Friday, April 13, 2012

Cheers from Bolonia!


One of the perks of living and working in foreign country is that you occasionally get to do something that would get you fired and thrown into prison in your native land. I recently participated in such a felonious act while teaching a field course in Spain. One night, I did a Rioja wine tasting for the students after dinner. Before anyone starts to condemn me, this was perfectly legal as the students were all over 18 (legal drinking age in the UK and in Spain) and officially off the university clock during the tasting.
One important aspect of our outstanding  ten day field course is that the students have to travel to and live in Bolonia Spain for the duration.  In an effort to keep the students busy and away from the drinking opportunities, we try to have some after dinner activities that are either cultural or just plain fun. This year we did a quiz night, salsa dancing lessons, a very silly game that I have no idea what to call from one of our graduate student demonstrators, and I did a Rioja tasting.  In past years Sherry tastings were done so I was breaking from tradition. Unfortunately, I lacked the personal funds to get the really good Riojas but did manage a set of three different reds (the one white available at the local shop was so cheap it scared me). I covered the very basics from why one smells the cork, how to visually judge the age, showed them the effects of aging in oak, to some of the specific terminology around Rioja wines. Of course the harsher tasting red wines were lost on the sugar loving pallet of many of these students. However, some of them were very interested and asked good questions during and after which is how I usually judge my teaching performances.  At the end, I certainly did not feel any harm was done and that on the contrary most learned something and were delayed from their nightly cheap pitchers of Sangria for half an hour.
It was not until the next morning when it occurred to me just how much trouble I would have been in if I did this with a freshman class of 18 year olds in the states. I can imagine the headline; “University professor gives 18 year olds alcohol with lesson on how to drink on university field trip”.  Obviously I would NEVER do this state side, but it does highlight the big cultural differences between the US and Europe with alcohol. I didn’t realize what it meant that the US was founded by puritans until living in Switzerland. In Lausanne, the break room recycle box was full of wine bottles and even hard liqueur could be bought from the student cafeteria. Alcohol, especially wine, was at every social and official function. Europe must be one of the hardest places for an alcoholic to live given the way alcohol so permeates every aspect of social life. In England it is different in that the English have a real binge drinking problem. Where the Swiss and French drink because that is just what you do over meals and snacks, the English go out and get clobbered to have stories to tell about it should they survive. Our 18 - 19 year old students on the field course were all hardened veterans well trained in Southampton’s night clubs and bars before they arrive to very cheap Sangrias at the hostals where we stay. There would be no way to police a ban on drinking. A ban would only make it impossible to know when they got out of hand because they would just hide away in their rooms or on the beach. Throw in the fact that they are technically adults and we basically have no other way to control the level of binge drinking except by scheduling late dinners, early breakfast roll call, and tests in such a way as to minimize excess drinking. We consciously do this and it actually works to a great extent. The rest of the time we hold our breath and hope they look after each other which they usually do.
Cultural context seems to be the overriding lesson here when it comes to alcohol. What is right in one time and place can be wrong in another and vice versa. From the US perspective public lashing for drinking (in Saudi Arabia) seems extreme: from Europe, the US sometimes looks just as extreme.  Living in another culture really does cause one to re-evaluate ones preconceptions and definition of right and wrong in various situations. This deeper perspective on morality is one the great advantages of getting out your own culture for a time.