Drinking – the universal pastime that is such a big part of cultures all over the world. I do often wonder how differently I would see a city if I avoided alcohol altogether. In many parts of the world, language barriers and cultural differences are erased as glasses are clinked and drinking games are played. Some of the best nights out can be had with none of your native language spoken, so long as you find yourself in the company of a group of people who came to drink – and in my experience, very often you don’t need to search too far.
The first time I travelled in Central Asia, I was surprised and quite disappointed by the lack of pubs. “Do people not drink here?” I wondered. But oh, how wrong I was. Drinking is in fact such a huge part of culture in countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It isn’t that they don’t go to bars – they just don’t waste time with moving anywhere else.
Arriving in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I found myself in the company of a visiting Frenchman and a friendly crew of Kazakh men. How foolish to think that a dinner invitation would be anything less than a truly local experience with vodka being poured before the starters were served and long after dessert had been cleared. The table and the scene was set from the start: the table is laid, plates are passed around, and a full and unusually large bottle of vodka adorns either side of the long table. Hell, throw one in the middle for good measure – no point stretching so far for what we all know you’ll soon want, right?
Before the dinner is done, everyone is already three shots in – and the real party hasn’t even begun. And the party isn’t over until all the vodka on the table has been consumed. There will be food, there will be vodka, and there will also be a copious amount of toasting. I emerged unscathed solely because I was female; it seemed advisable to put my fight for equality on hold for the sake of my liver.
In Russia, there is, of course, no shortage of vodka, which is by far the most common alcoholic drink in the country. Waiting in line at the supermarket, it doesn’t take long to observe how much of a daily purchase, or even a necessity, vodka is. After office hours it’s a pretty standard supermarket list: loaf of bread, quarter litre of vodka. No fuss, no bother, no judgment whatsoever.
Coming in second place is beer, which is seen as a slightly less sinister indulgence. It was only in 2011 that beer was even declared an alcoholic beverage – it was previously dismissed as the harmless younger cousin of vodka. For a long time, and perhaps even to this day, beer was merely a soft drink that could be had with lunch or on an evening walk just as easily as a bottle of Sprite or fizzy water could be enjoyed without much thought.
During the long, cold winters, it isn’t difficult to see how these traditions began. You end up drinking a lot – and when it’s cold outside, you don’t really want to be going on a bar crawl. So you might as well stay in one place, and eat, and drink… and keep drinking while you’re at it.
THE LAISSEZ FAIRE WAY
Meanwhile, in France, wine by the river doesn’t need to be as fancy as it sounds. When its warm outside, picnics in the park are the norm, and wine is popped by the bottle as a breezy evening is enjoyed. True to the classy but relaxed French culture, it isn’t that people are out with roadies to amble about town with. Instead, the French are settled in a scenic place with a bottle or two of wine and some bread and cheese. It’s a beautiful and entirely true French stereotype that any traveller would be delighted to chance upon.
Leave it to the French to make public drinking as sophisticated as it possibly can be.
THE ITALIAN APERITIVO
In Italy, evening Aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks) is everywhere. What it now means too many is an excellent happy hour deal where you buy a drink and eat for free. Italians, proud as they are of their cuisine, aren’t about to let you sip on a Spritzer without delicious treats to go with it. In Milan, most drink orders would include a cheese platter or a variety of entrees while some places had generous all-you-can-eat buffets to go with as little as one drink. Your night out is just as much about the food as it is about your cocktail of choice.
Whether you’re learning about energy and heat conservation in Russia and Central Asia, chilling in a most classy way in France or heartily feasting with your wine in Italy, indulging in the local alcohol of choice is a great way to learn more about the way locals live, and to enjoy the culture you’re in.
Everything in moderation and all that, but hey, who says drinking is bad for you?