originally published November 7, 2013
As the cast of characters in my young adult life glide into the final act, preparing for their bow and subsequent re-emergence in the sequel (Middle-Age: The Saggening), I find myself reflecting on the various story arcs that brought me here. The salient plot point of alcohol has been a recurring motif, though its impact on the narrative has shuffled and shifted from scene to scene. I sincerely hope it continues to pop up in the script, right up until the point where my character is killed off, the actors take their final curtain and the credits roll.
(I know, there are no rolling credits in a theatrical performance, but I simply couldn’t beat a metaphor that far into the ground without clumsily tripping over it at the end.)
The first time I got drunk, my aim was to get drunk. I was curious. Then I drank alcohol to feel more grown up. In my later teens, I drank so I could get drunk. Since then it has been more about the taste, the negation of my concerns over my wretched dancing, and most recently it’s how I earn a paycheck. Lately it has also taken on a somewhat anthropological tint, as I find myself ever curious over the world’s drinking cultures.
Canada, or at least the tiny crevice of Canada in which I’ve lived, is not big on custom or tradition. Maybe it’s because 125 years ago this city was nothing more than a trading post and snow depository, but we Edmontonians don’t tend to wrap ourselves up in habit and history. It’s good practice to offer an open bar at your wedding, but I’ve been to several where that doesn’t happen. Perhaps coincidentally, I didn’t even make it to the cake-cutting at those events.
One little dollop of etiquette that has morphed with age has been the issue of bottle-remains at house parties. As teenagers, money and alcohol were among our most precious commodities, and as such it was customary for us to bring home whatever alcohol we had failed to consume at our friend’s Friday night bash. After all, we might need it the next day. But as I crept into adulthood and donned the cloak of domesticity, the universally proper etiquette of leaving unconsumed hooch behind as a thank-you to the host took over.
I still see this one breeched from time to time. Listen, if you’re making your exit from the party and you’re fishing your last two Heinekens out from behind the sour cream and cheese slices in your host’s fridge, you’re being an asshole. Just accept it.
Over in England, where centuries of etiquette stroll hand-in-hand with centuries of alcohol consumption, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. They’re known as Greaves’ Rules, named for London journalist William Greaves, who printed them in semi-jest in the Today newspaper, but which have been reprinted and embraced by the pub-going community as the unspoken law of the land. When you stroll into a pub, you’ll be buying your buddy a pint. As other friends show up, they get added to the round, and you keep paying. This continues until your drink is below the halfway point, or until someone else is almost out and ready to spring for the next round.
If you’re participating, you’ll be doing so with your wallet as well as your gullet. If someone new shows up while you’re in “the chair” (buying the booze), you should invite them to join you, trusting they’ll hit you back by paying for the next round. It’s all about fair play and good sportsmanship. Also, these rules are handy for reducing ale-fuelled violence over money matters.
One seemingly inescapable aspect of drinking culture is binge drinking. I always considered a ‘binge’ to involve multiple sunrises aboard a non-stop flume ride of lost gulps and splashy toasts, until a drum-roll blackout delivers a whomping crash cymbal in the form of a monstrous hangover. I’ve never experienced such a binge, as I’ve always broken up my drinking exploits with at least a few hours of sleep, a half-pot of coffee and some bacon. But some folks believe drinking with the sole purpose of getting hammered – even just for an evening – is ‘binge drinking’. Well, shit.
Northern Europeans – Scandinavians, Latvians, and of course the Brits and the Irish – are more prone to binge drinking than those down south. In nations where giving alcohol to youngsters is not seen as a sin of prison-worthy proportions, binge drinking is less common. It’s all a question of culture, and really isn’t that the most entertaining window into any culture? How its people choose to fuck themselves up?
The Russefeiring celebration in Norway involves synchronized fashion choices, crazy parties, and unabashed heavy drinking once a year. It started back in 1905 with red caps for high school graduates, and has evolved into a massive drinking bonanza for high school students in their final spring semester.
Denmark doesn’t set aside a day for it, but they have the highest percentage of teenage drinkers in the world. Scary? Maybe, but when it comes to grown-up booze-snarfing, they put a lot of thought into it. ‘Hygge’ is a Danish word used to describe a cozy, friendly, candle-filled atmosphere, something the Danes try to splatter all over any drinking establishment. Danish drinkers like comfort, they like friends, and they like their drinking to be a happy event.
Over in Russia, things get a little more serious. They drink vodka, and if they mix it with anything it’ll be beer. After a toast, everyone drinks at once, and unless you’re okay looking like some pansy-ass tourist, you’ll down that glass of vodka in one manly gulp.
In Japan tradition dictates the youngest in the crowd should serve the booze to his or her elders. In China, even the clinking of glasses is regulated by custom, with the younger or lower-ranked clinker having to make contact below the rim of the table’s top dog. It’s all very elaborate. In Korea, as in Japan or China, you should never pour your own drink. Most of us in this part of the world aren’t that patient.
The Czech Republic drinks more alcohol per capita than anyone else on the planet. Still, they curtail their haste and insist upon a few traditions. First off, you must say “na zdravy” (which means “to your health”) as you toast, and you’d damn well better look your fellow drinker in the eye when your glasses clink. If you cross arms with the other drinker during the toast, you’ll both get seven years of bad sex – though I’m not certain there’s empirical evidence to back that one up. Tap your glass against the table before drinking, and don’t spill a drop. The Czechs didn’t earn their reputation by letting drops of precious beer go to waste.
So many rules to soak in before setting off on a booze-heavy globe-hopping vacation. The key is to learn the customs, never refuse a drink, and don’t throw up on your host. And for the love of all that’s good and liquid, leave your damn leftovers behind.