Recently, I got to visit my home state, Colorado. It was a wild ride, flying with a 2 year old by on my own, and also staying for two weeks. But one of the best parts, was I got to reunite with friends. The Crosshair Press girls made it out and we had a happy reunion. Many photos and at least one walk were all taken. And Mexican food was gobbled.
The day before I left, I went to dinner with a friend. Now, this dinner was a little different, as we went to an ethnic place for a school assignment of hers. A “truly ethnic restaurant” where she could “ask the staff about the differences in their home culture versus [the U.S.].” She invited me to take part in her expedition, so I accepted. I don’t truly explore the world as often as I’d like to, so this was a perfect opportunity.
We dined on things I honestly can’t pronounce. Krokiety, my dish, was a fried crepe, stuffed with meat and mushrooms, and seasoned to perfection with a serving of borscht (beet soup) and house-made sauerkraut. Our desserts were sweet dumplings filled with berries and we split a traditional Polish jelly doughnut.
And then we got to meet the owner. He rushed in, seemingly ready to chat for a moment and then leave quickly. That’s what I expected, and probably what my dining companion did, as well. But, as the adage goes, people do love to talk about themselves. And this self-made restauranteur was no exception. He went from a harried figure to an interested party once my friend asked him about his roots. His story about escaping a communist government and becoming a refugee overnight was captivating. He showed us a photo of himself before he left his homeland. He said, “Everything I owned is in this picture.” He wore a button-down shirt, jeans, a wild ’80s hairdo, and he added he’d had a bottle of whiskey hidden in his boot. A little liquid courage for his impending flight from home.
And suddenly all my shoes didn’t matter. And all of my books didn’t matter. The items in my Amazon cart were superfluous.
Could I exist with just the clothes I wore and one little something extra for bravery?
This man, who once owned hardly anything, shared drinks he’d brewed with passed down family recipes. I’m not a big drinker, but he’d offered me a small taste of his homeland, of his personal work, and it was an honor to partake of it.
After his homemade moonshine, he offered us a final drink served in brandy snifters. “Drink this, and then I will tell you what it is.”
If you were anyone else at all, I mused, There is no way I’d ever say yes to a proposition like that. But in the name of the expedition (and because we were in public with lots of people around), my friend and I toasted with a – I’ll probably butcher it, but Google tells me it’s spelled- “Na zdrowvie” (Naz-DROH-vee-ay). The owner smiled. We sipped. I tasted plums. Sweet, with hardly a bite.
“Elderberry wine,” he grinned like a proud papa. And then he regaled us with how he used the last berries from a doomed elderberry bush to create it. Sixteen years ago. And we looked at each other, and savored it all the more.
After he’d said goodbye, and my friend thanked him for his stories and hospitality, we sat and sipped some more.
“I wonder,” said my friend, reminding me why I am so glad she is my friend, “Would I share two glasses of the elderberry wine I’d made from the last berries of a bush that no longer exists, with two strangers?”
That small expedition has become one of the most defining experiences in my life. Not only did I learn that not all moonshine is simply fire in a bottle, I realized that I want to make things and share them with others. Not because what I make is important, but because the people who come into my life are important, no matter if I spend five minutes or 50 years with them. It wasn’t his overcoming adversity that impressed me the most. It was his generosity with the things you could tell were important to him. He didn’t clutch them tightly after losing it all. It seemed like he offered it freely, because he knew that was more important than keeping it for himself.
I want to be like that, too.