Traveling alone through Europe during college, I found myself in Seville one night, having a great conversation about travel and literature with two Spanish guys. They eventually suggested we leave tourist-clogged Calle Sierpes and head to another bar out in the darkened alleys of the city, one that served absinthe via the traditional slow water-drip through a sugar cube balanced on a delicately slotted spoon.
It promised to be the kind of European experience I’d hoped for. Drinking absinthe (the Green Fairy! Hemingway! La Belle Epoque!) with locals who tolerated my pidgin Spanish! In some gothic watering hole adorned with pictures of gorily deceased matadors! By morning, I knew, we would be fast friends, breakfasting above the Guadalquivir, smoking cigarillos and watching Capitan Canguro. I was settling my tab when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught the moment that stopped me in my tracks: One of them gave the other what I can only describe as a conspiratorial wink.
And I remembered: I can’t do this. I’m a girl.
That wink was all it took to transform my envisioned scenario from a chummy drink above the river to being dragged from it, possibly with some rare species of moth hidden in my throat. I headed back to the hostel alone.
Did I chicken out that night? I’ve had years to wonder. We are an alarm-saturated society, and women especially are warned — both by real dangers and by the “Law & Order” spinoffs they generate — to be careful. You can start to see danger everywhere. A wrong step might leave you pregnant, unpopular, raped, single, dead or, worst of all, fat.
(Don’t get me started on SkinnyGirl cocktails, whose mantis-like icon urges women to “Drink like a lady.” I’m still waiting for the male spinoff, FatBoy, urging men to “Drink like a hobo.”)
Although a man alone at a bar is not presumed to be looking for anything more than a drink, even now, a woman is often perceived as out for romantic company, possibly actual sex, possibly right there on the bar stool. It’s little wonder many women tipple in packs and stick to familiar venues, familiar drinks. Women don’t go to unfamiliar bars solo for the same reason baby wildebeests don’t go down to the river alone. We want a drink; we just don’t want the crocodile that might come with it.
The irony of that evening in Spain is that my interest in absinthe was stoked by its dangerous reputation. I wanted adventure. No, I didn’t want to slice off my own ear, as Van Gogh purportedly did under its influence, but I wouldn’t have minded Oscar Wilde’s ride. At least two authors have written about how, after a night of drinking absinthe in a cafe, Wilde watched the waiter sprinkle water on the sawdust floor and saw a beautiful flower garden spring up. Modern research leads one to conclude that either Wilde or the authors in question were pulling some legs, or at least burnishing his myth (as writers often like to describe what civilized folks call “lying”).
While the spirit provides the title to William Gurstelle’s “Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously,” the dangers he describes in connection with it are mostly of a bygone age — poor production methods, heavy metals in the distillate — or related to overindulgence. Absinthe pales next to many of the book’s other beacons of hazardous consumption (the toxic-if-cut-wrong fugu, the toxic-if-eaten-early ackee, and the toxic-even-to-think-about Casu Marzu, a Sardinian cheese infested with maggots). But, as Gurstelle writes, “In the world of minor vices, image is often more important than fact.”
For years, I envisioned that abandoned bar-hop in Spain as a heaven-or-hell dichotomy: I’d opted out of one of the best or worst nights of my life. It wasn’t until much later when I finally tried absinthe that a third possibility occurred: I might have gone to the bar, done the whole water-drip ritual, watched the milky louche reaction, downed my drink — and hated it. No flowers would have sprung from the floors, and the bitter taste of wormwood and anise would have had college-era me faking enjoyment to look cool while rinsing my mouth out every chance I got. It would have become a story not of danger narrowly avoided, but of disappointment: another magic potion leached of its powers.
When I’m in a bar alone these days, I’m usually waiting for a friend, and I often play with my smartphone, shielding myself from both solitude and unwanted attention via today’s ubiquitous chaperone. Yet now and then I strike up conversations that are what I’d hoped for that night in Spain: unloaded and delightful, the beginning of friendships that, at the end of the evening, can be ended or pursued without pressure. Sometimes new people are worth the risk.
Absinthe, though, was better on my own terms; home-bar experiments with the spirit have allowed me to appreciate it as I probably never would have if I’d tried it back in Seville. The accompanying cocktail — a frothy, “girly” riff on the classic Corpse Reviver No. 2 — seems an appropriate tribute; after all, I might have needed revival had I not opted for weeniehood. It’s perfect for brunch overlooking a river that may, or may not, hide crocodiles.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor who occasionally blogs about poetry and fiction at ecstaticdoggerel.blogspot.com.