09 October 2011


(also see 'pubs' and 'food'--- both chapters coming up)


They say that, such is harsh weather a central part of their life, that the Eskimo have an unusually large number of words for 'snow'. This may explain why the English language is packed with synonyms for the word "drunk": wasted, smashed, mashed, lashed, boxed, plastered, rat-arsed, shitfaced, hammered, fucked, pissed, sloshed, blottoed, slaughtered, paralytic, wrecked, wankered, mullered, gatted, trolleyed and -of course- the more twee "intoxicated".

Check your French, Spanish or German thesaurus and you just won't find such a generous range to pick from.
In fact, one of the most typical reactions you're likely to hear from people fresh from a trip to England is their sheer shock at the amount of alcohol guzzled in the Land of Hope and Glory...
Which is a shame, because there would be so much to say about England's endangered old pubs or that unique drink that goes by the name of "real ale", as well as local breweries and so on.

Some people may argue the toss that the Russians too get mashed on vodka, that no-one downs beers like the Czechs, or that French people worship their wine rack or similar stuff, but the fact remains that Britain's relationship with booze is quite a fucked up one and increasingly so.

That isn't to say, of course, that there aren't professional pissheads in other countries. The difference, however, is that alcohol is at the core of any social interaction taking place in the UK. Whether it is to celebrate or to mope about; to unwind or concentrate; to cope with freezing temperatures or sweltering heat; no matter what, a "drink" will always be justified.

For better or for worse, alcohol plays a pervasive role everywhere you are in contemporary Britain. Far from being frowned upon (like in other countries, see below), getting pissed is subconsciously regarded as the mother of all ice-breakers.

Any uncomfortable silence or embarrassing situation (i.e. a new classmate, or your first day at Uni or a new job, etc) can be smoothed out by a quip on the lines of "oh my god... got so pissed last night, my best mate was sick all over me girlfriend's handbag and I fell over and sprained me ankle". Most people would automatically warm up to you. If anything, because they will be handed a chance to contribute with their own most recent anecdote about falling into a fountain while they were "completely paralytic" or "got off with a right munter after getting lashed on JD & Cokes all night long". And so on.

Like genially satirised by comedy character Alan Partridge in the episode about the "Ladyboy" drink ("I was drunk, I woke up this morning asleep on the sink. I'd been asleep for eight hours like that. Got up, walked downstairs, straight downstairs. Had breakfast, didn't even wash my hands. 'Cause I'm a bloody bloke)", this kind of stuff will increase your chances of social acceptance.
This is because booze is also Britain's ultimate social leveller. Where else, for instance, would you be able to routinely witness your very own manager getting pissed out of her face each time there's a work do?

And this is the thing. You can work for the most square organisation or local authority or even museum. But take the same line manager who will normally get the cane out if you don't execute orders during working hours; stick them in the midst of a work do and they will happily act like a student performing antics during Fresher's Week, swearing, perving on people, saying cringeworthy stuff or puking in public.

Or, even at work. After bossing you about on a Monday morning and telling you off for being 2 minutes' late,  they will quickly open up and reveal "what a pissed-up night" they had at the weekend. This would be unthinkable anywhere else in Europe but, if you're reading this from the UK, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Whether as a reaction to higher expectations, work pressure, repression or fuck knows what else, it's almost as if booze provided people from all walks of life with a parallel reality where acting stupid, swearing, or more generally "letting your hair down" is suddenly acceptable and nobody will think less of you. If anything, you may even increase your chances of coming across as "cool", or "one of the lads" (or "gals").

And so this is it. According to statistics, the Brits don't drink particularly more than most of their European counterparts. It's the way they drink that sets them aside, cue an expression that has become increasingly popular in the last ten years or so: "binge drinking".

"Binge drinking" is a growing phenomenon. It means that you won't have a drink or two just because you fancy it, or for the sake of a social evening. It means that you will knock back drinks until you drop. Sometimes, even, still ordering more drinks after being sick in the toilet. You literally drink with only one objective in mind: alcoholic annihilation.

Of course, this has triggered hundreds of political, sociological and medical analyses. Why are the British increasingly drinking like this? What can the government do to reverse the trend?

The fact is, no-one has the slightest clue.

One failed attempt was made when licensing hours were extended in 2005 under the illusion that scrapping the restrictions of "last orders" at 11 o'clock would bring about a continental cafe' culture where gents would hand roses to their ladies on their nocturnal passegiata home from the pub.

The one thing that improved, however, was the profits raked in by the big alcohol companies. Just think of the gift they received in the guise of 24-hour off licenses and booze-delivery.

You may have also lost count of claims that "happy hours will be banned", that "supermarkets will no longer be allowed to sell booze at knock down prices", or that "alcopops should be taxed to the hilt". Fact is, binge drinking is still sky rocketing in Britain and both the police and the NHS keep warning that this is coming at a massive cost to the taxpayer (not to mention people's health) - remember an average of about 70% of all crimes committed in England and Wales (from domestic violence to assault and homicide) are linked to alcohol.

This weird relationship with booze is the main reason why British tourists are seen as thuggish and barbaric perma-pissed hooligans in several other countries. It's no wonder that, when you ask a non-Brit to name the first thing that crosses their mind when thinking of the UK, their immediate response is no longer pretty countryside, politeness, Hugh Grant or even Prince Charles' ears, but binge-drinking and vomiting, shagging, or fighting neanderthals.

Sure, this may be unfair to the well-behaved many, but don't forget that the residents of the various Spanish Costas, the Algarve, Faliraki or Zakynthos (as well as the Brits' stag do destinations) have to put up with Britain's drunken exports on a regular basis (see more here).

One thing for sure, it's doing wonders to England's image abroad.


At the other end of the spectrum, any notion of getting drunk or appearing so in public is totally and utterly frowned upon in Italy.

Like we mentioned in the past, the country of la bella figura has little time for people who act inappropriately in public (which makes their staggering tolerance for that pervert of a Prime Minister even more baffling). You may innocently remark to someone that you got pissed at the weekend, but chances are you'll be secretly marked as an alky for the rest of your life.

Italy is, after all, the country of social conservatism par excellance, the place where (more of which in the future) even a tattoo is still widely seen as the prerogative of convicts or junkies only. 

This is not to say that the Italians don't value their booze. After all, wine is one of Italy's most proud exports and every town or city will sport a large number of very cosy-looking "vinoteche" or "vinaterie" where glasses of top-quality wine can be purchased at a relatively low price. Many Italians are also incredibly parochial and almost fascistic when it comes to their food and wine. Go to any supermarket in Italy and the section dedicated to foreign wines is literally the size of a shoebox. Or, worse, say to an Italian that your favourite wine is from another country and your remark will literally come across as a personal insult.

What an Italian would never be able to comprehend, however, is the notion of getting pissed for the sake of it. God knows how they do it, but it is perfectly normal for an Italian to make a beer or glass of wine last for hours.

In particular, Italians indulge in what they call aperitivo which is not just a type of drink to be had before dinner (like commonly regarded in other countries) but it's some sort of all-you-can eat mini-buffet with pizza slices, cheeses, hams and various amazing snacks to be had in a vinoteca or cafe at set times of the evening with the only proviso that you also buy a glass of wine or two. Fantastic if you can't afford to eat out.

Beer is not as popular as wine. Though local brands exist and thrive (though no ale at all, absolutely unheard of in Italy), they simply aren't as popular as in Northern Europe or even Spain.


Half way from Italy's social unacceptability of alcohol and England's professional binge drinking, there is Germany.

Admitting in public that you get pissed every now and then is also quite frowned upon or seen as "unprofessional" or similar. However, especially big cities are hosts to major going-out scenes, which means that the concept of "partying" is not perceived as conservatively as in Italy.

Also add to the equation that beer is a true national institution. With the possible exception of England, Germany is host to a countless number of brands. These may be mostly of the "lager" variety (just think of most of those on your supermarket shelves), but keep an eye out for something most typically German: the so-called Weißbier. As for "ale", there really isn't any in Germany. However, relatively similar products like Duckstein or what they call granat bier may prove a good enough substitute.

Another interesting observation about German drinking culture regards their venues.

Though often translated as "restaurant", a Gaststätte is generally the cosiest pub available on German soil. You can see why local youths may find them boring, old-fashioned and un-trendy, but those often smoky,  candle-lit, wood-decorated and randomly-festooned establishments are the most characteristic (and often cheapest) choice for a nice drink out in Germany. This is especially true if you fancy a quiet chat and a stein.

Unlike the UK, where a pub without music being pumped up loud is as rare as a football player who doesn't shag prozzas, a Gaststätte will be guaranteed to have music at a civilised volume - which is why, like I mentioned earlier, they are more popular with old men than they are with young people.

For the latter, Germany offers a wide range of more trendy-looking cocktail bars.

An interesting remark should also be made about German wine. A visitor to the country will be blown away by the sheer amount of German-made wine available, mostly from the Germany's south-western corner (i.e. Baden-Württemberg or the Rhine region). However, a word of warning. While relatively cheap in supermarkets, wine doesn't come cheap at all if you order it in bars or restaurants.


More in common with the English, Spanish people will happily chuckle at anecdotes about partying hard or getting pissed, as the notion is generally not frowned upon.

However, what's most amazing about the Spaniards is how they pace themselves. Unlike Italy or Northern Europe, Spanish people are absolute social animals in terms of going out and their ordinary nights out usually go on until well after dawn (less so in Catalonia, where most towns are like a cemetery after midnight), which is why the locals would naturally choose not to guzzle their drinks. A typical Spanish observation of a British drinker would be exactly about that: they don't last very long as they knock back anything placed before their eyes.

A relatively recent phenomenon appearing in Spanish cities is that of the botellon. This is basically typical of the under-18 crowd. As they're not allowed in pubs or clubs, entire hordes of teenagers can be found partying at night in squares, public gardens or street corners with tons of bottles and cans purchased from supermarkets. It is partly to limit the effect of this that the northern region of Asturias decided to lower the legal drinking age to 16 (with no effect whatsoever on the phenomenon).

Typical of Spain is the incredible variety of cerveza glass sizes. Spaniards like their beer served extremely cold, which may explain their preference for the unique-looking quintos or cortos, which in England would probably amount to a quarter (or even less) of a pint and would be impossible to fathom. In the warmest parts of the country, most bars actually serve beer in glasses that are commonly kept in the freezer.

In terms of brands, just take your pick: Cruzcampo from Andalucia, Estrella Damm from Catalonia, Mahou and Aguila from Madrid, and of course San Miguel, are only the best known out of a huge lot to choose from.

Alcohol is generally very cheap in Spain. As well as beer, bars serve top quality wine for amazing prices, generally between €1 and €2 for a generous glass. The brands to choose from are literally countless. If you're into white, try the excellent Albariño from Galicia or Rueda Verdejo from Castilla Leon, while rose from Navarra or Catalonia will turn you into an addict. As for red, this blogger doesn't like it, so I can't pass comment.

While both beer and wine are extremely popular across the whole of Spain, northern regions (especially Asturias and the Basque Countries) have a thriving cider culture. Bear in mind cider from the north of Spain has -literally- nothing in common, apart from the name, with English or even French cider.

Cider drinking is seen as a ritual, from the way it is poured (escanciado), to the glasses it is served in and the incredibly rustic-looking sidrerias are central to the way northern Spaniards view their socialising and going out. Fascinatingly, there are dozens of local breweries, which make the whole concept of cider also central to the local economy.

One final word about the notorious tapas bars. With the partial exception of Catalonia, where bars often look more spartan and minimalistic (witness, in most cases, dull-looking metal tables and chairs slung on pavements thirty centimeters from polluted roads - and with napkin-dispensers with Coca Cola or Estrella Damm printed on them just to top it all off), in the rest of Spain bars are exceptionally snug and inviting.

Especially in the north, customers will be treated free of charge to so-called montaditos (miniature snacks consisting of local delicacies arranged on a very small slice of bread) or pintxos -the latter word most typically used in the Basque Country. Often, bar staff will circulate around with trays packed with them, inviting customers to "fill their boots".

Which begs the final point: tapas, which is not a type of food (as many Brits mistakenly think), but an amazing concept consisting of local dishes that can be ordered in very cheap and small portions to be had with your wine, beer or cider.

This is something visitors to Spain will simply fall in love with.


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