I entered the supermarket and looked around. Something was missing. The frozen food section was bigger than ever, the aisle end display products were screaming “buy me!” and people were massed around the “back to school” aisles. Nothing weird here. Yet, I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
I finally came to my sense before embarrassing myself by asking the stupid question. Of course I wouldn’t find wine in a supermarket. I was in Ontario!
In my defense, I have to say I don’t drink. So when I was asked to bring some wine to a dinner I was going to, I headed to the supermarket. Of course. I’d have done that in France. But this is North America, the continent where bottles of alcohol are put into a brown bag or an opaque plastic bag, where you have to show an ID to buy booze if you can at all, and where you can only go to designated places to satisfy your habit (or gourmet addiction if you prefer). Wow.
I grew up in Nantes, a fairly large city stuck between the Atlantic Ocean and the Loire River. It’s neither Champagne nor Bordeaux but it has a lot of vineyards. And it’s close to Brittany, which is a big drinking country and trust me, not only of water. Most of my friend learned to drink with their parents. It starts at 5 years old, where you finish glasses of wine at wedding or special events. By the time you’re ten, you can make the difference between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon. Between 14 and 25, you hang out in bars, discos and parties and perfect your experience with spirits.
Binge drinking used to be rare. The legal drinking age in France is 14 years old to buy beer (beer isn’t alcohol, right?), 16 years old for wine (wine is cultural, right?) and 18 years old to buy distilled alcoholic beverages (kids can wait for these strong shit from the English world… right?). There’s no minimum age for drinking in private. Of course. Added to the fact that legal stipulations placed on the purchase and consumption of alcohol are merely technicalities to which almost no one adheres, there’s very little enforcement of the legal drinking age. As a matter of fact, I had to research legal drinking age for France because I couldn’t remember we had one. Drinking is not an issue. It’s a national tradition.
So what happens in a country where buying booze is as easy as driving (or walking… remember, you’re 14) to the nearest gas station or supermarket? I mean, you can actually buy beer in McDonalds to go with your fries (and not eat the fries—we do have a healthy mind if not a healthy body). And in a country where there’s no legal drinking age? Well, not much I’m afraid.
Drinking is just not a rite of passage. We have plenty of these: to get a driver license (at 18), to obtain the high school diploma and yes, to have sex for the first time. But drinking? Nah. Sure, there must be a peak in partying and waking up the neighbours in the middle of the night around the first year of university but everyone has been drunk at least once way before that.
Therefore, French have a hard time understanding the concepts of fake ID’s, underage drinking and all the tricks north-American kids have to pull out in order to get a few bottles of the precious beverage. A lot of movies revolve around this idea though… Like the movie Superbad I saw last week. I don’t really get it to be honest, although I’m sure it’s partially for show and that kids don’t really wait to be 18, 19 or 21 to get wasted.
As for myself, as a true rebel, I didn’t feel like experiencing something legal and widespread. On top of that, I find beer way to bitter, wine too expensive and cocktails too sweet. I just stick to mint tea, grapefruit juice and Diet Coke. Call me boring if you want—I don’t care.
Do I think the way French handle drinks is stupid? Well, kind of. I mean, sure kids don’t go crazy once they turn 21 years old and yes, wine is a national thing but drunk-driving is way to common and alcohol is so commonplace that not drinking isn’t normal. And a lot of people drink way too much… but the nation is in a state of denial even though alcohol is the third greatest cause of avoidable deaths in France.
But on the other side, North American society sometimes makes me raise an eyebrow. A society where kids are allowed to drive, own a gun (yes, it is a stereotype!)Vote and go to war before being allowed to drink? A place where people smoke 9 meters from building doors but happily eat trans-fat products? A place where they are two gyms in every block… along with three McDonalds and five Burger Kings? Surely, European and Americans have different concern about health. French happily indulge themselves and don’t feel guilty about it (it’s cultural, it’s a personal choice, it’s the way we’ve always done it) whereas North Americans tend to be health freaks but don’t necessarily do things right when it comes to public health.
Meanwhile, I can’t help wondering whether there’s a happy medium between making alcohol a forbidden fruit and sucking up your first drink at age 5. Must be. Somewhere.