from the Spring 2007 issue

“For writers,” said a guy I knew who wasn’t one, “drinking is a sport.” George Garrett, who is a great writer, learned from a poet that one way to excel in the writer’s sport was to stand around the local liquor store and notice what the winos bought. In this simple strategy lies the long-sought explanation of the introduction of Coco Ribe to the New England writers’ conference circuit, circa 1983.

I have since applied the concept in Barcelona: a certain brandy (can’t recall the name and couldn’t pronounce it if I could, but would still recognize the bottle on the dustiest, highest shelf); and in the Roman campagna: homemade grappa (likely to have a few sticks in it and be a scary color, but at 35 cents per jelly-jar-full it remains an unbeatable value). When in Rome....

My wife and I spent most of May, 1986, in the town of Menton on the French Côte d’Azur, just a stone’s throw from the Italian frontier. Though it has all the douceurs of the Riviera, the Menton area is cut off from the Cannes-Nice strip by Monaco; in those days it was not frequented by American tourists, and the British holiday makers did not arrive till June. Due to this happy situation, my rudimentary French, which was good enough for taxis and restaurants, allowed me to pass for a Canadian. I watched the old men in the Menton cafés, and saw that they all drank something I knew under the general designation of Pernod.

Many Americans, including me, have had unhappy experiences with this, or ouzo, or anisette, or any of the other marks of too-sweet, licoricey grog. Still, these old French guys looked like they knew what they were doing, and they had obviously been doing it for a long time. I adopted their technique for assembling the cocktail and soon enough developed a taste for it. A couple of weeks passed quite happily in this manner.

One late afternoon I was walking a high street on the approach to the town church, just above the blue-green crystal water. One block was lined with couscousseries and other Moroccan-style restaurants. The sun was just reddening in the west, but still plenty hot, and it seemed like a good idea to duck into one of these places for a drink.

No customers but me and a parrot in a cage (who was probably on staff if it came to that). It was long before the dinner hour, and the zinc was manned by a fifteen-year-old Algerian lad with a friendly manner and a huge mop of black curly hair. “Vous désirez?” he said, as I took my stool.

“Un Pernod, s’il vous plaît.”

This formula had never failed me yet, but up to now I had always been able to reinforce with a grunt and a point, since the Pernod bottle was usually rigged on a tap, right next to the cash register. Here, the bottle was not in view, and the boy gave me a look of blank incomprehension. I repeated my statement.

“Vous voulez un Pernod,” he said, with an air of disbelief.

“Mais oui.”

With a shrug expressive of whatever, he came out from behind the counter and beckoned me into the depths of the restaurant. I followed him past all the little square tables into a recess in the very back where a lot of empty boxes and broken furniture and scrap lumber had been heaped. Well, I thought, Pernod must be not be a beverage often called for in this establishment. It looked like I would get it in the long run, though. Finally the kid had scrambled through enough of the junk to reveal to my astonished eyes... a piano.

“No, no,” I said. “It’s something to drink.” 

At this the kid’s eyes bugged out at me on stalks. People drinking pianos was outside his competence, it seemed. He went into the middle of the street, threw his head back, and shouted to the upper floors in a language I didn’t even recognize, much less understand. Somewhat disconsolate, I resumed my seat. Presently there appeared a stocky, amiable looking Algerian man in his forties.

“Vous désirez?”

“Un Pernod,” I said, with rather less assurance than before.

Arched eyebrows. “Comme vous voulez— il y a un piano au fond.”  He pointed to where the kid had taken me. Whatever you want—there’s a piano in the back.

Whereupon I embarked on a description of the object of my desire. It was kind of an Oliver Sacks situation, though not as bad as the time I tried to buy a corkscrew without being able to remember the words for “screw” or “bottle” or “cork.” In only a couple of minutes I got the message across, and the barman, his face ablaze with enlightenment, whipped the Pernod bottle from under the counter. Soon I began to feel a little better. The barman, amused by it all, began to try to teach me the word.

“Pernod,” he said.

“Piano,” he heard (when I attempted to echo him).



The parrot might have done better if it had been inspired to try.




“Goddammit! I’m saying it exactly the same way you are!”

“Wait.” The barman went out into the street, snagged the first pedestrian who passed, and brought him up to the zinc.

“Ask him the question.”

“Est-ce que vous avez un Pernod,” I said, full of good hope.

“Ah,” the stranger said, courteously. “Vous jouez à piano?”

I dropped my face into my hands. But since I had my drink and a good prospect of another, I didn’t really feel all that bad. Also, since the whole conversation had gone down in French, I was actually holding my own in the language.

“Look,” the barman said kindly. “What you should do is just ask for pastis. Much easier for you to say and besides it’s better than Pernod.”

Years later I realized that I hadn’t got enough trill in in the rrr in Pernod; the French r being a point on which many dilettantes in the language are shipwrecked. I could probably do it now, but I have come to prefer the other brands; Ricard, for example—the one with the evocative horsehoe on the bottle.

What you do is put one or two ice cubes in the bottom of the glass—ideally a smallish, bell-shaped glass with a short stem. Over the ice, a couple of fingers of pastis. Then fill from the nearby pitcher of cold, clear water, till the liquid clouds and assumes a pearlescent glow—this latter effect is greatly enhanced by Mediterranean sunlight. With this mix the sweetness is no longer cloying and the anise flavor is reduced to a hint, enigmatic and enticing. In hot weather, which is when you should drink it, the first sip suffuses you with a delicious illusion of internal air-conditioning.

“Ah, vous êtes pastisomane!” the barman said, the last time I ordered it in a Paris hotel. Ah, you are a pastisaddict! And because I possessed this trait, he assumed I must be from Marseille. Beats being mistaken for a piano-drinker.    

-Madison Smartt Bell

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