Why the French Are Better Drinkers Than Americans
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.”
The French don’t drink with the sole purpose of getting drunk
In my own experience, drinking has always had an endgame. At the ripe age of 14, my friends and I ordered fake IDs from an obscure mail-order service based in China, later receiving our phony Pennsylvania driver’s licenses hidden inside of a plastic tea set. For the remainder of our high school careers, we would buy handles of Svedka and siphon the mediocre vodka into emptied Poland Spring water bottles. We drank these while riding the subway, en route to deep Brooklyn for parties held in former shoelace factories.
It is unclear to me why we were under the impression that we couldn’t mix anything with the pseudo-nail polish remover we were downing, but the point is not the vile beverage itself -- it’s the way it was consumed. We drank with one goal in mind. While sober, we were quiet, awkward, stiff. We did not enjoy drinking -- we enjoyed being inebriated.
“I still think about the amount of terrible vodka underage people would sneak into their dorms and drink discreetly while I was studying in Boston,” says Pierre-Yves, a graduate student in Paris who asked that I omit his last name. “We do shots and get wasted in France obviously, but not even close to as much as in the US. Hard liquors are for the rare wild nights out.”
Pierre-Yves’s first foray into American drinking culture was when he was studying abroad. Having arrived from a country where a taste for Sancerre develops at 13, he was struck, unsurprisingly, by the behind-closed-doors binge drinking that characterizes the American college dorm. “Drinking was a transgression and you had to hide to do it,” he recalls. “And it was less fun.”
It’s not that the French can drink anyone under the table, but that no one wants to be under the table to begin with.
I met Pierre-Yves in Brooklyn. At the time, he was writing a short thesis on Patti Smith, and he spoke arguably better English than I did. He wore gauzy, ineffective cloth scarves that made no secret of his Euro-status. But for his distinctly French air, he certainly did not falter within the context of an American bar scene. “Oh how American.” he would tease, each time I urged him to take a shot before heading out for the night. And while he could certainly keep up, this was not the way he would choose to drink.
“Because it’s not taboo or forbidden [in France], booze isn’t super lusted after the way it is with American teenagers. French kids learn how to drink at home with their families, not with each other,” says Louisa Crawford, an American student who studies, currently, at the American University of Paris. “They can learn to appreciate it as something that compliments a meal.”
The French are here for the food (and the wine, always the wine)
Growing up, Pierre-Yves was conditioned to opt for wine over liquor, regardless of the circumstances. The way I salivated over a bourbon at the close of my workday, he craved wine. He understood wine in a way I attributed exclusively to sommeliers and assholes.
But if you learn to savor a glass of red wine at 15, you’re unlikely to distill the practice of drinking into a means to an end. Apparently, it’s not that the French can drink anyone under the table, but rather, that no one wants to be under the table to begin with. In fact, the table is such a beloved piece of real estate, the opportunity to sit there discounts the desire for just about anything else.
“[In France] you’re always eating and drinking, drinking and eating,” Costa explains. “Your whole experience is centered around actually enjoying yourself. Your goal is not to get drunk, it’s to spend as much quality time in this place with these people as possible.”
Costa tells me that while studying art in the South of France, he often found himself attending house parties boasting lavish spreads of food. Personally, I could not recall the last party I’d attended without a BYOB mandate in place -- nor did I think I’d ever attended a party where food was available in abundance. But French hosts relished the fact that they could feed their guests. Folks showed up with wine, with baguettes, with triple-cream French cheeses.
“It’s hedonistic in a different way,” Costa explains. “You’re indulging in food and drink at the same time, but one bolsters the other. The idea wasn’t that we would keep drinking at these parties until we were wasted, it was that we could be together, and enjoy each other, and drink and eat all night long.”
“You drink with your friends because it enhances the mood, not because you’re trying to get away from something.”
“[In France] wine is a part of the table that accentuates rather than dominates the dining experience,” adds John Slover, sommelier and corporate wine director for Major Food Group. “The French order less wine -- maybe one bottle for the entire dinner -- and they savor it. Americans might order a wine for each course. But we won’t fully adopt the French wine drinking culture, and why should we? We are not French.”
Indeed, we belong to two countries that differ in their approach to drinking -- there need not be a winner. At the same time, you’d be hard pressed to find a majority who truly believes the American approach to drinking is the best one.
“Americans work and work, then they have all this bad energy they want to do something with, and so they drink,” says Remy, a Parisian bartender at a dim speakeasy called Little Red Door (Petite Porte Rouge) on a residential street in the 4th arrondissement. He tells me this on my final night in Paris -- I had been saving this particular bar to close out my jaunt. “Here, you take a long lunch, you go home early, you stay home if you’re tired. You drink with your friends because it enhances the mood, not because you’re trying to get away from something.”
While he speaks, he stirs his riff on a gin martini, served with a sprig of rosemary, a house-made dry vermouth, and bitters deposited with an eyedropper. The process is delicate, almost surgical. This remains the best martini I’ve ever had to this day. It was also perhaps the longest I’d ever taken to consume a single alcoholic beverage.
The irony here, of course, was that I had come to this city -- was here, in this bar, in Paris -- to drink. I had been looking for an easy out from the not-so-slowly mounting card house of practical anxieties that seemed to be building around me at home. But at some point, while I’d been busy tasting things, and wandering aimlessly (the French have a word for that: flâner), drinking became something other than an aversion tactic. It was a vehicle of presence.