As a teenager, I was much like I am as an adult, which is to say, anxious. There are times, perhaps few and far between, when my anxiety has faltered, leaving me for hours, days, sometimes even weeks at a time feeling generally relaxed and uninhibited, enough to make friends and alert the followers of my social media accounts that I do, sometimes, leave the desk in the corner of my tiny apartment. But these moments where my anxiety takes a backseat have been hard won after years of therapy and forcing myself out of my comfort zone.
I didn’t think it would be that much of a challenge. The teenaged version of myself imagined that, at some point, without much effort on my part, I would magically shed the layer of existential dread that clung to the corners of my life like cobwebs and I’d be able to welcome people into my inner world and show them around without them whispering to each other about the dilapidated state of the place. I don’t know where I got this misguided idea, but it was likely from all the movies I watched that starred self-assured young people, a class of humans I’m not entirely sure even exists in the real world.
At 16 years old, my favorite movie of them all was Moulin Rouge, every Millennial angsty art teen’s go-to watch for old-timey, sepia-toned substance abuse, fornication and general degeneracy. My favorite scenes all took place in the first half of the movie, when the dancing, the drinking, the raucousness was still taking place. I conveniently avoided the second half of the movie, when Satine falls ill and everything falls to shit. Had I watched this part, maybe I would have taken an important lesson about the ills of excess away from it. Instead, after watching the scene where the artists drink absinthe and apparently hallucinate a green fairy seducing them to the party that rages in the city they overlook, my only thought was, “That looks fun.”
From that moment on, I knew I wanted to try absinthe. But considering I was only 16 at that point, it took me a few years before I finally got the opportunity to try it. One of my best friends from college lives in Brussels, and she invited me to stay with her a few years ago. Brussels is home to Floris Bar, a famous absinthe bar right next to the equally famous Delirium Café. The bar boasts over 600 types of absinthe, so I imagined there would be no shortage of raucousness.
Granted, I was in my mid-20s at that point and had already made my way through a few dark, alcohol-fueled years of college and come out the other side appropriately jaded about nightlife and unbridled hedonism. But still, I wasn’t prepared for the quiet, almost empty bar we entered. It felt cool and hushed, and once we ordered our absinthes and watched them being prepared in their special way with the saturated sugar cube, I drank mine, experienced the touch of licorice the drink is known for and then… nothing. No sudden urge to seize the night or go on a drunken romp around the city. Rather, we went to Delirium, drank a few beers and made it back to my friend’s apartment on the other side of the city by midnight.
I had waited for my first sip of absinthe for so many years, but by the time I had finally gotten it, I had lost most of my childlike optimism that these novel, one-off experiences could be revelatory or even life-changing. I’d already discovered that even the seemingly significant lessons I’d felt I’d learned from experiences that felt transformative at the time soon faded once I was yet again faced with the normal, boring intricacies of reality. And still. There was some hope that the first sip of absinthe could give me a glimpse of the free-spirited version of myself I so longed to be at 16.
As I returned to my friend’s apartment that night, I was awash with some version of all my usual anxieties: Was I doing a good enough job at work? Had the man I was texting back home responded to me yet? Had I remembered to check in for my return flight? Was my mom, my dad, my brother, my cat okay? The soundtrack of my worries, almost always playing in the background, maintained its steady beat despite the absinthe running through my veins, and I thought of Moulin Rouge and how, in the end, Ewan McGregor finally has something to write about because Satine has (spoiler alert) died. The absinthe wasn’t really a part of the inspiration anyway, and his younger self’s free-spiritedness was just a reflection of his naivety and youth. Or something like that.
I fell asleep feeling glad I had waited a decade to try absinthe for the first time after learning about it from the movie. I think I would’ve been more disappointed at 16.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.