Every Fringe it’s the same: a few more themed pop up bars, a little more booze and a little more burnout as the city turns into one great blur for a month and a half. Royce Kurmelovs offers this Mad March dispatch, though from where exactly he’s not entirely sure.
I’ve drunk at this bar before. We all have. It’s part of Fringe, or is it the Adelaide Festival? Maybe, it’s Writers’ Week or Superloop? I’m not sure which one I’m here for, exactly, if any at all. All I know is that the show rides appeared in the Garden of Unearthly Delights a few years ago and all the festivals began to bleed together.
Since then, I stopped paying attention to the details. The whole city has been smudged into a Gaussian blur. All of the ordinary details – the who, the what, the when, or the why – don’t seem to matter anymore and even if they did, they would be wholly unreliable anyway.
Take this bar I’m sitting in. It might sell whisky, or cocktails, or gin – it doesn’t matter. You’ll know it for the tent it’s set up in or the wooden boards and corrugated iron it’s made out of. Perhaps you’ll recognise the mismatched furniture.
Maybe it’s in a park, on a street or down an alleyway somewhere. It might have corporate sponsorship where the winemaker or beer brewer is relentlessly pushing their latest range. It may be one of those themed bars owned by a guy who once spied the crowds of pastel-wearing 18- to 27-year-olds with limited self-control and thought they looked like a good way to make a buck. It could be the owner is actually one of those true believers, one of those small arts venue operators still in it for the art and, who, secretly, is trying to live the fantasy of Greenwich Village, New York, circa 1930.
Point is, this time of year Adelaide is awash in booze and tourists and all sense of time buckles. Minutes, hours, days – any concept of before or after is rendered meaningless.
For instance, it is entirely possible today is a Sunday afternoon, though it could very well be a Thursday. Who knows? The main thing is that I’m pretty sure that yesterday a strange woman bought me a whisky sour and asked for my thoughts on the acrobatic profession.
“Only monsters hate the circus arts,” I told her as we sat on the grass.
The next thing I knew I was sitting six rows back with a beer watching another woman from the audience, named Sally, excitedly throw a knife overhand at a man perched atop a six-foot-high unicycle. Though she was wide of her mark, the man called her a psychopath as she giggled innocently enough.
What happened after, I can’t be sure. I think it involved red wine.
Is that why I feel so hungover today? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s the cumulative hangover from a month where stories like this are $9 to $14 a glass. I mean, here I am right now sitting in a sake bar drinking with a Lebanese man. It’s hot outside and the landscape beyond the tent flap is an endless rolling expanse of dead or dying grass.
Inside is cool and mostly empty. My Lebanese companion keeps his sunglasses on.
“Look,” he tells the bartender with a certain assertive honesty, “neither of us know shit about sake. We’re not going to come in here acting like dicks, thinking we know everything. How do we do it?”
The bartender takes it in her stride. Mostly she just seems happy to have a few customers. Seeing in our ignorance the opportunity for a sale, the bartender explains how we could buy a tasting board. My Lebanese friend is quick to the draw with his wallet. Thirty bucks later, she is happily explaining how different regions of Japan produce their different rice wines and that, when we taste it, we should hold it in our mouths for a moment to get the flavour.
I don’t care about any of that. The liquid feels cool and light as it hits my tongue. My brain registers a pleasing umami taste as I watch my Lebanese friend pound back three glasses of three separate varieties, before he orders another round.
“I don’t know man,” he says. “The Fringe feels different this year.”
This is a sentiment I am familiar with. Many years ago, I was a bartender in a small fringe arts venue. The same sense of jetlag was always present – if you did Fringe right. Lose some, gain some, watch the sun rise over the Adelaide Hills or set at the beach – it didn’t matter. You endured.
But then it was always about the art and discovering something new. People expected to see something weird. People wanted to be surprised. Everyone understood the shows were the point, not the drinking.
Somewhere along the way, I say, it feels like we’ve got that back to front. And then, as I catch the attention of the bartender to order the next round, I start to feel like maybe I’ve been complicit.