The Cave Floods

sad pipe

When it rains, it pours – an adage of life everyone experiences at one point or another. When things are bad they often get worse. Bad news piles on more bad news; difficulty can never be uncomplicated or simply solved.

In addition to this time honored phrase, I’d like to introduce a new permutation, based on a particularly unfortunate event that only recently concluded:

It pours, even when it doesn’t rain.

That’s exactly what happened, in the most literal sense possible, to my basement a few months ago. The Man Cave, a terribly accurate nickname in this circumstance, had flooded. As happened to so many others (according to my insurance agent) during this winter’s record-breaking cold temperatures, a pipe cracked in my house, allowing water to gush from behind the drywall and onto the floor, soaking the carpet, some furniture, and a few books. Thankfully, the room’s true centerpiece – a framed 10 feet wide by 6 feet tall world map – escaped unharmed.

In the grand scheme, it was minor as compared to others the clean-up crew had seen. (It certainly didn’t feel minor at the time.) I lost no liquor and only a few books. The water was immediately dried and the pipe repaired; however, replacing the carpet and patching the wall (which was cut to access the broken pipe) took much longer.

During this time I had no place to sit and drink and think and write, resulting in several months of ordinary and uninspired drinking. And obviously, no writing.

Work finally concluded last week and I returned the couch, chair, bar, bookcases, books, and bottles to their old familiar places. The room, aside from a few pictures to be re-hung, was back to normal, with a fresh coat of paint and new carpet to boot.

So now, roughly three months later, the calm and comfort allow my thoughts and words mingle with the smell of paint, as they once did when we first moved in, but with a little added touches of age and experience. And lifelong memories of the first unplanned reconstruction project of our first new home.

Here’s hoping it’s a one-time event, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Because sometimes it rains and sometimes it pours.  Other times, it just pours.

Published in: on April 28, 2014 at 9:03 pm  Comments Off  
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Closing the Book on 2013

Each year, every year, December comes and goes too quickly to be fully appreciated.  This year, it felt especially blurry: finding the time for all the holiday cheer, travel, and glad tidings, before the 25th arrives and before plunging into the cornucopia quivering with desire and ecstasy of unbridled avarice (thanks Jean Shepherd).  Not to mention the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in our front window (yes, we have a nearly four-foot tall replica).

Christmas flashes by, then it’s New Year’s, which for me has never caused much of a to-do.  Sure, I used to go out and drink and actually care about doing something.  Yet it was never as much fun as hoped and always absurdly expensive.  Even the most epic eventualities cannot reduce the annoyance of waiting 10 minutes for a cocktail,  delivered weak and in a plastic cup while skinny girls step on your toes to get faster service.  Such is hell.

But I won’t get ahead of myself.  December, even with its hurry and bustle, still remains and was indeed enjoyable.  I spent time off from work, with family near and far, and poured a fine drink or two.  So before the clock strikes midnight and 2013 concludes, here are a few late year discoveries and favorites.  To you and yours, Happy New Year.

- Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter.  Difficult to find a bad brew from this old, traditional English brewery.  Much like their Oatmeal Stout, the porter is another fantastic cold weather beer – perfect for sipping in front of a fire.

- Devils Backbone Kilt Flasher Scottish Ale.  This wee heavy ale is another hit from this new-ish craft brewery located near Shenandoah National Park, a few hours southwest of Washington, D.C.  (Read my take on their Vienna Lager here.)

- Barrel Trolley Amber Ale.  Brewed by the Genesee Brewing Company, in Rochester, N.Y., this amber is fairly sweet and light bodied, especially considering the range of amber ales these days.  Decent overall, but finishes too weakly.

As per usual, here are a few additional selections, for the interested reader and drinker.  Not all booze related, but mostly.

- PUNCH.  This new online wine and spirits magazine (punchdrink.com) seeks to “bring the worlds of wine and cocktails together,” as stated in a Wall Street Journal feature earlier this month.  The site is a creation of Brooklyn-based writers Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau and is backed by a small division of Random House Publishing.  I particularly enjoy the site’s long-form writing, a format similar to my own.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary, by Tim Federle.  2013 saw much writing published on the intersection of literature and drinking.  Here it continues, but with a more lighthearted touch (a Christmas gift from the wife).  Mr. Federle’s short text proffers literary-inspired cocktail recipes: impress your friends the next time you host book club.

Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II, by David Stafford.  Professor Stafford shines a bright light on several often overlooked months following the Allied victory in Europe.  Although formal hostilities with Nazi Germany ended, chaos, uncertainty, and death did not.

Recommende​d Reading: The Widow Clicquot

widow clicquot

The story behind the founding of one of the world’s foremost champagne houses is a curious mix of individual personality, international business, and French society.  The story centers on one Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the famous widow of Reims, and is told in Tilar Mazzeo’s bestselling book, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.

Mazzeo, a professor and self-admitted oenophile, expertly weaves the tale of the widow’s business acumen, professional drive, and competitive nature, not to mention her luck and amazing timing when it came to European geopolitics and the fluid nature of the early champagne market.  All this creates a rich fabric of the widow and her times.  Amidst these themes are nestled captive descriptions of French country estates and dank, ancient wine cellars, as well as informative summaries of the winemaking process and its progress between the 1790s and 1860s.

Simple explanations – such as distinguishing levels of champagne’s dryness or a brief overview of grape varietals (which determine the style of champagne) – might be missed, but for careful reading.  The book’s brevity betrays the wealth of knowledge it offers to the introductory champagne drinker or wine trivia buffs.  One of my favorite quotes, from the prologue: “According to legend, the shallow goblet-style champagne glasses known as coupes were modeled after this lady’s [Madame de Pompadour, mistress to the King of France] much admired breasts.”

Even unexciting topics – the process of fermentation or how champagne’s age affects the bubbles – come alive alongside the overarching story of the widow’s life.  Intertwining the two, historical narration and technical explanations, so effortlessly and seamlessly is one of Mazzeo’s most notable talents.

Yet the widow’s world, so often looked at through grainy and colorless photos, comes bursting alive via the author’s words.  Even in death, Barbe-Nicole is painted in lushly descriptive imagery: “In the last days of July…1866, when the gardens at Boursault were sending forth their intoxicating blooms and the grapes were beginning to grow heavy on the vines that clung to the hillside below the château, the Widow Clicquot breathed her last.”

This book – from vivid settings throughout pre-industrial Europe, early wine-making tutorials, and insight into the “Grand Dame of Champagne’s” ahead-of-her-time management and entrepreneurial methods – is much like champagne itself: a carefully crafted and leisurely savored luxury item.

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm  Comments Off  
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Shutdown Rundown

survive shutdown

The big to-do today in Washington, DC centered on the U.S. federal government shutting down.  I won’t bore you with the details and politics of it all – it’ll drive you to drink.  Go watch CNN, BBC, C-SPAN, or whatever news channel you prefer to your heart’s content.  What I want to focus on instead are a few fun facts and tips for having a little boozy and pocketbook-friendly fun during Shutdown.

First, for the locals, is the Washington City Paper’s epically comprehensive list of Washington area bars and restaurants  with food and drink “shutdown specials.”  (Please note showing a federal government ID badge is required in most cases.)  Coincidentally, the Shutdown has overlapped with some Oktoberfest celebrations, so consider this the perfect excuse to enjoy your favorite Bavarian treats for a little less cash.

Second, for everyone else, here are two pictorials, courtesy of Atlantic Cities and its sister site, the Atlantic Wire, of the Shutdown’s affect on everyday Washington – from the monuments, memorials, office buildings, even the Metro system.  Although Shutdown (in the form of a few wooden barricades) wasn’t enough to prevent some Greatest Generation veterans from visiting the World War II Memorial.  Perhaps afterwards they could have done us all a favor and marched up Capitol Hill and kicked a little ass before returning home.

Third and finally is proof  that all this Shutdown budget nonsense will in fact drive you to drink: reports (from Huffington Post) of what sounded like some serious Congressional boozing  yesterday evening, the night before Shutdown.  I thought it’d be more enjoyable to think about in the form of a Christmas carol.  So I came up with this:

‘Twas the night before Shutdown,

and all through the House,

not a creature was stirring,

all the Members were soused.

~~~~~~~~~~

Photo: Jason Ukman/Washington Post

Published in: on October 1, 2013 at 10:53 pm  Comments Off  
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Blood and Bravery

I enjoy history and geography, particularly of Eastern Europe.  My graduate studies focused on Soviet/Russian history and politics, but I’ve always been drawn to the Polish experience of World War II.  Perhaps it’s because I’m part Polish myself, or because of the uniquely crushing experience Poland received from both East and West.

My interest has grown in recent months thanks to several books that have brought the war – beginning on September 1, 1939, 74 years ago today – into a whole new light.  This history of Poland and World War II is marked most deeply by utter destruction and mass death.  Yet amidst such horror, there were displays of unfathomable bravery, patriotism, and selflessness.  Here I’ll focus on two extraordinary Poles: Witold Pilecki and Kystyna Skarbek.

pilecki

Pilecki was a Polish army officer who was integral in supporting the underground Home Army as an intelligence officer and resistance fighter under joint German-Soviet occupation.  As the Nazis rounded up political prisoners and suspected enemies following their September 1 invasion, Pilecki volunteered for an astoundingly dangerous mission: to be purposefully captured by the Germans for incarceration in Auschwitz and report on German activities there.  Additionally, he was to organize secret resistance cells among the camp’s inmates.

Prior to 1942, the Auschwitz camp mostly held Polish prisoners and Soviet POWs and was used as a labor camp; as Pilecki reported, summary executions were certainly commonplace.  The mass exterminations of Jews, Roma, and others for which Auschwitz is today synonymous occurred primarily at an expansion camp nearby, known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz II.

For nearly three years Pilecki witnessed near constant violence and death of all manners – beatings, exhaustion, exposure, and a number of forms of execution – yet he persevered in his mission to not only survive, but to organize his fellow Poles into independent, autonomous cells to rise up and fight should the opportunity arise.  By assisting his compatriots in hoarding food, obtaining indoor work details, and dodging relocation orders to other camps (for execution), Pilecki saved countless lives, including his own.  In the spring of 1943, with his false identity nearly compromised, Pilecki escaped with two other inmates, taking a bullet in the shoulder in the process.

While most would consider this endeavor enough danger for a lifetime, Pilecki remained in occupied Poland and played a notable role in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.  Pilecki not only survived the uprising, but the remainder of the war, and in 1945 wrote a long-form military report (recently published as a book) of his years in Auschwitz.  Following the Allied victory in Europe, Pilecki reported to Soviet-occupied Poland to gather intelligence on Polish communism.  A few short years later, he was captured, given a show trial, and executed by his fellow Poles as a foreign spy.

granville

Krystyna Skarbek, better known by her adopted English name, Christine Granville, was another Pole of amazing bravery, wit, and fortitude.  While fortunate to be traveling abroad when the Germans invaded in September 1939, Christine quickly set course for London to volunteer her services as a British spy.

Granville was assigned to the British Army’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was almost immediately sent abroad to Hungary and assigned missions to collect information, stockpile weapons, and devise smuggling routes to move people and intelligence out of the Nazi-occupied territory, sometimes over dangerous, mountainous terrain.

After her arrest and interrogation in Budapest, Granville and Andrej Kowerski – her colleague and occasional lover – relocated to Cairo, Egypt in early 1941.  Yet this was no ordinary excursion.  Using false passports, lies, and more than a little luck, Christine and Andrej drove 4,000-plus miles – through the Balkans, Turkey, and the Levant – in a stolen German Opel.  Although they arrived safely in Cairo, Christine’s time there was filled with frustration.  Not only was she far from the action, but her past service in Hungary put her under a cloud of suspicion by both British and Polish counterintelligence authorities.  No one seemed to know where her true allegiances laid.

After several years enduring the occasional training course (parachuting in Palestine) or infrequent backwater missions (conducting surveillance in Syria), Christine was selected  in the summer of 1944 for parachute insertion into occupied France to assist in organizing French resistance fighters (known as maquis) in southeastern France.  Alongside a new colleague and lover, Francis Cammaerts, she was assigned the mission of couriering weapons and military intelligence during the fateful days later to be known as the Battle of Vercors.  Following the Allied landings in southern France (Operation Dragoon), Christine spent a brief time making contact with and aiding Italian partisans attacking German rear positions as Allied forces swept north from Rome.

After returning to London from the Franco-Italian border, she awaited orders to be parachuted into Poland, but those orders never came.  The war’s end and the Soviet consolidation of authority over the new “Eastern Bloc” countries brought an abrupt end to Christine’s wartime service.  Her transition to ordinary civilian life – life without adventure or danger – was particularly difficult.  Living alone in London, she was a foreigner and a woman, and despised office work; job offers were not plentiful.

After some years away living in Kenya, Christine found employment as a steward aboard a British-based cruise line and made the acquaintance with a co-worker named Dennis Muldowney.  Although they fast became friends while at sea, Christine quickly grew bored with Dennis, who was growing increasingly obsessed with her.  Christine took steps to avoid him – living with friends and avoiding service on the same ship – yet it was not enough.  On a rainy summer night in 1952, Muldowney stalked Christine to her hotel room and plunged a knife in her heart.

bloodlands

The simple fact both Pilecki and Granville survived the war’s chaos and doom is no small feat.  But the preceding stories are only of individuals and do not capture the conflict’s grand scale of slaughter and destruction.  To understand the trauma of Poland’s national experience, the macro-level view, turn to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

Between 1933 and 1945, civilians living in the land between Berlin and Moscow suffered a supremely horrifying experience.  No fewer than 14 million souls perished at the hands of national policies exactly by either Hitler or Stalin “as the result of deliberate policies of mass murder, such as executions, deliberate famine and in death camps.”

Sadly, this ghastly number of deaths does not include those who died fighting during World War II, only the civilians subjected to the horrors of industrialized communism and National Socialism.  Poles and Ukrainians fared the worst, as they were targeted by both Germany and the Soviet Union because of their nationality.  The Polish cultural elite – its intelligentsia, made of activists, intellectuals, writers, and political leaders, not to mention its historic Jewish populace, were systematically erased from existence.  Warsaw’s population in particular felt the Nazi’s wrath following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising: approximately 700,000 civilians were murdered in retribution.

Taken together, the experiences of Captain Pilecki and Christine Granville, as well as the greater suffering of the Polish civilian population, paint a bleak portrait of a people and nation utterly destroyed.  Yet Poland persevered.  Although beaten by the war and then broken by the imposition of communism, it rose from Eastern Europe’s ashes when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  Currently, Poland stands proudly as an EU member state, having undergone one of the most successful transitions to democracy of the former Soviet satellite states.

So today, on this most solemn of anniversaries, take the time to remember two Polish heroes and raise your glass to toast their bravery.

~~~~~~~~~~

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ve written quite a few here.  It stands to reason then that a few photos will assist the reader in grasping Poland’s tragic experience by looking back in time, to see a nation in the early days of the war, before the widespread and unimaginable terror and incomprehensible human toll.

Here are two galleries depicting the 1939 invasion as well as of Polish life in the early years under German occupation.

“World War II: The Invasion of Poland and the Winter War,” courtesy of The Atlantic (Part 2 of their 20-part retrospective on World War II)

“On the Brink of Oblivion: Inside Nazi Occupied Poland, 1939-1940,” courtesy of Time & Life Pictures

 And for the interested reader, here are the books from which I drew inspiration for this post:

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, by Clare Mulley

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Professor Timothy Snyder

Published in: on September 1, 2013 at 10:11 am  Comments Off  
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