Since moving to the land of fine wine, alcohol consumption in our household has dropped off considerably from the levels we maintained in London. Given that a) we love wine with admirable passion; b) approximately a quarter of the surface area of our local supermarket is taken up with the stuff (all French of course); and c) it is possible to buy a perfectly decent bottle for as little as 4€, nobody is as amazed by this cutback as we are.
We hail, after all, from a nation where alcohol serves a multitude of purposes besides simply being one ingredient of a good fête. For example, in the middle of winter, young women (and I number my teenage self amongst them) drink alcohol instead of wearing the heavy coats that would otherwise be necessary. Indeed, in some parts of the country, alcohol also serves as a useful substitute for a pair of tights or even a skirt. At the opposite end of the thermometer, when we go on holiday our menfolk are not obliged to pack sun cream to protect their pasty skin because a sufficient number of cans of lager consumed under the midday sun will easily numb the pain of the resulting burns.
Alcohol also helps us to cast off our inhibitions. On first arriving at a British social gathering it can be difficult to know what to say. Without the presence of alcohol there is the risk that everyone will find themselves standing in an awkward circle in the middle of the room, staring intently at their feet as silence reigns. Throw a few G&Ts into the middle of that circle and who would want to be anywhere else? I myself have been known to be positively witty after a glass of wine. After two I become fluent in several languages and quite a proficient flirt. After three or four it is conceivable that I will begin to throw some shapes: up until that magical moment my dance moves resemble those of a startled and deeply ashamed plank with a nervous twitch.
Of course the French climate and skin tone are such that French people do not need to have recourse to WKD as a coat or Fosters as an analgesic. However, French people also seem to have honed either their social skills or their boredom threshold to such a point that lubrication is no longer a prerequisite for interaction with other humans.
Shortly after our arrival in France we attended, as a family, a ceremony of New Year vœux hosted by the outgoing mayor of our village. We pretended to ourselves that we were doing this in order to integrate ourselves into village life, but in truth we had been lured there by the promise of champagne. We arrived about ten minutes late, to find ourselves at the back of a large crowd of people, all listening intently to the mayor, who was burbling into a microphone about the achievements of his tenure. Everyone else seemed rapt. Even the children were quiet. We, on the other hand, starting fidgeting after our first five minutes in the room. We kept surreptitiously eyeing the banks of trestle tables at the back, on which were lined up hundreds of tantalising champagne flutes. We whispered to each other that at least we’d arrived late, so the tedium of the wait would be short-lived. We were wrong. We stayed in that room for a further hour, parched, hungry and very grouchy. When we left, despite having started almost every sentence for the previous half an hour with the word enfin, the mayor was still going strong. We retreated home to a waiting bottle of wine, marvelling at the endurance of the French. Had that ceremony been in England, the only way to make anyone stay in the room for a speech of only half the length would have been to brave the risk of drunken heckling and serve the champagne first.
Yet, precisely as the world imagines, the French do love their alcohol. At meetings of the French PTA equivalent, I never cease to be taken aback by the appearance of a bottle of cider, modest measures of which are poured reverently into plastic cups. These measures are then sipped appreciatively over the course of an hour or so. As someone whose only memories of drinking cider involve swigging it from two-litre plastic bottles whilst sitting on children’s play equipment in the park at night, I still have to restrain myself from downing my measure in one then wincing with distaste afterwards. I find it difficult to relate to these people who seem to drink cider because they actually enjoy it as a beverage rather than because it is the cheapest way to get drunk.
Whilst I don’t think that any amount of cider-sipping will endear me to fermented apple juice, over time I find that my appreciation of wine has grown through drinking better-quality examples in (slightly) smaller quantities. That said, there is no way that I am ever going to be French enough to be able to shimmy around the dance floor, fuelled only by water and joy.
If, like me, you are interested in viewing such issues from the other end of the telescope, you could try reading one of the many French people who have established themselves in London, for example, French Yummy Mummy