When a few weeks ago I booked my tickets for my well deserved and very much needed holiday, what I was looking for was a massive break from my daily work-and-booze pub routine.
I wanted to find my Big Sur where I could get rid of the toxic fumes of London.
A place where Pub’s Paranoia and the Drunk Monkey on my shoulder couldn’t find me.
A place where “craft beer” sounds like a random combination of an exotic language that no one really understands and where the only hazy and juicy things on the market are fruit juices.
So, naturally, I went to Southern Italy. Where my messy, big and dysfunctional family lives.
When I left the sunny, boring desolation of my little hometown in Southern Italy, almost ten years ago, wine was still considered the national drink. Something I’ve been sipping at lunch every day since I was a child. Well, you know, we’re Italians. And there’s no way I’m going to drink Peroni or Heineken now. I mean, I’ve got a reputation, c’mon. So, you see, everything was perfectly set up for me to shut down my brain and just relax.
My flight was at the very inconvenient time of 7am. Which means, considering I had a night shift terminating at 2am, I decided I’d better spend the night at the pub and catch a bus straight to the airport at 4am.
For someone that spends a ridiculous amount of time in a pub between working and drinking hours, it becomes a sort of cathartic moment having to be there with locked doors and no one in. I might start getting seriously crazy (and I might also have many more proofs about me approaching the total mental breakdown), but after spending a considerable amount of time working in a pub, you start feeling like you exist only as an extension of the bar itself. A mythological animal, half human being, half pub.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you keep in mind to not take things too seriously. Keeping the right distance is the key for a healthy life. And if you know how to do it, please do tell me.
But in those moments alone, late at night or early in the morning, when nothing happens and you’ve got the time to be still, in the middle of the room, you acquire a new, different sense of space, a feeling for the things that surround you, that makes the air you’re breathing go lighter and softer through your lungs. There are no expectations to be fulfilled, no running from a table to another, no strangers walking in and acting as they own not only the place, but yourself too. If you’ve ever been drunk enough and in love with a place like this enough to lean on the bar and press your ear against it as if to hear it breathing, then you’ll know what I mean. Everyone is capable to see the pub as a local and social institution. Feeling it as a living thing, keeper of people’s drunken dreams and stories, well, that takes few pints more. I’ve done that, and I can say so with only a little bit of embarrassment cause, let’s be honest, I’ve done far worse and more embarrassing things while drunk. Well, I’ve done worse things even being sober.
So, with the thought in mind that that would have been my last beer for 6 days, I opened a bottle of Tu Mi Turbi I got that very night as a present. A “reconciliation present”, for a mess that I’ve actually mostly made myself. What can I say, sometimes I get good things even if I don’t really deserve them. Karma will balance out my good luck one day.
I’m not going to describe how good that beer was. After all, this is not a blog on how a beer tastes. It’s more something that has to do with what happens around a pint. Or something like that, still not sure about it. Anyway, the beer was very good. And it gave me enough “liquid courage” to face the cold night and the long travel.
I won’t write anything about the experience of being in a full Italian flight after a sleepless night. You can imagine yourself. Clapping and everything else. Like, why do we clap when the plane lands?? Am I actually so loud everytime I open my mouth?? I DO NOT speak with that thick accent! Only, I actually DO speak with that very accent. Damn it.
The only curious detail about my flight is something that became a sort of unexpected, weird, constant for the whole trip. The haunting presence of bottles of Brewdog Punk IPA. Popping around me like mushrooms after a rainy night.
On sale on an EasyJet flight. Uhm. Nevermind. There’s no way I’m gonna find any British craft beer in my little Southern hometown.
So I closed my eyes and, in what felt as the time of a single blink, I opened them back and I was in Naples’ airport.
Walking through the stream of people down the centre of the city on my way to the train station, and getting a train back to my hometown, was a rather weird experience. I felt like I was tearing down that fictional wall between something happening on a cinema’s screen and real life. I was back home, in my personal, Italian version of Trainspotting 2.
Naturally, old habits are hard to die, so I kissed my mum on the cheek and I went straight to the pub.
There was only a moment when I went out and realised I was wearing a Punk Ipa t-shirt, a t-shirt that I was absolutely sure I left in London…and yet I found it in my bag and I wore it without really paying much attention to it. Well, it’s just a t-shirt, it’s a casualty. It certainly didn’t slip in my bag on its own will as soon as I looked away. Cause that’d be absolutely crazy. Don’t be paranoid.
As I was expecting, no British craft beer, not even British kind of pubs. They’re a pale imitation of the real thing, but you’ve got to appreciate the effort.
They did have some nice Belgian beers in bottle though, that I really enjoyed free from the long claws of the craft beer life I momentarily left behind me in London. Apart for that t-shirt…
But it was all back to “normal” the morning after. I woke up and smiled to a sunny and warm world: definitely I’m not in London. There’s only one thing to do now. Let’s go for a pre-lunch Spritz. There’s a thing we do in South Italy, which is basically drinking and eating before lunch. So you can prepare your stomach to eat and drink more. Not sure how we make it work, but now you know why I gained a discrete amount of weight in just 6 days.
Sitting in a sunny and quiet square, enjoying a decent Spritz and eating nibbles is the kind of thing that can totally put you defence down. It’s not the booze, it’s your stressed mind releasing all sort of bullshit and surrendering to a much more pleasant dumbness of the soul.
And it’s with this dumb body and mind that I got inside the bar to pay for my Spritz only to find myself facing a well lined up and ready to battle platoon of Brewdog Punk IPA bottles.
Do you ever have that feeling of deja-vu that creeps you out so much you just stand still, frozen, knowing that some weird shit is going on but you’re not sure what it is? Well, that’s what was going on through my sleepy brain while I was standing speechless in front of the counter.
No, this can’t be possible.
I mean, come on, this isn’t even a pub. It’s a bar. In a little, dull, godforsaken Southern Italian city.
Something inside my head clicked.
The British Craft Beer’s ghost is haunting me.
I paid and walked away, my head feeling a bit lighter than it should have been.
I only had the time to leave the sight of the bar behind the corner when my phone started ringing. Emails from work. I instinctively looked behind me, but the bar was out of sight and there was no angry bottle of Punk IPA running after me. I put my phone away and start a sort of race with myself to get back home before my paranoia.
Too bad you can’t ever run fast enough to break free from your own mind. I knew that very well, I just wasn’t expecting my merciless prison guards would have been those innocent looking, blue labelled bottles.
I went back home and made a burrito of myself wrapping my shaking body with my old duvet.
But, as in a Dante’s hellhole, there’s no rest for the sinners, and I find myself a few hours later back into another pub. Poetic justice, if you ask me.
It was only with a mild, hopeless and docile reaction that my brain registered the presence of Brewdog bottles everywhere around me. They were staring at me, with their long necks and blue dresses, pointing at me with the reflections on their smooth glass bodies. Laughing at me with their bubbling fizziness.
At the bar the owner is showing his list of beers. Mostly the list includes Belgium style beers. Which sounds familiar enough. The first time I had some really good beer was in that exact pub, when I was probably 16. Yep, no age proof needed, good old days. And what “good beer” meant to us in those days was saving some money during the week to get a bottle of Orval, or La Trappe, or Gulden Draak with some fries every Saturday night. The night would have gone on after that with some Peroni or Becks bought from a shop and drunk in the street. But that expensive tasty bottle of Orval…that was making our nights. The owner used to come to the table every time someone would ask for a very particular beer, and he would pour it for us while talking about the beer. We couldn’t understand a word and we would openly make fun of him, because we were teenagers and we wanted to show all we care was to get drunk and make fun of any authority. But, secretly, I think we all enjoyed that weird geek talking about hops and malts and fermentation times.
Now there he was,a bit older, still talking with the same passion of 12 years ago, to some random customer at the bar.
Between the two of us, four keg taps and a brand new, shiny cask handpump.
The last drop.
I interrupted his monologue dropping a total random line about craft beer with my poshest, most pretentious tone. He looked at me surprised, not sure if it was because he wasn’t expecting another “connoisseur” or because I looked like a total rude freak. What followed was a sort of fight in which we would both declare some random statement about beer to the poor group of customers, racing on who will be left with no more smart lines or interesting facts to drop to the astonished audience.
I don’t know why I engaged that challenge. I guess I was trying to make a point. I still had the bottles of Punk Ipa’s staring at me. I needed to get rid of that feeling of “there’s no escape”. Or I just wanted to let him know the times when he had lessons to teach me were long gone.
I reached the table where my sister and her friends are. When the barmaid approaches us, I order a Buxton, the others….Punk IPA. What I wasn’t expecting was the owner, my nemesis, following the barmaid with our beers to our table. He completely ignores the bottles of Punk Ipa, he grabbed the Buxton, looked at me and asked:
“Who ordered the Buxton?”
For a moment the music stops, the lights go down and a sort of iced breeze goes through the room. Everyone is frozen in their position, like broken muppets, while our looks meet in a silent gesture of recognition.
Or this is how it would have been if it was a film.
He started to pour my beer and talk about it. I listened to him until the end, without saying anything.
“What about the Punk IPA?”
“Na, it’s a good beer, but it’s everywhere now. There’s much more out there apart from a famous branding”.
We looked at each other again.
Finally, I’m smiling.