Essay / 26 April 2019

A Drinker and A Ciderhead, part 2

Abstinence only makes sense when followed by drinking


In rough Huntingtonian terms, Brexit is the secession of a Protestant region from a Catholic project. However, one could also view it as a tea country's liberation from an empire of coffee. And the civilizational rift between Britain and the United States, ever since Boston, is one of tea and coffee too.


“Britain and the United States are two countries divided by a common language,” is a bon mot often attributed to the very estimable George Bernard Shaw, whereas “Austria and Germany are two countries divided by a common language,” is a bon mot often attributed to the much overrated Karl Kraus. Austria and Germany, as a matter of fact, are also separated by a common beverage: coffee.

Some particularly footloose Ciderheads are not satisfied having migrated to Vienna, so they move on to Berlin. After a few years they invariably return, saying they couldn't drink the coffee there.

Germans tend to stress the word Kaffee on the first syllable, whereas in Austria it is an iamb, like the French café. Last year in Berlin I ordered, doing as the Berliners do, a trochaic Kaffee, but when the waitress brought it, she triumphantly said, “Ihr Kaffee!” (“Your coffee, sir!”), pronouncing the word in the iambic, Austrian fashion. The cup contained a decidedly German, trochaic liquid, however.

Remigrants usually blame the mode of preparation for the shortcomings of German coffee: “I couldn't drink the filter coffee any longer!” In my opinion, trochaic coffee is just too watery (the further north you go in Europe, the more watery the coffee gets and the greater quantities of the liquid people imbibe), and different beans roasted in a different manner are used to make it.

Although I prepare my own coffee in Bialetti coffeemakers, I'm partial to filter coffee. My mother had her own special method of preparing coffee, which crucially involved a filter, and I learnt to make coffee that way as a teenager. When guests came, they were served weaker coffee than we usually drank, but most of them still found it too strong. The relationship between my mother and my elder brother's wife was only ever expressed in coffee terms, the one finding the other's brew either much too strong or much too weak. My brother wisely sided with his wife, always complaining about the coffee being too strong when he came home.

Lately, the hipsters of Vienna and elsewhere have taken to drinking the formerly despised filter coffee. And I've found out that James Bond makes his coffee in a Chemex coffeemaker — a mode of preparation that very closely resembles the one my mother had developed. I feel so vindicated, and in the second generation at that.

Bond, that archetypal Englishman, is a coffee drinker and even blames tea for the downfall of the British Empire. No doubt wrongly; Britain rose despite beer and spirits and fell despite tea, not because of them. But I like to think that Ian Fleming took the famous phrase “shaken, not stirred”, the way 007 wants to have his Martini, from Orwell's seventh golden rule in A Nice Cup of Tea, which advocates shaking the pot rather than stirring it.

My friend and hapless manager, Martin, is one of those rare Austrians who prefer tea to coffee. He, too, tried Berlin for a couple of years before settling back in Vienna. He said that even though he brought his tea bags from Vienna, the tea never tasted any good in Berlin. I asked him if he had brought his water from Vienna too.


I was once an Italian for a day, in Malmo. Now, everybody knows that Austrians are a synthesis of the best in Germans (organized, reliable, philosophical) and the best in Italians (passionate, aesthetic, good lovers). But while to ordinary Austrians (this is just a vaguely felt chauvinism which I don't generally partake in myself) being turned into any one of Austria's other neighbours would amount to an ever so slight demotion, the opposite is the case with our great southerly neighbours. When I show my friends the photo of myself in the azzurrojersey with the Italy writers' football team, their reaction leaves no doubt that I had been promoted when I became an Italian.

Austrian writer footballers like to blame alcohol for the fact that they tend to lose. I can, however, assure you that the pre-match drink is not unheard of among Italians either, and that while nobody was positively blotto, a couple of my new teammates did enjoy a glass of wine or beer with their lunch. It was the first really warm spring day in Malmo, and we were pleased to find out that the town has kind of a lido, complete with an Italian café run by real Italians. Of course, we patronised the place. Having got up very early in the morning in Vienna and feeling rather knackered, my longing was for a doppio. I was, however, informed, that one didn't drink a doppio, probably because it didn't make a bella figura. And I ceded to the group pressure, having a single espresso.

While I impressed my teammates by diving into the chilly waters of Øresund, my performance on the pitch wasn't very good. A minute before the final whistle we were up 2-1. I cleared a ball from the box, but a Swede picked it up. Another cross came in, and behind me were two Swedish attackers. I was marking them like no Italian would ever mark anyone. I wasn't marking them at all. So the final result was 2-2.

If I had had a doppio, Italy would have won.


I once literally drank birch sap in the spring woods, outside Kiev. There's a famous song called I Drank Birch Sap in the Spring Woods (Яввесеннемлесупилберёзовыйсок) by the poet Yevgeny Arganovich, the best version of which is sung by the great Arkady Severny. It's about a man who is successful and brave but doesn't know how happy he is. He loses what he has and doesn't keep what he loves, drifting through the vagaries of life. Like Bobby McGee's ex-lover, he'd trade all his tomorrows for a single yesterday.


I once met Paul Ricoeur, and no other philosopher has exerted as profound an influence on me as the conservative Frenchman.

In my teens I was a Nietzschean. The chapter of Ecce homo entitled “Why I am so clever” begins with an essay on Nietzsche's eating and drinking habits. It is followed by an essay on choice of climate and locality, and by another one on recuperation. Thanks to Nietzsche, I accepted that these topics, traditionally eschewed by the academic philosophers, were of the utmost importance.

In my twenties I became, and still staunchly remain, a Bourdieusian. I learnt to understand to what great extent our choice of drinks is socially determined. While other thinkers opened my eyes, Bourdieu gave me a second pair of eyes to see a world that had hitherto been invisible to me.

When I was invited to meet Ricoeur, who is sometimes mentioned in Bourdieu, I was no less awed than I would have been, had I been to meet someone who figures in Nietzsche or in Plato. Having translated, from Ukrainian into English, a short text by a Kievite philosopher which had been deemed untranslatable by everybody else had earned me the privilege. I had, however, previously accepted an invitation to a party on the night before. I partied rather hard, which in Kiev involved drinking vodka. When you're a Ciderhead, you tend to drink too large quantities of this powerful drug, and you may even make the fatal mistake of drinking not water between the vodkas, but beer. So when I met Ricoeur the next morning at Saint Sophia's Cathedral, which it was his wish to visit, I was horribly hungover and unfit to engage in any meaningful discourse, while he was alert and awake and agile. I was twenty-seven years old, the hermeneut was eighty-five. In my deep embarrassment I understood that I had to change my ways if I wanted to realise my potential. A year later I finished my first novel, to mention just one fruit of that momentous meeting. Thank you, Paul Ricoeur.


For many years I've been familiar with the term metaphysical hangover, occasionally employing the expression in my discourse with myself. I knew that Kingsley Amis coined the term and wrote about the phenomenon. My interest in Kingsley Amis stemmed from my rather great enthusiasm for his son Martin Amis and for his close friend Philip Larkin. However, while appreciating his poetry, I found his novels rather boring and The King's English, with its silly prejudices, the poor man's MEU, and its author really the penniless man's Henry Watson Fowler. So I never read Kingsley Amis on drinking.

A metaphysical hangover, to me, was a good hangover, such as I had experienced many times. You drink a lot, sleep, and get up in the morning in a slightly dazed but highly focused and elated state of mind that allows you, with the help of strong coffee and strict abstention from solid food, to write an essay like this one in a matter of a couple of hours. It is only now, doing desultory research for this text, that I'm finding out that the reactionary Englishman meant quite the opposite, the metaphysical hangover to him being the “spiritual” demolition which accompanies the alcohol-induced physical collapse.


One more. For the road, as it were.

On one of my first nights after moving to Vienna in 1989, a fellow student invited me and a couple of others to her parents' home, a detached house in the outskirts of the city. We talked and drank until the small hours, and then it was time to go home. It didn't even occur to me then that one could take a taxi. I was given an old bicycle, whose only deficiency was that the lights didn't work. I didn't know my way round the town and Google Maps didn't exist yet, but with the help of the map I always had with me I found my way all right. In those days the cops didn't care whatever you did on a bike as long as your lights worked. Needless to say, they stopped me. My speech slurred by the drinks I had had, I told them I had just borrowed the bike, implying that I was riding the lightless bike in good faith, so they said, “Ride on!”

If in the thirty years that have lapsed since then I have cycled through the night drunk on average once every fortnight (a conservative estimate), you can easily calculate that I'll soon be marking my one thousandth overrefreshed ride. I love it in all weather conditions, from sunrise after a hot summer night to snowstorms in winter, but my favourites are gloomy November nights when you can cycle through Vienna for half an hour and meet no other vehicles than a couple of taxis and the odd police car. Once I had to stop right next to one at a red light, drunk as a lord. The intersection was completely deserted, not a single person was in sight except for the cops. I stared on determinedly, and the cops left me alone. Another time I owl-eyedly rode straight through barricade tape, and the cops apologized to me. Last summer, I ran a red light next to the Opera and was stopped by a cop in shorts on a bike, who was wearing a helmet. I immediately told him, with a slightly rural inflection, since Vienna cops are known to all hail from the Waldviertel (“Wood Quarter”) area of Lower Austria, that I hadn't seen him, so he inspected my bicycle's lights and told me to ride on. Due to the anti-cyclist policies of the new, right-wing and pro-automobile, Austrian government, however, many of my cyclist friends have been fined in some cases several thousand euros for cycling while under the influence.

High as a kite on the red wine I'd been enjoying at a Yuletide party with fellow writers, I was owling home one night. I slid on some ice. Drunk as a skunk, I lay on the Ringstraße cycle path. The next morning I awoke, all throwed and mortal. I had made it home somehow, and apart from a swollen jaw and some bruises I seemed okay. I remembered that my jaw had hit the handlebar. Months later, when I was seeing the dentist for a check-up, a great fuss was made. She said I must have suffered a severe trauma. She seemed to think I had been in a fight. I insisted that I had fallen off my bike. She didn't ask if I had been sober. The accident happened almost ten years ago, and against all predictions I still have the affected molar, albeit in a chronically inflamed state.


The most important thing about drinking is knowing when to stop. Have I missed that moment? Well, a Ciderhead's life is an inexhaustible source of stories and reflections on drinking.

Every year I abstain from alcohol for a couple of months, and I've gone without alcohol for a whole year twice. It didn't affect my life in any noticeable way. My friends were incredulous and admitted that they'd never gone without alcohol for more than a few days since their teens. During social occasions that involved drinking I usually experienced a contact high, leaving the actual boozing to others while reaping the benefits. When a certain, rather high, level of inebriety was reached, I usually left.

Dipsomania is an ugly thing and a lot worse than teetotalism. A writer's friends are tea and coffee. Moderation, like respect, has become a bit of a dirty word because of the way it is used by certain reactionaries, but in matters of drinking it must be supported. Many great writers have been alcoholics, but they were great writers despite their drinking, not because of it.

I've gone without alcohol since the New Year, for almost three months. It's time for a drink.

First part available here.


Kurt Leutgeb

was born in Upper Austria in 1970. He is the author of eight books, the latest of which, Humana fraus (2015), tells two versions of a story from Titus Livius. He lives in Vienna.