From the pen of Turlough Ó Maoláin ...

The Chronicles of Bulgaria

Keeping Teeth and Kidneys for Beginners

02/01/2022

According to my team of researchers, Bulgaria has the cheapest beer in the world. At least one bottle of rakia, that well known cure-all, affectionately known as the Spirit of Bulgaria, can be found in most houses here and many people distil their own using ferment from the great abundance of fruit that grows all around us in our sun-kissed and richly fertile country. Bulgaria's 2019 grape harvest amounted to 195,000 tonnes, of which about 182,000 tonnes were processed into 120 million litres of wine, which made for quite a knees-up!

I’m not particularly fond of the beer here which, although refreshing in the scorching heat of our summer months, is predominantly yellow, fizzy and without flavour, as beer tends to be in most countries in southern Europe. It costs very little and it tastes much nicer than Coca Cola (as well as being less damaging to your health) but it’s still not my cup of tea. The rakia, often labelled as firewater by foreigners who have never taken the time to really sample and savour the many different kinds and grades of the distillation, can be an extremely pleasant and worryingly moreish tipple. Some of our wine, largely underrated in the snobbish world of the sommelier, is spectacularly good and very reasonably priced; that produced from the red Mavrud and Melnik grapes being my personal favourites.

Bearing these facts of affordability and accessibility in mind, I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it is for us poor folks in Eastern Europe to follow the Dry January routine that many in the consumerist Western World pursue to detoxify their ravaged internal organs after the orgy of overindulgence during the celebrations that mark the darkest days of winter.

To be honest, for the vast majority of the many Januarys that I’ve lived through, the thought of attempting to abstain from alcohol for the whole month never even occurred to me. I’ve always been rather fond of a drop of the pure and on occasions in the past have been known to have transferred not insignificant volumes of whiskey from bottle to digestive tract during the first twenty minutes of New Year’s Day, so any plans to be pure myself for the entire month were already in tatters before Andy Stewart had even got round to singing the final verse of that old favourite, Donald Where’s Your Troosers?; the perennial mainstay of Hogmanay parties with the BBC television people and at our house (or hoose).

I’ve never smoked cigarettes and trying to stop drinking was a non-starter so, determined to not stand out from the crowd, I have always dabbled in some other sort of resolution at this time of year. For decades I made bold January promises that I would give up abstinence and celibacy for a whole year and at the end of most of those years I can boast that, unlike many people, I hadn’t broken my resolutions. In January 1958, when I was only eight weeks old, I vowed never to vote for a political party that only looked after the interests of people who had so much money that they couldn’t fit it all inside their houses so they had to keep some of it on an island in the Caribbean, and to this day my resolve in this respect remains completely intact. Other things I’ve blocked from my life on a long term basis include badger baiting, television programmes presented by Ant and Dec, Brussels sprouts and Luton; none of which required much willpower.

Down the years there has been many a first of January morning when I have sworn never to touch a drop of alcohol again in my life but, as I eventually peeled back the bed covers to be hit by the ice cold light of day, I realised what a foolish notion this was and toddled off to the pub for a livener as soon as the packet of paracetamol had stopped screaming at me. Consequently, having had a pint or two, irreparable damage had already been done and all the pain and strain associated with attempting to give up the drink then had to be repeated on the second of January by which time the scale of the problem had subsided a little but not completely, and so on, showing gradual improvement on each successive day. Usually by the beginning of Lent I was stone cold sober and ready for a party.

My character has never been such that I have been unable to go without a drink but I have always been the sort of person who is easily cajoled into something that’s probably best avoided. My dear old Nan, who was from Sunderland in the north east of England, was never what you would call a drinker but she liked her whiskey and, with a twinkle in her eye, encouraged others to join her on special occasions and at New Year in particular. Apparently, when I was only a few weeks old I had a terrible ear infection and I wouldn’t stop crying. The whole family was sick of the awful noise I was making, especially in the middle of the night. Had they thought to keep the receipt in a safe place they would have returned me to where they had got me and asked for a refund. So my Nan decided that seeing me in tremendous pain could be considered a special occasion and therefore it would be a grand idea to put a teaspoon of whiskey in my milk to make me sleep and shut me up. Apparently, I showed no objection to her suggestion. My Nan’s remedy worked a treat. No one heard a peep out of me until the middle of the next morning and friends and family have been giving me alcohol for the same reason ever since.

My ear infection cleared up after a few days but for many years I managed very well to disguise my exceptionally good health, enabling me to partake in a wee drop of something every time I suffered from any class of an ailment, be it large or small, real or imaginary. Over the course of time I developed an intricate menu of spirits to raise my spirits depending upon the circumstances. For a painful knee it was always vodka. A splash of gin for earache and brandy for toothache. Rum would sort out sunburn and ouzo took the heat out of a dose of flu. Irish whiskey for my panic attacks when I thought the world might stop revolving on its axis or run out of Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky when I’d run out of Irish whiskey, American whiskey when I’d lost my sense of taste and it really didn’t matter what I drank. Sometimes I’d have a quarter gill of crème de menthe to ease the sting of a paper cut, absinthe for housemaid’s knee or a Babycham to get over those awful days when I’d been run over by a bus. Had the amount of stuff that I knocked back for medicinal purposes been available on prescription then the National Health Service in Britain would have been its knees round about the same time that I was.

My fondness for the tipple peaked in the late 1970s when I was wandering around the world working on ships. The fine array of alcohol made available by the shipping company was sold to us in the ship’s bar on a duty-free and non-profit basis. It was ridiculously cheap with a double measure of single malt usually costing less than a can of the effervescent soft drink waste of time stuff. And I'm not very big and I'm awful shy so Dutch, but more often Scottish, courage helped me get by in the tough environment in which I was living and working.

Wherever our ship happened to be, we spent long hours hard at work with either a sextant, a paint brush or a spanner in our hands. But while we were away from land there was very little for us to do to unwind. Our once-a-week games of I-Spy became monotonous as everything that we spied began with ‘S’ … ship, sea, sky, sun, stars, sharks, storms, sailors, scurvy, seductive mermaids, sad old men, etc. We read books, played games of darts and cards and introduced each other to our individual tastes in music, courtesy of the hundreds of pirate cassette tapes we picked up for as little as the price of a dram of single malt in Singapore. But all of these pastimes included a bit of distilled lubrication to smoothly move the time along. For centuries it had been a traditional skill of salty old seadogs to while away the hours at night on the vast rolling oceans by putting ships in bottles. My shipmates and I were quite adept at phase one of this process (i.e. emptying the bottles) but not one of us ever managed to progress beyond that.

Eventually I grew tired of not knowing which country I was in when I woke up in the morning and I worried about my teeth and kidneys falling out. I had run out of interest in nautical things so I shivered my last timber, had my ultimate poop on the poop deck and said goodbye to the seagoing life. A week or so after being discharged from my final ship in the much less exotic than it sounds port of Tampa in Florida, I had found myself a quarter-past-nine-to-bang-on-the-stroke-of-five job and given up the strong drink which was something that I could no longer afford in great quantities as I attempted to survive permanently marooned in Leeds with a band of bilge-sucking landlubbers. But the seed had been sown of always wanting just a smidgeon more once a cork had been popped and ever since then the days after party days have always begun with me feeling a little weary and dry mouthed.

 

The Morning After the Night Before.

The Morning After the Night Before.

 

One morning in March 2020, my dear Priyatelka and I woke up to find our house a complete mess and the kitchen strewn with all manner of litter and empty bottles. We phoned the police to report the crime but it soon came to light that we had done all the damage ourselves after one too many medium sherries. Another after effect of our raucous night was that we had a taste in the mouth that makes you wonder if a rat had crawled in and died. I was sure that if even a healthy rat had crawled into my mouth the alcohol fumes would have killed it. We both vowed there and then that we would never touch another drop of drink again. In fact, we were so serious about it that we both vowed that we would never again need to vow that we would never touch another drop of drink again.

Our party nights and mornings after were over. So from that day forth we have been as dry as the waste pipe in a Saudi Arabian dehumidifier and the rate at which share prices in the Bulgarian drinks industry have plummeted has been inversely proportional to the rate of regeneration of our livers. The money that we have saved from not buying alcohol has been enough for us to buy a whole Cayman Island of our own.

This year Priyatelka and I will definitely be having a dry January and, having already completed a successful dry all of last year and most of the previous one, I’m sure we will find it easy. All that needs to be done now is for us to find the Bulgarian words for smug and sanctimonious.

 

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