I had been in Paris not 24 hours when I found myself squatting on a shaded corner in the 9th arrondissement, vomiting into a wax pastry bag, having lobbed the pain de campagne it once held at my boyfriend so I could use it as my personal puke sack. This was how I introduced myself to the City of Lights.
To be clear, I neither want nor deserve your pity. It came as no surprise that the bottle-and-a-half of red wine, the two gin martinis, the digestif I couldn’t pronounce, and the Champagne “nightcap” I’d consumed the night before had wreaked havoc on my stomach. But in my defense, this was how I learned to drink.
I was born and raised in a country marked by binge culture. Growing up, my mother refused to keep dessert in the house, finding it near impossible to limit herself to some of the cake without inhaling all of the cake. It was a cycle that called for personal deprivation, an all or nothing approach. In much the same way, I found myself incapable of saving money: Throughout my fringe adulthood, my bank account hovered gracefully above empty. I subsisted on office Cheetos and Keurig coffee -- until I got paid. Then came expensive dresses! Irrelevant coffee table books! Drinks at bars! Drinks for strangers at bars! There was no middle ground between absence and excess -- in my enclave of the world, New York City, USA, that was just how consumption worked.
Alcohol, of course, was no exception. For many of us, drinking is a sport. It requires its own sad form of athleticism. You have heard it said that there is no such thing as one drink. You have probably made this case, yourself.
At 22, I went on my first trip to Paris. I pranced around in penny loafers and shift dresses, smoking long European cigarettes, lowering my voice to say café s'il vous plaît to bow-tie clad waiters. And I drank. Wine by the bottle sold for a fraction of the price I was used to paying, and it was all markedly better quality (or at least I assumed so, this was France).
It was also my understanding that the French could drink anyone under the table. Wandering through the Marais, I watched, baffled, while Parisians in ascots sipped glasses of Sancerre over two-hour lunches before parading back to their offices. I, on the other hand, was doing my best to avoid drinking at all during daylight hours, knowing that I wouldn’t stop once I started, needing to save strength for a long night of drinking ahead. When my American friends and I went out to the sort of bass-rattling art kid dance clubs we liked best, we always appeared to be the most intoxicated people at the party, hoisting our limp bodies in and out of cabs while our Parisian friends puttered home on foot, relatively unscathed. It seemed inarguably true that the French were simply better at drinking.
The French are not simply better at drinking. They do not possess some remarkable gene that gifts them with supernaturally high alcohol tolerance and effortlessly chic bedhead. They do, however, drink differently.
The French aren’t “better” drinkers, but they are slower drinkers
“It’s a whole culture. It starts around a dinner table when kids are still kids. It’s never this exciting, foreign thing,” David Costa, American expatriate and owner of bustling Parisian bar The Brklyn, tells me over the phone. Costa split much of his upbringing between Paris and New York. As he understands it, the Parisian approach to drinking comes as a byproduct of family tradition, accessibility, and a lower drinking age (18 years). But he also believes that much of the distinction lies in the culture itself.
“For my customers, drinking is a much slower process,” Costa tells me. “Back when I was waiting tables, French couples would come in, sit down, and begin to talk. They’d shoo me away four times before they even ordered a drink -- they were taking their time.”
As Costa sees it, efficiency falls fairly low down on the roster of French priorities -- one of the reasons American tourists in Paris are often frustrated by the slow service. “In New York, folks would barely sit down before I had their order. The French are looking at each other, they’re conversing. As a server, you don’t even really need to attend to their table. They’ll flag you down if they want something.”