I was exchanging text messages with a friend recently, and topic of “conversation” hit the intersection of Eastern Europe and wine. Don’t ask how we got there–just know that we did. It forced me to come to terms and deal with a very dark moment in my personal history. The year was 1998 and I was on an oat-spreading tour of England. “Study” Abroad at the University of Westminster, London, aka “The school you go to when you want to drink yourself half to fucking death and occasionally go to a class and bullshit about British loss of power in the post-war era”. They have university-sponsored pubs in the academic building lobby, for fucks sake. It was a rollicking affair. A photo exists of me, which assures that I will never be elected to political office (this photo only being line item #23 in a 50,000 item list of photos/quotes/videos damning me to hell and back should I make the mistake of running for anything), taking a short disco nap using Thanksgiving dinner as a pillow. In all fairness, an esteemed colleague and I signed a non-negotiable contract to “Conduct a Thanksgiving Day bender in honor of our country (or some such wording)”. And what better way to honor the natives our forefathers slaughtered than to get pissed up to our tits in some other country that doesn’t even celebrate the holiday? There is no better way, so just quit thinking.
Anyway, as Dre said “Back to the lecture at hand…”. It was a week night in the Hackney neighborhood that myself and several other unfortunate friends were buried in by the study abroad people. Others were housed in lovely areas full of desirables. Not so much us. When we stepped off the bus on move-in day we convened looking for food. We ended up in a kebab shop. Mind you, this is within 2 hours of moving into our new neighborhood, which also happened to contain one of the biggest housing projects in the entire British Isles. We ordered, and as we awaited our food, in walked a group of what would be considered white trash in the States, though I’m not sure what you call them in Jolly Old England. Pikers? They were fucked up six ways to Sunday and headed for a local football (read “soccer”) venue for some hooliganism and bleacher finger-blasting of a similarly minded member of the opposite white trash sex. One member of this high-society decided he didn’t much care for immigrants, such as those owning and operating said kebab shop. He began a show of taunting them, until they physically threw him out the door as he screamed that he was “Tony Fucking Montana” in a British accented version of Al Pacino’s coat-hanger abortion of an attempt at a Cuban accent. It was gorgeous. He jumped over his wall of companions to punch one of the Kebabs in the head, and in the parlance of our times, “It’s on”. The Kebabs began shouting some sort of shit that sounded like when you watch one of those CNN videos where they are pumping their fists as a group of dudes torches an American flag as other onlookers fire Kalashnikovs into the air (where do those bullets land, I’ve often wondered?). They all came running out from behind their counter, some with metal rods that are used to affix the rotating kebab meat to the actual spinning disc, and one guy came storming out with a 9-inch knife, I shit you fucking not. We were horrified but more or less trapped inside the kebab shop by the battle raging just outside the door. For reasons which have never been clear to me, despite being 15 years younger on average and having no weapons save their own stupidity and drunkenness, the hooligans gained the upper hand and routed the Kebabs (yes, even the guy with the 9-inch blade). Savvy as they were the young thugs knew enough to refrain from finishing them off and instead flee from the inevitable arrival of the bobbies. As the Kebabs staggered back to their shop wailing in their native tongue, the main Kebab began walking towards me yelling something incomprehensible, but entirely menacing. I was holding a soda I’d procured in the shop. It seemed he thought I was part of the hooligan crew. Thinking perhaps he was accusing me in Farsi of stealing the soda, I began to rummage in my pockets for money to throw at him. It was at this moment that the head Piker, he of Tony Montana fame, came out of nowhere carrying a sewer grate of all things. He said something to Kebab, who turned around just in time to catch the sewer grate square in the face. Game, set, match to Piker. Kebab went down like a Thai whore. We knew this was the time to say our goodbyes and retreat to the housing complex. I actually tossed some coins at the possibly dead Kebab on the ground and beat feet home. This is where we lived.
So on the fall evening in question we wandered into a local bodega for libations. They sold wine along with canned beans, Windex, 6 day old tubular meat, and the like. Mind you this was wine in the purely academic sense. It once had been grapes, it sat in a container somewhere, and it contained alcohol. Given my status as both student and person who was fucking atrocious at managing his personal finances, I had with me approximately 7 pounds sterling as bartering chips. My eyes alighted on the perfect junction of lack of funding and dire need to get fucked up: A bottle of Bulgarian Merlot at the very fair price of 2 pounds and 99 pence. Beautiful, I’ll take two my good man! Why only one bottle of Bulgarian bliss when you have currency enough for two, I say? We headed back to the aforementioned dorm flats to the common area kitchen that each shared. By this time all the other international transfers knew that when the English-speaking students were in the common area, it was best to retreat to your own room and double-lock the door. One amongst us, whose name I no longer recall, was the son of an Investment Banker from NYC. Most of the rest of us were your average, run-of-the-mill 19 year olds looking to get fucked up for 4 months with no one to answer to. So was he, but given his upbringing he knew enough that Bulgarian Merlot was not to be trusted and warned me as best he could. I chose to ignore his advice and proceeded to pour myself a very tall wine glass full of the sweet elixir. I recall the name of the wine translating loosely to “The blood of the bull”. Alas, if only it had been actual bull’s blood I could have avoided much suffering. When the corkscrew penetrated the cork it disintegrated as though it had been in a desert for 5,000 years. This is a sure sign that you are about to drink wine of the finest quality. At first sip I was acutely aware that it contained not only some sort of scrub-brush grape-like fruit from the hills of Bulgaria, but also motor fuel, ether, and the petrified screams of children. In this epoch of my youth I did not let trifling matters like burning nostrils and stabbing pains in my abdomen stop me in my pursuit of a buzz. So continue to drink this Eastern Bloc failure tonic, did I. Needless to say the evening is not long on memories.
I awoke the following morning, which is to say my short, labored breaths, heart palpitations, and blue-skinned cold sweating was interrupted by a period of painful wakefulness. At this moment I knew what a recovering heroine addict felt like. I realized at that very moment that failure was one possible outcome in life. The room swayed like a boat in rough seas. Though I have no proof and have never been certain if in fact this happened, I could have sworn there was an old Asian woman squatting in the corner, wafting incense in the direction of my soon-to-be corpse, reading chicken bones and chanting benedictions in an extinct language. I am confident that during the remainder of that morning, as the skies blackened and the rain fell, Crom and Satan himself fought a pitched battle for my soul. I like to think Crom won, but that is a matter for historians to decide. The bards and minstrels still sing of the “The Night Of the Bull’s Blood” at royal court banquets to this day, or so I’ve been told.
And that, my friends, is the worst wine I ever drank.