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It started with Blue Nun…

Children as a rule don’t like alcohol. I know I didn’t: like everyone I too had one of those ‘funny’ uncles who thought nothing was more fun than tricking me into taking a sip from his beer, sherry, wine or whisky. Which always ended in the same result: I’d pull a face, start crying, and swore I would never ever touch alcohol in my life. And yet, here I am, almost 50 years old, surrounded by empty bottles and glasses… Well… no, not really. Although I do like a tipple every once in a while, I have never moved into fullblown alcoholism. Days, even weeks go by without any booze touching my lips. No problem. But just as easily I’ll drink two bottles of wine in one session…

So exactly how does an alcohol-hating child turn into a prolific drinker by the time he hits college? In my case, I started trying to drink with the usual suspects. Nemely: Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch. The latter is a sweet Riesling from Germany, always sold in screwtop bottles (long before that became fashionable and called ‘stelvin’) and generally well known in the English-speaking world as Blue Nun. And Lambrusco is of course the fruity fizzy low-alcoholic wine from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Actually quite a decent wine, but horribly mistreated and demonized as cheap plonk for sixteen-year olds. 175422

I am not ashamed to admit that it was during an Easter break in Rome with my school class, that I got drunk for the very first time, on Lambrusco. I remember we were playing bridge (I was a bit of a posh kid, I admit it) and tipping down beakers full of cheap supermarket Lambrusco while playing. Somehow, alcohol does not affect my thinking ability, so the bridge game went rather well. But when I got up to walk to my room, everything started spinning around me and my legs seemed to have minds of their own. I practically dragged myself up the stairs and into the room, where my room mate was standing with a big paper bag full of sausage rolls. His mom had bought forty sausage rolls, for him to hand out during the 24 hour train journey in a vain attempt to make her son a bit more popular with the class. But as things go, he had completely forgotten to hand them out… and a week locked in a suitcase hadn’t done them any good. ‘What do you think I should do with these?’ he asked me, while I was busy wondering why the floor wouldn’t stop moving. ‘Just give them to me’, I said, and I took the whole bag out onto the little balcony, and started tossing the sausage rolls out into the street, from five stories up.

Behind the Pensione was a chic discotheque, and a crowd was waiting to be let in. To their surprise, suddenly it started raining claggy pastry and rancid pork from the skies, but since there was a streetlight right over their heads, they could not see where the sausage rolls were coming from. As Italians do, they screamed and shouted and shook their fist at this dubious manna from the skies, while my roommate and I dispensed of all forty sausage rolls. After that I passed out. The next morning I was wondering if it had all been a dream, but one look out of the window told me otherwise. The street behind the Pensione was covered in flattened pastry and meat and all the cats of the neighbourhood were having a feast. From that moment on, suddenly I had a bad reputation.

A few years later, I was on vacation with my cousins, and we had decided to go to the Ardennes in Belgium and to Luxembourg. The Ardennes must be the most depressing place on earth: it literally always rains there and the people are among the unfriendliest you will ever meet. Small wonder we fled to the comfort of alcohol after a day or so, and so we discovered a little known local tipple called ‘Maitrank’. May-drink. A concotion of young -sour- white wine, with aromatic herbs added, most notably woodruff (Galium Odorata for you Latin-loving garden freaks). It was light, refresjing, with a perfumed honey-like aftertaste, and it was served in tumbler glasses with a slice of orange in it. Utterly delicious, nectar of the Gods! So we got quite, quite drunk on the stuff (resulting in a spectacular display of Esther William’s most iconic moments in the ornamental lake of the campsite) and even brought a few bottles home. feller

Not so long ago, I came across Maitrank again, traveling through Belgium. For nostalgia’s sake, I ordered a glass… It tasted like alcoholic cough mixture. Absolutely awful. Revisiting childhood memories is usually not such a great idea. Especially when it comes to booze.

Korean courage and karaoke

Almost every self-respecting country in the world produces at least one type of ‘national drink’. Though more often than not these drinks are really nothing but some awful commercial concoction with a vaguely touristy label. If the locals don’t drink the stuff themselves, it’s NOT a national drink, sorry.

On the other hand, if a drink is really ONLY drunk by locals and shunned by the tourists, and as good as unavailable in the rest of the world, then you really have found a national tipple. One such famous drinks is the notorious Makgeolli from South Korea. They probably have it in North Korea as well, but I wasn’t fortunate -or interested- enough to travel in that forbidden country.

In 1995 I was given the opportunity to travel to South Korea, as a guest of Hyundai who were launching a new car. And on the first evening I was one of the jetlagged guests at a giant banquet in the gardens of the sumptuous Cheju Shilla resort on Jeju Island, Korea’s version of Hawaii. There, I was surprised to receive a welcome drink of murky slop from a gourd. It looked like watery milk with a slightly cream-coloured tinge, and it gave off a fresh yeasty scent. I remembered that scent all too well from tapĂ©, the fermented and slightly alcoholic rice desert my Chinese-Javanese grandma used to make, and that kept us nice and quiet as children. So I did not hesitate to have a drink. I also did not want to offend our Korean hosts like some of my less civilized Dutch colleagues did. I will never cease to cringe at the Dutch inability to travel without trampling toes, but that is another topic that shall be dealt with another time.

The fermented rice-wine Makgeolli should be served with a gourd.

The taste was pleasantly refreshing, slightly sour and not too alcoholic, or at least so it seemed. There was a definite hint of sake, the more famous and commercial rice wine from Japan. I liked this ‘mokkalie’ as we called it. Korean is a notoriously hard language to transcribe and unlike the Chinese who standardized matters by forcing the Pinyin transcription rules onto the entire world (hence Canton became Guangzhou), you can basically spell Korean any way you fancy. Makgeolli seems to be the common English form though. Whatever.

Unlike most colleagues, who after a first polite taste (or rude refusal) switched to their boring imported European lager, I decided to stick with Makgeolli for the rest of the evening. I actually really grew to like the drink, more and more, and that made a very favorable impression on the Korean hosts with whom I shared a table. Was it Korean courage, that prompted me to grab the karaoke microphone a little later, and warble ‘Careless whisper’? I have no idea, I do remember scornful looks from the lager-drinking Dutch and even more so from the Germans who were terribly shy. Then, the opening bars of ‘La Bamba’ started, and there was no way I was going to leave the stage. Instead, a Korean gentleman from our table jumped on the stage beside me, and together we duetted what must have been the worst version of La Bamba ever. The other Koreans present went ballistic over our performance and afterwards my Korean duet partner and I hugged and abandoned the stage to make room for a large crowd that insisted on singing ‘We are the world’.

Five days later things were very, very different. The colossal headache I woke up with after the Makgeolli-fueled karaoke-spectacle had left me after a day, the embarrasment was still very much alive, and my Dutch colleagues made little effort to hide their disdain. We were visiting the Hyundai headquarters that day and were all in our suits and ties. One colleague was boasting that he was going to interview the second-in-command at Hyundai, who in a hierarchical society like the Korean one was something like the left hand of God.

Things turned out very, very different indeed.

When we greeted the Hyundai high-and-mighty, politely bowing and handing over our calling cards with both hands, as we had been taught, I was scrutinized by a middle-aged Korean man with titanium glasses and an expensive suit. ‘You have a very nice voice’, he said, out of the blue. I was confused and looked at the vice-president of Hyundai… and suddenly recognized my duetting partner from he karaoke night! Let me just end this long story by saying that I ended up getting that exclusive interview, and my arrogant colleague who had felt too good for Korean booze and karaoke, was politely sent packing.

See? When in Rome -or Seoul- drink as the Romans do. And sing like a bird!