Max: …and drinkDecember 10, 2011
First, I’d like to make a correction, or rather an addition, to last week’s post: I mentioned that in Germany three meals are generally eaten in a day. I forgot to mention that it’s often customary to have coffee and cake anywhere between three and five in the afternoon (like tea-time in the UK, except with coffee). It’s not a universal custom; this meal is understandably absent in the normal budget-conscious student’s day.
Now for the central subject matter, namely, the role of alcoholic beverages in German and American societies: The public consumption of alcoholic beverages in Germany is markedly more common than in the US. I’ll take restaurants as an example: It’s probably safe to say that a significant fraction of Americans don’t regularly drink alcohol at restaurants. In German restaurants, however, it’s rare to see someone who isn’t drinking beer or wine. This is most pronounced in Germany’s famous beer gardens, where everyone except children orders a beer with their food. In the higher-end restaurants it’s the same thing with wine in the place of beer. In fact, it’s rare to have anything but beer, wine, or water with a meal other than breakfast or coffee-and-cake.
In other public places the situation is similar. In many American cities it’s illegal to drink alcohol on the streets and other public spaces (I’m guessing restaurants don’t technically count as public spaces); this is the reason you may see people taking drinks out of suspicious-looking paper bags on city streets. In Munich, there either doesn’t seem to be a law against it or it’s never enforced, because people with half-liter beer bottles are a common sight on the streets and sometimes on the trains and subways (which is, unfortunately, where they like to sing loud, slurred, out-of-tune songs).
All these differences lead back to cultural traditions. It’s said that in Bavaria (the German state of which Munich is the capital) beer is not alcohol; it’s food. Drinking good beer is one of the main Bavarian traditions besides wearing a Lederhosen or a Dirndl, the dress you’d see most often at Oktoberfest. Speaking of Oktoberfest, how did I get this far in the post without mentioning it? It’s one of the most spectacular displays in the world of old traditions mixed with gaudy fairground rides and rampant alcoholism! It shows that drinking alcohol and even getting incredibly drunk don’t have nearly the social stigma that they do in the US.
I’m guessing this stigma exists in the US in the first place because the country was founded predominantly by Puritans, whose conservative social rules have survived in some form to the present day. This would also explain, for example, the relative intolerance of nudity in the US as compared to other European countries.
Excessive and Underage Drinking
Finally, I wanted to bring up the topic of the drinking age and the related topic of excessive drinking (here meaning drinking specifically for the purpose of getting drunk). This is a tough topic to cover neutrally, so I’ll do the best I can. If you notice a significant bias in this section that you’d like to point out, please do so in the comments without starting a flame war. First, the basic facts: In the US the general drinking age is 21 for any type of alcohol, with state-to-state exceptions for drinking in the company of responsible adults. In Germany it is allowed to drink beer or wine at 16 and all other alcoholic beverages at 18. Now, if I were to tell you that everyone, or even most people, follow the drinking-age laws in the US you would probably ask me how many pairs of rose-colored glasses I was wearing. Underage drinking happens commonly on American college campuses (including the U of M), occasionally with tragic consequences.
Before living as a student in Germany, I was of the opinion that this excessive drinking was happening because the drinking age was so high and students were drinking out of defiance. It’s possible, however, that the drinking happens just as much in German universities as in American ones. Every week I see a new party advertised in the student residences where the sole theme is to get as drunk as possible. One example of this is a party advertisement that used a poster for a drinking awareness campaign, retitling “Alcohol: Know your limit” to “Alcohol: Blow your limit.” I think it’s pretty safe to say that excessive drinking at the student age is a constant across many cultures. Because of this I don’t think lowering the drinking age in America will help the problem of underage drinking much. I view drinking as a freedom that’s nice and symbolic, but shouldn’t be abused and can be abstained from for a few years. Other Americans who view drinking in this way should be fine with keeping the drinking age the way it is, while those who really want to drink will always find a way to do so.
The most effective thing that really can be done against excessive drinking is to limit the damage that it does. Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) laws are one example of this, although in my personal opinion most aren’t tough enough. Operating a fast-moving two-ton piece of machinery should never be done under the influence of significant amounts of alcohol, and if you have done this before that’s almost always enough evidence that you’re not qualified to drive a car at all.
For more information on DWI laws in various countries you can visit this informative website. More specific information on DWI laws in various US states is only one Web search away; here’s a summary of Minnesota’s laws on the subject as a representative example.