As Mature as a Newt

October 13, 2007

Last night we had the pleasure of having dinner with a group of people who un-school their children. One of the father’s was an Italian guy who mentioned something about children drinking wine with their meals over in Italy. There was a kind of surprised pause in the conversation at this point. (There would have been outright shock within other circles of people I can think of in this country).

He then went on to explain that despite, or maybe because of this, people where he grew up never get drunk. If someone does get drunk it’s big news and people remember it for a long time. It’s like – ‘oh you’re the guy that got drunk that time 5 years ago’.

Contrast that with the New Zealand (and generally Anglo-Saxon) approach which is that there is something soft about a person who isn’t a hard drinker. They’re a bit of a girl’s-blouse as we’d say here.

This guy, Ricardo, said that the first time he saw someone drunk was when he was 27 and had just shifted to a university in Wales. It was at a party which he thought was very boring because people were turning up with six-packs and were only interested in getting drunk. He also said that there were no events or games planned for the party which had clearly surprised him.

He said that students in Italy do not get drunk but that they still have a lot of fun, we all looked enquiringly at him so he explained that they often play games like Hide and Seek.
If it weren’t for the fact that I was in a large armchair I’m sure I would have fallen off my seat! This seemed extraordinary. “Do you mean university age people?” I asked in a state of bewilderment.

He insisted this was the other case before describing another game which he clearly had enjoyed playing. I couldn’t figure out how to explain what the New Zealand Student’s attitude to this would be without being insulting. Students here would think it was incredibly childish and immature to play hide and seek and would prefer the much more adult pastime of getting blind drunk, vomiting on the couch and waking up the next morning next to a person they didn’t recognise. Err…

I proceeded to quiz Ricardo about what life is like for Italian children in an attempt to find some explanation for this. He added the observation, based from his experience as a university lecturer in New Zealand, that students here are incredibly self conscious, always checking what everyone else is doing to make sure they’re fitting in and insisting that ‘Hey, I’m cool’.

To be clear this attitude never quite goes away as our own attempts to live outside the mainstream have shown us. People just don’t know how to cope when they’re confronted with people who don’t take care to remain in lockstep with their neighbours, especially as we’re neither apologetic nor aggressive about it like younger people tend to be.

Anyway I seem to remember a disparaging comment I once read (in English since that’s the only language we New Zealander’s can speak) about how young Italian men are so close to their mothers, preferring to live at home rather than move out into the flatting type situation we have here. I have to assume that in Italy it’s normal for parent’s to not separate themselves from their children as much as we Anglo-Saxon’s do and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. It is our cultural group that has dominated the world for the last two centuries at least, and we should probably expect to find strong civilised traits like separation and emotional numbness the closer we get to centers of power. As well as the concurrent coping mechanisms of drinking, risk taking and general stupidity.

I think it’s pretty well known that Southern Europeans are much more emotionally expressive – able to have steaming arguments and then leave them behind – and someone at this gathering last night mentioned how our own culture is so uptight that it’s virtually impossible to have a social gathering with out also having some alcohol there to loosen people up.

Maybe things are changing though, our gathering last night wasn’t like that and I remember when Karen and I got married, we considered having the wedding reception at a venue that didn’t have a liquor license. We thought it would be no problem because none of our friends would care either way but a few members of our parent’s generation were so upset that in the end we had to change the venue to accommodate their desperate plea’s.

On the other hand maybe things won’t change until we learn to emotionally loosen up as a culture. Getting drunk is a coping mechanism that undoubtedly provides those moments of living purely in the moment that I talked about in my last post. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as healing but it’s probably no coincidence that young people here often talk about getting ‘out of it’ at parties and drinking sessions.



  1. I know what you mean. My wife and I don’t drink, so many people assume we are religious or something. People don’t really seem to know what to do when they come across someone who doesn’t drink, isn’t religious, or a recovering alcoholic.

    Then they learn that I buy alcohol for a living. That tends to be the cherry on top.

  2. Haha, I can just imagine the confusion it causes.

    I mostly don’t drink and especially can’t stand the taste of beer, A lot of guys offer me a beer and then say ‘are you sure?’ when I turn them down. It’s almost like I’ve insulted them or something. Sometimes they even check twice and if I still say no the are virtually unable to hold a conversation with me.

    If I even liked the drink a little bit I think I’d accept their offer just as an act of kindness toward them :-)

  3. Yeah, for sure. They look like a puppy that’s just been kicked. I remember my wife introducing me to her friend’s parents when we took a trip to Aussie, and before a word was uttered a beer was opened and offered by the dad. He asked twice when I turned him down too. The term ‘stunned mullet’ is about right. The mum turned to my wife and said, “Where did you find one of those?”

  4. I had a similar experience. I was at my in-laws place for my father-in-laws 50th birthday and he his two brothers and a couple of mates were ‘starting early’ in the lounge while watching some sport. I knew what would happen if I got too close to the lounge so I was trying to steer clear. However my curiosity about the sports match got the better of me and as soon as I ranged into vision I got offered a beer. The stuff tastes so bad to me that I really can not drink it so I turned them down.

    We later heard that they took from this encounter that I felt myself too superior to them to accept such an offer. The truth was I was in a state of panic about what answer to give. I considered asking to drink something non-alchoholic but decided not to because that would seriously diminish me in their eyes and in the end I had no good answer.

    Years later some of them are still surprised when I talk to them.

  5. This would be drilled home even harder if you were to come spend a few weeks in the UK! I am reasonably well travelled, and british culture (*puke*) is the most uptight kind there is. Family gatherings, social events, they all fall to pieces if people don’t have a TV and a lot of beers. We’re terrified to reach out, to authentically interact. It’s too much.

    Last xmas when all my family came round it was so awkward in the lounge. Even for us english folk, it was a bit too early to start drinking so tension built and built… until the beers came out. To be honest I was relieved because the tension was really that bad. A sorry state of affairs, but then again not surprising. We are rabid anal individualists of the highest order.

    Well, some of us.

  6. I can’t wait til the illusions and fantasies of civilisation fall to pieces and we have to start talking to each other again. Nothing fills me with more excitement and optimism. No matter who we are and what we know, we will always get somewhere if we just keep talking.

  7. Actually I’m going to be the UK in a couple of weeks. (whihc part do you live in?) Ironically enough the guy I’m going over to see doesn’t fit the British Stereotype you mention, but I do know what you mean. It always amazes me how you can walk down a busy street in London and no one will meet your eyes. I was warned that it was only crazy people who look at your eyes so I tried not to do it at times but it just seems so normal to me I couldn’t break the habit – Plus people are so fascinating y’know.

    I agree with you about wanting that side of civilisation to fall away but I have to admit that at the moment I’m a bit mesmerised about what I can do to take care of my family through a crash – It’s a bit terrifying really.

  8. I can understand that mesmerisation, it’s a big burden for you. I am lucky I was born when I was otherwise I may have been dealing with the same anxiety in a few years.

    I was amazed when I stayed in Canada that people not only made eye contact but smiled and said Hi! I loved it, and I try and spread that kind of attitude wherever I go now (when I remember and when I’m not too worn down)

    I live in the South West, a city called Bristol. If you’re near then stop by! Always space and spare bed around.

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