Jimmy said there’d be “good days and bad days and going half mad days” and I suppose it is true. I know that I have more than my fair share of half-mad days. I have had some damned good days though, along the way. Today, I am thinking about one of them in particular. One of my weird best days, a day on the road, seeking adventure and passing the time on the north coast of Africa in Tunisia. On this particular day, I remember drinking mint tea, plenty of that, some lovely Carthaginian White Wine and a refreshing gin and tonic, along with several liters of water. It was hot, dreadfully so. When I think of that wonderful day, I always think of a particular drink, one that I, not only, did not have that day but that did not even cross my sun-dazzled mind. We will get to the why in a bit, but first, join me as we stand and make, the Negroni.
This is a classic drink, filling the glasses of intrepid adventurers for 101 years, since Italian Count Camillo Negroni asked his favorite bartender for something like a Milano-Torino, but stronger. Thus, this three ingredient classic was born. Jump forward 95 years and across the Mediterranean to find Bob, Michael, Melinda and myself in the ancient city of Carthage, melting in our clothes, as the temperature flirted with 110°. We drank the water, we marveled at the beauty of the ancient sculptures, we scratched the kitty’s ears, we drank more water and we sweated, a lot. We also felt completely lost. My arabic is super weak, I can barely function beyond pleasantries. I had gotten us a cab at 2 AM and checked us into the hotel, but we were definitely strangers in a strange land. This was punctuated when we walked outside the hotel in the middle of the night to see a literal flock of flamingoes fly over. That morning, hotel security had arranged for a driver that spoke some English and we had done ok, till we really got out in the world and were having trouble communicating in the most basic ways. Luckily, many people in Tunisia also speak French, so my not quite as weak French was getting us by, sort of. We had enjoyed a morning of sweating and seeing the sites, but we were all jet-lagged and tired of using hand gestures to work out the most basic transactions. We were getting frustrated and decided to call it a day and head back to the relative security of our hotel where we could order our drinks in English and air-conditioned comfort. I felt kind of bad, here we were in this incredibly exotic locale and I was ready to give up because I could not communicate. This is the kind if thing I usually prep better for and I was really kicking my own butt. We were on our way to Germany, so I had boned up pretty well on basic German, but my difficulties with Arabic meant I had not really done my homework like I should. So there we were, me beating myself up because I was letting the group down, sweating profusely through my linen pants and shirt and wishing for a miracle. Cabs were a challenge in our location and I had several failed attempts before I found a fellow who was willing to try to work out what we needed. After a few minutes of us both doing our best through hand signals, pointing to the map and broken French, I muttered something to myself and he looked at me with surprise and said, “Perhaps, we could continue in English?” It turned out that Ibrahim’s English was way better than my French, though still stilted, but we were both trying. I explained that we were tired and wanted to go back to the hotel and planned a route that would take us by the sea, agreed on a price, etc. Once we got in the car, we realized that we were driving by a couple of the locations we had wanted to see and some geocaches we had hoped to attempt, so Ibrahim and I discussed these side stops and he revealed that he was familiar with geocaching as he had taken some tourists to many of these same locations before. A little more chatting and we had decided to hire him to be our guide and driver for the afternoon.
We soon fell into a fun mix of English, French, Spanish, Arabic and hand gestures since none of us had the vocabulary to say what we wanted in any one language. Ibrahim took it upon himself to share his city with us, taking routes far from tourist sites, slipping us in the back way at a couple of ancient ruins to avoid crowds and vendors. He eventually took us to a local lunch spot where we had an incredible meal and I swear the two finest bites of fish I have ever had, off Michael’s plate. A sea bass that had been swimming in the Mediterranean that morning before Michael picked it off a platter as the one he wanted to eat. Incredible meal, wonderful wine and blessed air conditioning. After lunch we walked along the beach before taking a drive down the coast. Along the way he talked to us about how life had been before the Arab Spring, just three years earlier. What it was like to live under a dictatorship. The problems faced by this fledgeling democracy. The growing pains of going from the “security” of one source of news from the state, one source of comforts, like electricity, running water, waste disposal. Things we take for granted. We talked about helicopter attacks from across the Algerian border and occasional missile launches, including one the night before, which explained why we had to lower our window shades when they blacked out our flight as we made our descent into Tunis. It was fascinating to hear the stories, to feel his pride in the fact that even though things were worse in some ways and that things were not running as smoothly as they had under the previous government, things were getting better and that they were doing it for themselves. He virtually beamed as he talked about voting for the first time in his life. Taking a role in self determination, even if that meant some discomfort, being proud of living in a democracy. It was an eye-opening experience. Later we sat on the edge of a fountain with our feet in the water, drinking fresh squeezed juice bought from a street vendor, talking about old cars, of all things and I thought to myself, this is why I travel.
It was one of my best days ever on the road, made all the better by the sheer luck of meeting someone who took our failure, when we had decided to give up and just go back to the easy security of the hotel, and make it a day of learning and friendship. As the day wound down, he invited us to have dinner with his family the next evening and even offered to marry Melinda so he could come with us to see our democracy in action. It was an incredibly good day. We took the long way back to the hotel straight across the bay on La Goulette Road. Windows down, radio playing, the hot afternoon sun reflecting on the water. As I enjoyed the wind in my face I recounted the days adventures in my head, keeping a running commentary as I often do. I had to laugh, literally laugh out loud, when I realized that my internal dialogue about the beauty of the city and its people, its great food and its struggle to live freely after so many years of oppression, wasn’t in my voice at all. It was in Anthony Bourdain’s. I remember thinking then, that when you have a day that sounds right as an Bourdain epilogue, that is a hell of a good day.
The Negroni was his favorite drink, he said it was the perfect cocktail, bitter sweet, dry and refreshing all at once. I want to like this drink so much, because I want to appreciate the things he did. I had a bit of hero worship for him and have sometimes patterned my adventures after his, for the most part this has worked out pretty well. So let’s make this one and see what you think about it. It is a simple as can be. Grab your mixing pitcher and pop in 1 ounce of gin, I am using Gin Mare; 1 ounce of Campari, that bitter red monster; and one ounce of Vermouth Rosso, the sweet kind. Add ice and stir. Strain over ice in a rocks glass and add an orange wedge. It is good, not my thing, usually, I am not a huge Campari fan, but I get the appeal. Today’s was the best I’ve had, but that Campari is still too much for my uneducated palate. Maybe someday.
So that night when we got back to the hotel. I settled in to the usual Gin and Tonic in the bar with my fellow ex-pats to hear the announcement that Robin Williams had died by his own hand. That hit me hard. I was intensely angry, in fact I have only recently been able to watch him onscreen again. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that he held on as long as he could and that he was facing troubles he couldn’t get past. I get it. I was just sad and mad that it finally got him, the he couldn’t hold on one more day. I have had the same trouble with Anthony Bourdain leaving the game under his own terms. It is his right, if nothing else we should all reserve the dignity to get up from the table when the game loses its appeal, but I don’t have to like it. I have trouble watching either of them now, knowing how that story ended. I wish they could’ve had gotten past that moment, so we would still have them to enjoy, so they wouldn’t be a reminder that sometimes it gets too hard, even for the greats. Yesterday he would have been 64, I don’t think the Beatles have a lyric for this one. I should probably have made this drink then in his honor, but I am a day late, because I was busy being self-absorbed. Somehow, I think he could appreciate that. I wish I could raise the glass and let him know we still need him here, but we are beyond that. Instead, I am going to drink this Negroni and remember that glorious day when we made a friend in North Africa and lived like Anthony. That was a good day, a bad day and a going half-mad day, all in one. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends. We need you here, too.