By and large, we Europeans are a pretty heavy-drinking bunch. In fact, according to recent figures from the World Health Organization, Europeans drink more alcohol per person than anyone else in the world, with European countries making up all the top 10 heaviest drinking nations worldwide (take a bow, Belarus, for winning that top spot position).
Yep, alcohol is an embedded part of many European cultures. Whether it’s British binge drinking or Mediterranean bottles of vino washing down every meal, it’s most likely that, when in Europe, an opportunity to drink won’t be far away.
Add to that minimum drinking ages that range between 16 to 20, and it’s not hard to see why those who are still too young to drink in their home country can go a little bit crazy when the chance to buy booze without impunity or limit presents itself.
When in Europe, it’s easy to lose your head: the romance, history, landscape and fine dining can all conspire to make a girl go mad as it is. Adding copious amounts of boozing can be a recipe for disaster or success in equal measure. So the question is: how’s a girl to traverse European drinking culture without losing her way?
Tempting as it can be to try and keep up with the locals: don’t. If you’re not used to drinking with meals throughout the day, or binging at the pub on a Friday night, then now is not to time to start unless you want to either embarrass yourself or pass out – whichever happens first.
The easiest way to pace yourself – and stay hydrated (especially important in warmer countries) – is to balance each alcoholic drink with a glass of water. Ask for tap water – in nearly all European countries it’s perfectly drinkable, and free!
Beware the Mystery Drinks
Drinks you’re not familiar with are exciting to try, but best approached with caution – be sparing until you know what your tolerance is.
Even with familiar drinks, such as wines, beers and ciders, it’s worth remembering that European labels may well be stronger than what you’re used to at home. Where I live in the UK, for example, cider is the drink of choice – and it’s not unheard of for it to be so strong that it’s only sold in half pints. If you approach these drinks with the same gusto you might in other nations, you’re asking for trouble.
Travel Insurance Woes
One particularly practical reason it pays to not try and keep pace with the locals when drinking in Europe is that of travel insurance – if a local gets hurt or is a victim of crime when drunk, that sucks, but they can go to the hospital or the police and not worry about their blood alcohol level being an issue. Not so for the backpacker with travel insurance; often, a drunk claim is a rejected claim.
Before you leave home, read the small print of your policy so you know exactly what’s covered and what’s not when alcohol is involved. If you know in advance that any medical treatments that arise from drunken falls or alcohol poisoning are likely to come out of your own pocket, it might make you think twice about ordering that extra drink.
The same drinking safety rules you follow at home apply just as much in Europe – but are often compounded by the fact that you’re on unfamiliar territory, perhaps with unfamiliar people. Speaking generally:
- Drinking and driving: obviously don’t drive drunk. However, if you’re not used to driving in a foreign country (particularly on the ‘wrong’ side of the road) then it might be best to play it safe and avoid all alcoholic drinks, even if you’re still technically within the legal limit. Also, always try to make sure you know how you’ll be getting home at the end of the night – you don’t want to find yourself stranded somewhere with your only offer of a lift coming from a drunk driver and no idea how else to get back.
- Drink spiking dangers: sadly, the dangers of having your drink spiked exist, no matter however statistically unlikely, wherever you might be in the world. Remember that drink spiking doesn’t just refer to strangers slipping you date rape drugs; spiking a drink with alcohol is more common, and the aim may simply be a misguided attempt at a joke (i.e. to get you drunker than you intended). Either way, be aware: order your own drinks, keep an eye on them, and if you start to feel strange then tell your friends or bar security at once.
- Know your limits: drinking too much alcohol can be fun, but it also puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning, passing out, throwing up… the list goes on. If you do start feeling worse for wear, it’s best to be with a trusted friend who you know will look after you.
Feel Free to Say No
If you’re not a drinker – or simply don’t fancy it for the moment – it’s perfectly fine to say ‘no’ when offered a drink. Yes, alcohol is a large part of many European cultures, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink, or that you won’t experience Europe if you don’t. A simple ‘no’ should usually be enough; if the people you’re with don’t accept that, an ‘I’m not feeling great/ I’m too hungover/ Actually, I’m intolerant to alcohol – it gives me migraines’ should do the trick.
Enjoy and stay safe when you drink in Europe!