The Soul Of A Culture

Stephen Jenkins gives his take on truly discovering Spanish culture.

Cultural can often mean trudging around dull museums, shuffling around ancient Cathedrals, gazing at endless rows of paintings, or reading impenetrable works of literature. Fortunately, however, there is also such a thing as drinking culture, which is much more fun. I know that alcoholism itself isn’t funny but then neither are Nietzche or Dostoevsky, and Van Gogh wasn’t much of a laugh either. If you really want to get into the soul of a culture then the best way to do so is to go out drinking, unless you find yourself in a non-drinking culture in which case that pretty much tells you all you need to know anyway. Of course many people don’t drink, in much the same way as many people don’t write symphonies, or make sculptures. It doesn’t matter. We cannot all be prodigies.

A nation’s drinking culture is highly revealing. Different cultures drink in different ways. Show us how you drink and you’ll show us what you’re like. History teaches us, for example, that trying to outdrink Russians is ultimately as self-destructive as trying to invade Russia. Scandinavians, led by their Eastern neighbours the Finns, are famously morose drunks, partly I suppose because it costs about 10 euros a pint with anything stronger than beer being reserved for special government shops which dispense vodka in much the same way other cultures dispense methadone. I was once told that there is a specific verb in Finnish for getting drunk at home alone in your underwear, and I pray that this is true.

Generally speaking the further north you go not only do people drink more, but they do so in a much more deliberate and frenetic manner. The Spanish drink a lot, but rarely with the deliberate intention of intoxication, and they seem to know when to stop, and weirdly often don’t notice that their glass is empty. Italians seem to be the least drunken people in Europe, possibly because it’s difficult to get really pissed without spilling at least some of your drink on your clothes. The Germans of course are great drinkers of beer, which they do in nice orderly beer houses and at designated festivals. They are loud but generally jovial. The English, on the other hand associate alcohol with mayhem and disorder, and the opportunity to bring chaos to the world. Visitors to provincial English towns on a Saturday night, reared upon a diet of Jane Austen, and Downton Abbey, are often surprised to find themselves in Armageddon.
I can think of two revealing examples that illustrate the way the Spanish and the English diverge in their approach to alcohol. First of all, even now, despite the ravages of globalisation, most bars in Madrid still serve spirits by pouring them manually into a tall glass and asking the customer “when?” Civilised Spaniards will usually wait until the glass is about half full and then indicate that that is enough. The Brits, reared upon foul optics that dispense a thimble full of whisky that evaporates before you can drink it, simply cannot believe that the waiter will continue pouring until asked to stop. So being British, they invariably pretend to be distracted by their phone, or something in the middle distance until the glass is actually overflowing. Only then will they gesture that that is enough. Cheap alcohol, and lots of it, the heady stuff of dreams.

The second example is even more poignant. When I first arrived in Spain about 25 years ago, before neo-liberalism had turned us all into anxious wage slaves, most people would have several Menu del Dias a week ie a fixed price menu that typically consisted of a salad and then a main course of fish or meat and dessert. It was very nice and very good value, and still is if you go to the right places. However, crucially it also came with a bottle of wine. I arrived in Spain with 5 other Brits and we soon realised that if you went to the restaurant alone you got a whole bottle of wine and if you went with 2 or three people you also got just the one bottle. This is because the Spanish think of wine as a beverage to accompany a meal, and not as a means to escape reality. So being young and British and victims of our culture we took to entering the restaurant separately and sitting at different tables until we had each got our own bottle of wine, upon which we would suddenly feign to have noticed one another and then all join up at the same table with our 5 bottles between us. A sad story in many ways, but they were happy times. I would like to think things have changed but a German friend in Barcelona was surprised when a year or so ago 10 Chelsea supporters entered his local bar and ordered 10 bottles of wine and then proceeded to sit in a row each swigging from their own personal bottle, living breathing metaphors for whatever is the opposite of civilised.

The great thing about drinking culture is that every culture has its own drink and literally the only good thing about globalisation is that they are now nearly all available everywhere. I once spoke to a friend about giving up drinking and remarked that it would be easy if only it weren’t for the divine experience that is a cold beer on a hot day. He agreed and said he felt the same about red wine with steak. I countered with white wine and seafood, and any wine with cheese. He came back at me with malt whisky. We then went on to discuss rum (dark and white), vodka (keep it in the freezer), gin ( a universe in itself), tequila, port, sherry, brandy, sake, and absinthe and concluded that everything is good except jagermeister, and that it’s a pity we are born with just the one liver.

Apparently young people in the west are drinking less than ever. It’s unclear as to why this should be. Some say it’s a consequence of a collective nervous breakdown as a whole generation has become panicked by the neo liberal zeitgeist into permanently worrying about the future. Others say it’s to do with narcissism and the cult of the body although that doesn’t seem to have stopped people from eating themselves into submission. I have heard it posited that it’s to do with the influence of religions that not only believe that there is a supernatural being residing in judgement over humanity, but that it especially hates booze, and that they know this to be the case. Another school of thought is that people are terrified by constant health propaganda. I think it’s actually probably more connected to the fact that for centuries there was very little else to do except drink, or moan about drinking, and now people have Netflix and Play stations and phones so they can kill aliens or watch endless TV instead while messaging their friends, or reinforcing their prejudices online.

Of course alcohol, like life is ultimately self-defeating, but in its own deeply flawed way it still helps lubricate our passage through this bizarre, beautiful, terrifying existence to which we are temporarily shackled and it also tastes nice. Especially if you go to one of the brilliant new micro pubs that are springing up all over East Kent and have a pint of White Rat, or Dog Vomit, or whatever other startlingly weird name they give to the nectar that is proper English Ale.

Live responsibly people, and enjoy the culture!

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