Sunday, April 18, 2010

Frugal Alcohol Consumption in Foreign Countries

At any given moment, you can bet that 60% of the UK is drunk. If it's after 8:00pm, that percentage doubles. Out of all the Anglo/American cultural differences*, Alcohol as an English Institution is by far the awesomest. Wine at every school or professional function. Pints cheaper than soft drinks. Store-brand gin. Cider sold in two-liter plastic bottles, presumably for serving at 7-year-olds' birthday parties just like the similarly packaged Fanta. Come Christmas, mulled wine and whiskey hot chocolate for sale in street markets and on street corners. Once my friends and I went to an American-themed diner/bowling alley, and there were alcoholic milkshakes!

I jumped right on this cultural bandwagon (can one fall off the wagon and concurrently jump on a bandwagon?). Idiom confusion notwithstanding, my only fear of embracing this English tradition was the cost. Financially-speaking, not liver damage-speaking. Despite worldwide economic crisis, Great Britain is doing JUST FINE, in my humble American opinion, with a ruthless currency exchange rate of £1.00 = $1.70. I resolved to test the hospitality of this Christian nation and only drink when someone else was picking up the tab.

The months that followed were a shameless shitshow of crashing staff parties (PITCHERS! DANCING!), lingering at wine and cheese receptions (EXAGGERATED INTEREST IN THEATER-RELATED ACADEMIA!), befriending barmen at local pubs (FREE AND FREE-POUR! AND SOMETIMES FREE CHEESECAKE!), and sneaking home as many Globe Education wine bottles as I could fit in my bookbag (REASON #87897 NOT TO CARRY A TINY PURSE!).

Of course I broke my own rule pretty frequently, me being a sucker for supermarket 3 bottles of wine for £10 sales and all. On more than one occasion I walked into a bar or pub carrying my own drinks for the night in the deep pockets of my Lands End Kids coat, having just finished one off on the walk over (NO OPEN CONTAINER LAWS!). The only time this got me in trouble was when I set down my off-brand cider so I could dance with my friends, and a surly bartender snatched it right up and confronted me:

SURLY BARTENDER- Is this yours?
ME- Nope! I've never seen that before!
SURLY BARTENDER- How come I saw you drinking it?
ME- Oh, I'll drink anything!

Surlily, he confiscated my drink-not-purchased-on-the-premises. It was fine, there were only a couple of swallows left. Although I should have answered his first question with "I don't know, let me taste it and see." The moral of this story is, for safety reasons, just hang on to your drink when dancing.

Ever the desperate spendthrift, when I traveled abroad I couchsurfed. This meant I got in touch with people via internet who agreed to let me crash at their places during my visits to their cities. My mom still thinks couchsurfing is a school-sponsored study-abroad organization. When I emailed her from Berlin, she responded with hopes that I was "having fun and that my teachers were nice." The point is, although England can drink any EU country under the table, I had some equally memorable alcoholic experiences on the Continent.

On a horse farm in Tuscany, I bottled the local wine my host, Nicola, purchased in tanks for about €2 a liter. He took it for granted that I, like all Italians, drink half a bottle of wine with every meal, and I didn't have the heart to prove him wrong. Nicola also introduced me to grappa and, on the opposite end of the adult beverage spectrum, Italian coffee.

When Mom, Jaci (my delightful 16-year-old sister) and I visited Rome together**, we shared the most fantastic bottle of chianti at a small, gaudy little restaurant whose d├ęcor is best described as "stone archways, Christmas lights, and a roaming Nigerian immigrant selling African handicrafts". Our kind of place! I say "we" because our waiter served Jaci without batting an eye. That act alone made her a little drunk. When she bravely brought the wine to her lips, her whole face immediately turned red as a Roma tomato. Hahahaha! Mom and I split her glass. We all scored a free limoncello for dessert, Mom taking care of Jaci's because she'd sworn off alcohol by then.

I had Guinness in Ireland, Leffe in France (it's actually Belgian, I KNOW), and Becks and Helles in Germany, all enjoyed with generous couchsurfing hosts. But my favorite beverage (and drinking experience) during my seven-month stint across the pond was in fact English: Brothers toffee apple cider. I discovered this candy apple gem of a drink at this knitting shop my friend Maura and I frequented. They had community knit-and-drink nights!!!

I bet by now you're thinking, "Breanna, how on earth are you holding up back in the US? You and your freeloading skills seem so well-suited to life abroad!" Oh, don't worry about me. I've been successfully reacclimating myself with the one thing available in the US and nowhere else (outside of North and South America, that is): delicious, cheap Mexican food.

*Fries are chips and chips are crisps, underwear is pants and pants are trousers, bumming a fag is acceptable in polite conversation but DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES jump the queue. Or order an 'Irish Car Bomb'. Just, don't.

**We did not couchsurf. We did stay in a dive-y motel. But il Colosseo, la Basilica di San Pietro, and this dinner totally made up for it.


  1. I can't believe you could stomach lemoncello. That stuff is vile. TOFFEE CIDER. Oh man. That sounds wonderful. And speaking of free alcohol, I got a mini bottle of sweet tea vodka out of a pinata on Saturday!

  2. This was so funny! And yes, Leffe is Belgian, but Belgian beer seems to be EVERYWHERE in France.
    I feel you on the Mexican food. Mmm. That's one thing I found bafflingly absent from every European country I've visited. Why hasn't someone brought Mexican food to Europe? Will the first person to do so become rich overnight?