I Am Alcohol Intolerant and I Love Small Bars
While love and intolerance seem like contradictory character traits, I assure you they exist. Not in harmony like most paradoxes are marketed to be, but in complete disharmony, leading to migraines, embarrassing episodes of violent retching and the public corrosion of my delicate gut.
But there is something about small bars, and the idea of nursing a red wine in an over-sized goblet inside one, that I like both in theory and in disproportion. These days, it’s Negroni I’m after. I haven’t tried it yet, but it sounds like it lives inside the Great Gatsby and is drunk by girls in drop-waist dresses and nets over their eyes.
If I try to trace back to the origin of this unreasonable fetish, I think of all the memories I’ve had inside of bars or walking up to them, and in some cases shakily down a flight of rickety stairs to them — in complete disobedience to my intolerance of alcohol.
The first that comes to mind is during a trip to Portugal; although I’m pretty sure my aggregation of alcohol related memories dates back much farther. Towards the end of a 2 week honeymoon in Lisbon, we were in a swish hotel on the top of a glitzy tower, overlooking the city through large windows and an orange twilight prism. We’d had a fight earlier that evening, leading to individual sulking away in corners, appalled by the realisation that it is in fact possible to fight while on honeymoon.
Eventually frustrated, I opened to the earmarked page of the Lonely Planet Sid had given to me on a darkened dance floor, much to my surprise, when he revealed the destination of our holiday. I opened to a pho-smudged page, and to the bottom of it were the words ‘Bairro Alto’ circled using an airport pen. It was under a section called Top Experiences, and if there is something that I like more than small bars, it’s the romanticism thereof. The article said that Bairro Alto was the most hip place in Lisbon, a street packed with small bars; so many that you could get every drink at a new bar each time you visited.
Excited, I put on black pants, the tight kind. I had a new white blazer in my suitcase that I had saved for something special, so I threw it on over a white camisole.In an effort to thaw the icicles of our fight, Sid put on the plaid bow tie I got him one birthday.
Most of the hip people were in ragged jeans with gaping holes revealing long limbs, casually strolling about. We entered the first bar, and Sid stealthily slid off the tie and tucked it into his pockets. We found out that you can order drinks by the litre, and got ourselves 2 half litre tumblers of Mojitos.
They were playing On The Floor by J Lo, and every time the chorus came on, the whole bar would sing together, with absolute apathy for their unfamiliarity of each other. Strangers, locals, travelers, students and honeymooners, straight and queer, were all layered into one tiny space, sharing sweat and personal space. The rest of the night, we skipped from one bar to another, like in an alternate dollhouse of watering holes and wandering patrons — It remains one of my biggest memories of Portugal.
On a trip to Russia, another bar comes to mind. With feet tired from walking around St Petersburg, Sid and I collapsed onto the bench of a jetty in an attempt to hide from the unexpected rain. Boats passed by on the Moyka River, and their passengers ran up to the roof with crinkled eyes, faces pointed up. The rain gave us a pause from all the walking and from our supercharged senses — heightened, curious, and greedy. When the rain finally abated, it was 9 PM but still brightly lit like its AM counterpart, courtesy of the White Nights that Russia sees in the summer.
The stillness had put us in a mood that slowed down and zoomed into everything, and to preserve it we decided to go get a drink. Walking to a nearby street, we looked into the red window of a bar one floor down from street level, reachable through a small flight of stairs covered in overlapping posters of music bands. We entered half wet and ravenous. Shaking myself like a shepherd dog, I chose a corner wooden table that encouraged my hygge,while presenting a pretty view of the street outside. I ordered the buckwheat salad that I copied from the student who was eating it as she poured over her notes, and we both got vodkas. I absentmindedly made notes in my diary, pilled my hair up and away, and decompressed with a vodka. Just then, it started to rain again outside.
I have a trail of photographs on my phone from that night of goofy faces we made in photo-booth style that I revisit every so often.
The reason I am drawn to small bars with individual personalities, is the same reason I am drawn to travel. It is the experience of going into someone else’s version of the world. It contains their colours, their art, their reasons, their charms. It is a place of intersection for people who do not belong to this world, but who bring their unique flavour to it and take back something to their worlds in return.
When I was travelling through Scotland by myself — a freshly-broken, raw and expanding heart for company — I walked into a small, crowded bar at the end of a cobbled upward slope. It had been a beautiful trip. I was passing through in September, when the country was publicly experiencing a dramatic transition of fall into winter. The bar I found myself in was cavernous, with very little light, candles everywhere.
It was the end of my trip, and heavy with feelings of accomplishment, relief, Sunday blues and exhaustion, I slumped into a seat at a corner table. Without a bother, or actually without a choice, I started to cry. Plump, salty tears made their way all over my face, sobs raking my shoulders underneath my heavy backpack.
The Londoner beside me was quiet and seemingly absorbed in his book-and-scotch pairing. He was dressed in crisp formals, horn-rimmed glasses and classic British apathy. I was glad for it, and thankful for my obscurity. I sobbed into my Cranachan, my heart and body exhausted by activity.
In this nondescript bar, with a crooning local band, I let myself feel the full weight of my trampled but recovering heart, my new travel stamp, my loneliness, my exhaustion and my fears. The next morning, I packed my haversack and boarded my flight to London, head cleared, insides soothed, shoulders back and down.
I don’t drink much, but I still seek my bars. Local or international, serving countless beers or cocktails, hidden, off the radar. And they remain to seem to me like personal hideouts, and to them I owe a large portion of my story and memory bank.