shots or maybe more of espresso within a couple of hours. Schmuck. Writing on this much caffeine in such a short space of time however, did have the ideas flowing faster than my fingers could type.

I probably will use the espresso ‘rapid caffeine injection’ method again when writing, but only minimally; prolonged usages could turn out to be a killer. The absinthe however, can take a back seat, only to be brought out occasionally when my friend, an artist who loves it, decides to indulge, and I prefer single malts or White Russians, although who am I kidding, whatever’s flowing is fine. A good bottle of absinthe in the UK will set you back about £45/$65. Maybe I’d reassess the absinthe if I lived either in Prague or in that long-gone golden age when you didn’t need to chew into your overdraft just to buy a bottle.

Of course this has all been subjective and others are going to have different experiences and points of view when it comes to consumption, and there’s been plenty written on the subject, especially when it comes to absinthe. Next up – a triple espresso with a double absinthe shot – that’s sure to be a winner.

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About the Author:

Garry Crystal is a freelance writer living in the UK. His short stories and articles have appeared in print and online including Expats Post, The Andirondack Review, Turnrow Journal, Roadside Fiction and Orato. His first book Leaving London is available on Amazon and other retailers now. View My Profile

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