A few rambling thoughts on alcohol
Emily C. Skaftun
Norwegian American Weekly
Oh, alcohol. We human beings have a strange relationship to this substance. It’s been part of human cultures pretty much since the beginning, and whether you love it or hate it, alcohol is here to stay.
Even animals like alcohol, and I’m not just talking about that strange dog who likes to lick the recycling. Elephants have been known to raid a town’s beer supply, then go on massive destructive benders (elephants are angry drunks). Bears and monkeys alike filch drinks from unwary humans. Pigs, deer, moose, birds, bats, and even tree shrews seek out fermented fruits—which might explain how humans discovered alcohol in the first place.
I imagine the first human to get drunk was probably a cavewoman out foraging. She stumbled across some questionable fruit, ate it even though it tasted funny, and liked the way she felt after that. She brought a whole bunch of the fruit back to the cave and told the other cavepeople, “This fruit is bad. But it’s also soooo good.”
That also neatly sums up the divided takes people have on alcohol. It’s the substance we love to hate. It’s fundamental to most cultures, yet having too much is taboo. Drunks cause more damage than users of any other substance, yet at least in the U.S. it’s the one that must remain legal. One only has to look to Prohibition to see that banning it makes things worse.
Differences in the way a culture handles beer, wine, and spirits can tell us a lot about the respective cultures. Young Americans in border states love to hop into Mexico or Canada to enjoy the lower drinking ages, and those with the means to do a summer in Europe before or during college also revel in that change, sometimes to a reckless degree.
Some think Americans’ abuse of alcohol can be traced to our late drinking age, the latest in the world (except in countries where alcohol is banned, of course). The fact that most college students are underage leads to binge drinking before school functions at which alcohol is not served. Because of this, it’s largely colleges who are behind a growing movement to lower the drinking age. Counter-intuitively, as I learned when teaching college students who were mostly 18–20 years old, students aren’t necessarily in favor of that proposition. They mostly all drink even though it’s illegal, but they don’t think the law should change, because though they can handle it, their peers can’t. But I’m getting off topic.
I’m not an expert on how these things work in Norway. Heidi Grosch, who has lived in both countries, has done some good research on differing DUI penalties, which explains some of the behavior I saw while in Norway a couple years ago.
One thing that struck me was that when our families had a nice dinner at someone’s house, only about half the people would consume even a glass of wine. I thought perhaps my Norwegian family had a high concentration of teetotalers, but then I learned that the divide could be mapped onto who had to drive home after dinner and who didn’t.
One night some of my cousins wanted to show us a good time in Bergen. We were staying way out, on a farm in the middle of the island of Osterøy, and the way we’d normally made it into Bergen was to drive to another family member’s house in Indre Arna and take the commuter train from there. But of course after one dances the clubs closed (as the summer sun is rising) the train isn’t running. I’d had a scant couple of drinks and felt fine, but even if we’d had a car available none of the cousins would have let me get behind the wheel. Yes, we took a cab all the way home. It was the most expensive cab ride of my life (thanks, cousins!).
So why hadn’t I consumed more alcohol? It wasn’t because I’ve never developed a taste for akevitt (though I haven’t). The one thing any American traveler to Norway is sure to notice is the cost. Fifteen dollars for a beer? Uff da! I’m afraid that kept me from sampling a lot of the drinking culture I might otherwise have soaked up, so to speak.
Uneducated as I am, I’ll end my disjointed musing on alcohol (not written while on alcohol) and let others fill you in on this intoxicating aspect of Norwegian culture. Skål!
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.