Dry November: Day 6

November 06, 2018

Last night I saw a dear friend from my teenage years, and her mother whom I had not seen since then. They had finished a ten day cruise, Pisa, Marseilles, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, are the cities I remember, then they had done three days in Rome, one night only in London, then my friend flew back today to Boston, while her mother stopped in Amsterdam before returning to Cincinnati.

We ate at Brasserie Zedel, that somehow most-authentic, least-authentic gem in the heart of Piccadilly, not far from where they were staying in Mayfair. I got the tube from the Barbican where I’d been working. I love Zedel; it feels not just like another century, but another country, like one might be in nineteenth-century Vienna or Brussels.

“Is it really old or does it just look old?” they asked. I wasn’t sure. It was built in the 1930s, apparently. It somehow feels more nineteenth-century than its more “real” counterparts. I have in mind Brasserie Georges in Lyon, I suppose, built in 1836. Though it is grander and more authentic, on the one time I went, it felt a bit empty and dated, not quite shabby but certainly past its prime. Much of this must have been due to the deficit, on that day, of patrons in comparison to its size. Brasserie Zedel, when it is packed, somehow feels like it is at its best, the past at the height of its powers. It transports one to the fin de siècle, even though it was built in the wrong city, in the wrong century. Last night it was quite busy, so could be a bit difficult to get attention from the servers, but the atmosphere was beautiful.

In short it feels like that prewar idyll, the time that Stefan Zweig longed for so badly that it eventually killed him. “If I try to find some useful phrase to sum up the time of my childhood and youth before the First World War, I hope I can put it most succinctly by calling it the Golden Age of Security.” Or more darkly: “Formerly man had only a body and a soul. Now he needs a passport as well for without it he will not be treated like a human being.” That World of Yesterday, at the apex of intellect and culture, when one could traipse slowly across Europe without any documents or impediments, before the twentieth century brought it all crashing down. Of course, that’s a very one-sided view of history; but maybe views of history are always one-sided.

The conversation was good, though they were somewhat tired by their travels. The cruise of course was the lap of leisure but Rome had taken its toll. Her mother had lived in Italy, and knew Europe exceptionally well. My friend and I reminisced, and tried to recollect our intermittent meetings over the past few years, in London, Boston, New York, California. We like to joke that we met on a runway, which is true—when we were teenagers we were in an absurd fashion show to raise money for diabetes research—but that didn’t come up last night.

She drinks less than she had, she said, in part because her partner does not really drink. This is true for me as well. We did not go into detail as to why I was dry; her mother doesn’t drink, so we all stuck to water. The only difference it really made was that at the end of the meal, rather than feeling eager to join her to meet her friend for drinks, as I might well have done after wine, I felt tired, and wanted to see my partner, and felt compelled to write a bit more.

Alcohol, for all its depressant properties, has a way of accelerating things, invigorating them, pulling out the stops. Perhaps above all, it makes the promises of the future glisten. Plans can flower in such a haze, though the grayness the next day can press these dry. And the future, if it comes, always dwindles to the present. Not that we ought, like Zweig, to remain immured in the past. Maybe life is just the process of coming to terms with the middle ground.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.