Note: There may be some SLIGHT exaggerations in this story. Also, all names have been changed to protect the so-called “innocent” LOL
There are two kinds of tuica in this world. The first kind, bottled in factories and sold in stores and occasionally served at Romanian restaurants is okay. It often has a pale yellow cast to it. The smell of it is okay. The taste is okay and it goes down your gullet with a fine, perfectly acceptable burn. And yes, like any other “strong liquor” out there, it will get you drunk. Tuica from a store is kind of like the Hyundai of alcohol – it ain’t sexy or pretty but it will dutifully get you to wherever you want to go.
Homemade tuica on the other hand is ambrosia of the gods. You will recognize this elusive beast because first of all, your Romanian host or friend or associate will give you a little mischievous wink, that little sly dog! And he will whip out a plastic bottle, perhaps an old Coke bottle or an old mineral water bottle, Pepsi, Fanta, whatever, just some kind of re-used plastic drink bottle and inside will be a perfectly clear liquid. THIS is the good stuff.
He will then chuckle heartily and tell you the True Story of How This Tuica Was Born, how it started with the harvesting of plums on his 99-year-old grandma’s patch of land way out in the countryside, how he slowly and carefully began the distillation process and how there was NO sugar added – just 100% plums went in and nothing else. And how he carefully and methodically, using nothing but the old-fashioned ways perfected over centuries by drink-loving Romanians, produced this crystal-clear fine, fine beverage now before you.
He will then touch the side of his nose with one finger and solemnly inform you that his tuica is so pure and so natural and so earthy and in fact is almost some kind of medicine because it’s so gosh-darned healthy for you that you will never get a hangover from it. All true, btw.
THIS is the tuica that turns me into a whore. I’ll follow anyone, anywhere for a glass of some of this. I’ll hand over all my worldly possessions and give you the shirt off of my back and promise to be your bestest, most closest buddy and pal and amigo of all time if only you will pour me a glass (or two) of THIS kind of tuica.
Note: It will also get you colossally drunk in record time. You could take the most hard-bitten, salty dog Russian sailor and Irishman and member of whatever other cultures are known for their heavy drinking ways, give them a full glass of tuica and they’ll be knocked off their chairs with this stuff. It’s amazing how it makes your belly warm, your mind fuzzy and toasty and your spirits soar with pure love and appreciation for your fellow human beings.
Now that you understand the good tuica, time to tell the story of the “Incident”, still told around the hearth fires in a certain village which I shall not name, nestled high in the mountains somewhere near Cluj.
This particular mountain village was actually a regular Romanian village plus what they call a statiune turistica (literally “tourist station”). Back during the Communist era, the government set up different rural areas for official tourism purposes. Sometimes these are/were ski areas, sometimes they were near lakes and for fishing, or other things along those lines. Through various channels and means, ordinary “working folk” got to go up there on their vacations and enjoy a spot of nature and get away from the city for a while.
The facilities at these places, whether actual hotels or private cabins were all owned by the government. If the spot was particularly choice, often times the big wigs would have their own special places set up just so they could relax from all the hard work of running a repressive dictatorship. That work ain’t easy, y’all!
Now that we’re in a democracy, private property is in effect so at this particular statiune turistica where I was living (in the basement of a hotel) were a number of private residences, mostly glorified ski cabins but also a few decent-sized houses.
But back in the old days, the Army had built something like I guess you would call it a “wilderness retreat” for its officers and generals and the like. It’s sort of like a fairly big hotel, lots of individual rooms and a large dining area. Then after dinner the generals could walk around and enjoy the pine forests and go skiing or whatever else it was that they enjoyed doing way the heck up at the top of that mountain where I lived for 6 weeks in 1997.
And the thing to understand is that the Army still owns this facility – it’s completely private. An ordinary citizen can’t just walk in and get a room there or eat in their dining room. It’s still one of the few “perks” an officer gets for serving in the Romanian Army. But most of the time, this big “hotel” stands almost entirely empty. I know they put some new radio antennae up there and some satellite uplinks and possibly conduct some mountain training up there on occasion but by and large, it’s mainly a big, empty hotel with barely any “guests”.
As I mentioned, I was living in the basement of a very small hotel owned by a friend of mine. The women who worked there (and it was all women) were all from the village next door and would come up to the hotel to live and work there for one week and then go back home to the village the next week and be “off”. So over time, I got to know them and through them, pretty much all of the villagers and the small community that lived there and worked there permanently (including the infamous drunk police).
One of the workers in the hotel, whom I shall call Maria here, was married to a giant colossus of a man down in the village, whom I shall call Ion (John in English). Ion drove some kind of cargo van around and about the area so he was often busy during the day but usually he’d be home every night. I one time rode with him in his van alongside about 5 billion heads of cabbage due to my needing to get to a particular soccer (football) game in a town down the road.
Note: I am not a sports fan in any way so why the hell I went to this game is *ahem* another story unto itself and I shall save it for later and will call it Me And Some Gypsies and Two Crazy Little Kids Watch The Saddest Soccer Game of All Time.
Where were we? Ah yes, Ion, the giant lumberjack of a man, sweet guy, not the best at enunciating his words, kind of shy but had a heart of gold. Married to Maria, the saucy, fast-talking cook who worked at the hotel wherein I was living down in the basement, who taught me an enormous amount of curse words and sexual expressions in Romanian, god bless her soul.
One day my friend who owned the hotel asked me to help her with some problem she had with her surveillance cameras (sadly, now mandatory in many Romanian establishments). So I was up there fiddling with the play back machine when I realized that on tape I could see that Bogdan, another local who came by the hotel quite often, was kissing Maria when nobody else was around. Hopa!
Luckily my friend the hotel owner was kind of oblivious to things and had never seen what I did (or else Maria would’ve been in big trouble and given a Righteous Scolding for sure). I raced down from the attic and pulled Maria to the side and asked her about Bogdan. And yep, sure enough, she was “bored” with Ion and was having herself a little village dalliance with young master Bogdan.
Now me? I personally didn’t care. I’m not a priest or some judge of who should do what. I knew Bogdan and he was another quiet type of guy but he had always been good to me and in fact, was the cook over at the nearby Army retreat hotel place. I certainly wasn’t going to go around telling anybody what I knew but I guess Maria told Bogdan and Bogdan felt like perhaps some “insurance” was in order so he used his Army training and skills to exploit my one weakness – homemade tuica.
Therefore, shortly after my camera discovery of Bogdan and Maria’s little affair, Bogdan invites me over to the kitchen of the Army hotel for a “little glass” of some fine tuica he had stashed behind the pots and pans. Me, being the tuica whore that I am, of course immediately accepted and walked over there.
Mind you, it being an actual, you know, Army base and all, was completely off-limits to civilians, much less off-the-grid Americans who barely speak Romanian, and I’m damn sure there’s no rule or general order permitting said clueless foreigner to get rip-roaring drunk in the Army’s gigantic kitchen on the ground floor of the hotel.
Well folks, you can guess that is exactly what I did. It went a little something like this:
Drink 1: I say, my fine fellow Bogdan, excellent tuica. (smack lips) It’s got a lovely bouquet and a delicate floral finish.
Drink 2: Oh don’t even worry, your secrets are safe with me. Say, you mind if I get one more teensy sip? Such a gorgeous drink and I’d hate to see it go to waste!
Drink 3: Hey, I seen you’ve got a radio in here. Sweet! I wonder how loud the volume goes on this thing.
Drink 4: You know what, man? If she ever divorces that Ion guy, the rat bastard that he is, and you two get married, I’mma be your best man, bro. Whatchoo think about that? BROTHERS FOR LIFE!
Drink 5: Damn this kitchen is huuuge!! Let’s fire up all the burners and cook us a mess of good food. The Army’s got so much, they’ll never miss a few potatoes! Don’t worry so much, my brother whom I love forever and ever for life.
Drink 6: Hey sweet cap! I love the red. Is this like the cap of a colonel or a general or something? (puts it on) Hey look at me, I’m the boss! Go take that hill! Fortify that bunker! Lay down suppressing fire!
Drink 7: I may be a white guy but I’ve got smoother moves than Michael Jackson, bitches!! Want to see me dance on the table?
Drink 8: What do you mean there’s no smoking allowed in the kitchen of an Army facility around all the food? Man, don’t you know rules are made to be BROKEN? This is a democracy now! We can do what we want!
Drink 9: Quit your worrying! There’s no one coming here. We’re up way the hell in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. Come on, let’s invite a few chicks over here and get this party going for REAL!
And then, right through the back door of the kitchen, completely BREAKING the rules by the way and not going through the front freaking desk but just unannounced, straight in via the back door, came in one very sober and stern-faced colonel dressed in the full regalia and splendor of the Romanian Army who, completely unfairly and unjustly, had some ahem *coughcough* questions for Bogdan about what in the Sam Hill was going on in the government’s privately-run retreat for hard-working Army officers who drove an ungodly long and twisty dirt road to get out of the city and relax for a while amidst the peace and quiet of a mountain retreat.
I immediately scrunched down in the corner, said not one word, and listened (through a drunken haze) to a very long conversation involving much scowling and finger waggling and angry throwing of caps on the ground by the Colonel and much aww gee shucks and totally will never happen again as long as I live, sir, boss sir, apologizing on the part of Bogdan until I heard the magic word: tuica.
And lo and behold, the explanation worked! The Colonel smiled and straightened his cap back on his head and combed out his mustache and pulled down his tunic and shook my hand and winked a grandfatherly wink at me in complete understanding and so all was forgiven and right with the world. Although he did, completely unjustly in my opinion, ban me from ever setting foot on the premises again.
But hey, at least I didn’t start World War 3 that day, so that’s a plus ;)