Musee d’ Absinthe. Adventures with the green fairy.
The green fairy is not some cute reference to an environmentally correct gay man. The green fairy is Absinthe. La fee verte as it was known as in Van Gogh’s time.
Since I’m in Auvers sur Oise, the small French viilage where Van Gogh shot himself to death, I’m obsessed with figuring out what drove him to it.
I’m running a google search on Van Gogh, trying to find out how tall he was to prove my latest theory that he shot himself as an escape from his tiny room at the Auberge Ravoux.
I never did find out his height, but I was particularly interested in the constant reference to Absinthe and it’s presumed contribution to Van Gogh’s demise. Along with the other things like bipolar disorder, epilepsy head trauma as a child and just being an asshole in general.
Absinthe has always sounded really cool and mysterious to me. All I really know about it is that it’s not like regular alcohol. It’s supposedly more like a narcotic. It seems to go with Opium dens. Anais Nin. Edgar Allen Poe and Picasso drank it. They made it illegal back in the early 1900s. I assumed it would be impossible to find a bottle.
Since it doesn’t appear to be anything I can actually consume, I never felt the need to learn more. But with the Van Gogh connection, my curiosity is piqued. And the Musee D’Absinthe is about the equivalent of two New York City blocks away from here. Since I can’t actually experience the stuff first hand, this is the next best thing.
The musee is ouvert and a small crowd of French tourists wait for a few straddlers in front. “Damn tourists!” I mutter to myself.
I pass the little museum shop which has postcards, absinthe memorabilia and paraphanalia. I’m surprised to see bottles of what appear to be absinthe behind the counter. Probably some lame reformulation. I decide to ask about it once I’ve learned everything I need to know about the mysterious potion.
Absinthe is basically a high proof beverage made from fermented extracts of the herbs anise, artesimia (also known as wormwood), Melissa, and sometimes coriander, fennel even nutmeg. It was originally created by a Dr. Ordinaire (love the name) in Switzerland as a tonic for his ailing mother. Soon the French foreign legion were putting it in their water to stave off dysentery and depression. Next thing you know, trendy Parisians, artists, writers and your basic drunks were enjoying it as a cocktail. It’s popularity spread to the working classes and cheap versions were being made and it was marketed like beer (without the television commercials). I hope Dr. Ordinaire was properly compensated. Then the religious nuts got up in arms about it followed by the wine lobby (or whatever they were called back then) because they didn’t like the competition.
They claimed it was dangerous because unlike other liquors, it contains artemisia (wormwood) which contains some psychoactive chemical called thujone which is supposedly related to THC and causes convulsions in dogs when they gave them huge doses of the stuff. The same property is in the herb sage.
You can see the 19th century PR cycle in the art. Starting with the early advertising posters of people having a lovely time drinking Absinthe, to really dark scary ones where guys in shrouds carrying siecles, skulls and the words MORT all over the place are drinking or offering Absinthe.
When some murderer was found to have had absinthe the day he committed the crime (along with a variety of other alcoholic drinks), they called it the Absinthe murder. And that was the end of Absinthe.
But was Absinthe the end of Van Gogh? Or did the drink get a bum rap? Apparently, there was some correlation between Van Gogh’s attacks and his imbibing of Absinthe. But personally, I tend to think it was just alcoholism, pure and simple. There’s also the fact that cheap Absinthe (probably the kind Van Gogh bought) was adulterated with all kinds of toxic stuff. Think bad street heroin.
When I’m finished with the museum, I go back to the little museum shop and ask about the bottles of absinthe. Imagine my surprise when I discover it’s LEGAL in most of the EU and sort of legal in France! My heart bumps up a beat with excitement. Ooooooo, I get to try Absinthe! Maybe then I’ll understand Van Gogh and what made him tick. Maybe it’s the most wonderful drink in the world…maybe nothing makes you feel better. Not even a chocolate macaroon from Dalloyau. They say Absinthe is like being drunk only lucid…sounds good to me!
I pay for the little airline sized bottle(I get the one made by the swiss process, which is supposed to be the best, strongest) and the closest to the Absinthe made in Van Gogh’s time.
After the woman tells me the elaborate procedure for drinking the stuff, I tuck the tiny bottle under my arm and take it home in much the same way I bring home my assiette des pastries—with great excitement tinged with guilt and in this case, fear. I kind of remind myself of a dog who just stole the roast beef off the counter, skulking off with my catch.
What if one drink of this stuff sets me off on some wild rage where I blame the Jews for all the wars in the world and call my arresting officer sugar tits…wait…that was Mel Gibson and tequila…What if I cut my ear off and send it to George Clooney (or more practically, give it to the cute boy at the grocery store)?
What if I have a convulsion, choke on my tongue and die? God, I should probably wash the dishes, feed the cats and take a shower before I drink it.
After I finish my chores, I pull out all the necessary items to properly enjoy an Absinthe. Cold water, a sugar cube, a glass and a tea strainer (since I don’t have one of those fancy Absinthe spoons). This is more complicated than coloring my hair.
The sugar cube goes in the sieve, the absinthe goes in the glass and I pour the cold water slowly over the sugar cube in the sieve into the glass with the absinthe. The ratio should be at least 3 water parts water to one part Absinthe. The absinthe turns a really pale opalescent green, which is called the louche. I guess this brand gives good louche. The process kind of reminds me of getting phosphates at the drugstore when I was a kid…the pure science of it combined with the anticipation of a delicious result.
It looks refreshing and minty. I take a sip. It takes all my strength to stabilize my gag reflex. It’s like liquid riccola—those horrid herbal cough drops– only slightly milky. And when they say the taste grows on you, they mean the horribleness of the taste just expands in your mouth. I’m gagging just thinking about the next sip. But I have to drink the whole thing in order to feel the joyous effects. So I keep drinking and gagging and waiting for that feeling of bliss to take over. Man, the effects must be good to compensate for this taste.
Two thirds through the drink I feel a little buzz, but in a subdued way. I almost feel as though something is pushing me down. Not just nausea, something almost gravitational. Whoop-dee doo. I was expecting something more Tequilla-like I guess.
This is disappointing. All the hype and all I get is a low level tipsy, and a heightened sense of gravity? Damn, that bottle cost 8 Euro. I should get more for 8 Euro. How about a creeping epilepsy attack? Insanity? Hallucinations? An influx of talent? A barrage of anti-semitic slurs? Anything. I hold my breathe and drink the rest of the glass.
After a few minutes I do feel better, but I think that’s just the relief from knowing I don’t have to drink any more of the vile brew.
I sit at my computer. waiting for the absinthe to take effect so I can write something appropriately dark and brilliant.
Nothing. Maybe I’m in an Absinthe stupor and I don’t even know it. Maybe right now I’m staggering through the village, making a total ass of myself and just THINK I’m sitting in front of my computer.
I should be so lucky. But I do feel kind of tired.
I look in the bathroom mirror to see if my eyes have that hollow dissipated look often portrayed in paintings of Absinthe drinkers. Nope. Actually, I look pretty good (or is that the Absinthe talking?) I drank that hideous expensive beverage and have nothing to show for it but a bitter taste in my mouth. I sigh at the waste. And I still have no more insight to Van Gogh than before the experiment.
Oh well, I had to try. And I’m none the worse for wear — sanity intact.
I look at my reflection one last time. Yep, still me. No hallucinations or wierd distortions.
I say “ good night, sugar tits” to my reflection and head for bed.