I ended up at port tasting in Porto today. If you know anyone who´s been to Porto (yes, the homeland of port), this probably topped their itinerary, sent them scampering up the city´s steep hillside for a free tour and tasting of the carefully aged, exquisitely sweet wine that is as Portuguese as codfish. If you know me, you´re bound to be uttering a “wtf?”
The thing is, I don´t drink. Not even wine; not even to taste. It´s been over 9 years since I´ve had a drink, so I don´t think of this as a very big deal anymore and don´t think to announce it on my Couchsurfing profile. So when my host picked me up from the bus station, drove me around town on a personalized sight-seeing tour (this is the life), and thought, you know, it´d be fun to stop off for a port tasting—far be it from me to not tag along.
It was mildly interesting, to wander amid the massive barrels and cool stones, listening to the heavily accented spiel (I serve ports at work, which I´ll be returning to in exactly one week, so it was good to have a little refresher course). I observed everyone else´s excitement, especially for the free tasting portion, and I have to say, it was a little awkward when I was the only one not politely pushing to the counter and grabbing a glass.
I´ve been thinking a lot about drinking and traveling, since I read Matador article discussing the pros and cons of alcohol consumption on the road. The article asked whether we needed alcohol to connect on the road. The 21-and-counting comments ran the gamut, and revealed a lot about the people the wrote them. On his personal blog, Matador editor Carlo Alcos offered his ruminations on the subject. “Okay,” I thought, “I can totally write a post on this.” I saved the links and let the subject swim around in the back of my head. And, I´m surprised to say, I actually have very little to say.
So, of course, I´ll say something about that. I found the responses to the article fascinating, little boxed glimpses into the psyches of the thumbnail photos that accompanied them. The fervor and conviction with which so many people wrote intrigued me, especially when they went so far as to make blanket statements or preachy proclaimations. I observed it all with a strange sort of detachment, as though I were looking in on something that had nothing to do with me, like watching a documentary on the culture of people in a terribly far-away land. And, in a way, I was.
I´ve never drank while traveling. I got sober at 17 and never looked back. At home and on the road, people who don´t know this will offer me drinks—I casually decline, and that´s the end of it. Sometimes they notice my repeated refusal and ask why, and I tell them the truth: I´m far more charming company sober.
Drinking for me was never about the kind of camaraderie and conviviality the Matador article talks about—it was about self-destruction and oblivion. I didn´t win many friends by cussing people out, pissing in doorways or sobbing in corners. Nor would I expect to while traveling. And while I don´t hit the pubs or search out the coke bars when I´m in another city, I do go out. To parties, yes, sometimes to clubs and bars. Sometimes to port tastings. And I dance and laugh and conversate (I´ve stopped fighting, it´s a word now) and do all the stuff everyone else does. I just remember it the next day.
Or, at least that´s the position I´ve always maintained. But in my Portugal travels, I´ve had this lurking feeling that I´m missing out on something. Wine is a huge part of life in Portugal, a cultural characteristic that culminates in the precipitous cleave of Porto and the surrounding green valleys of the Douro. And in the same way that you get a better, ahem, taste of a culture via their traditional foods, I think I´d be getting a better feel for the soul of Portugal if I were swishing a tawny port around my teeth and pontificating on notes of walnut and honey.
But even this feeling, this knowledge, I observe with a distance. It´s all so far away, drinking and the culture behind it, and I find myself regarding it with complete indifference. That is to say, regarding other people´s drinking with complete indifference. I guess what I realized with the Matador article and the responses it provoked was that I really don´t want to be the arbiter of anyone else´s drinking. I´m probably the least qualified person in the world to do that anyway. I just want to keep living my little sober, happy life—even if I end up wandering into a port cellar or two.