Alcohol: Notre Dame vs. Europe



An investigation of various drinking cultures


For the women on campus, the night usually starts with a gaggle of freshly shaved legs sheathed in mini skirts running up and down the dorm hallways, opening doors without knocking and asking “Which shirt is better?” or “Do you think I should wear these shoes or the other ones?” Delicate, sometimes manicured hands move quickly, but skillfully, applying makeup and doing, undoing, and redoing hairstyles. The same hands that snap instas (titled “Hanging with my ladies #lit”), grab a mixed drink of hard liquor and pop, and raise it to delicately shaped lips that sip it down. The point is to just feel a light buzz, loosen up a little bit while getting ready with roommates and hallmates. Friends gather and pour more shots and hard liquor, knowing full well that “beer before liquor makes you sicker,” and toast to a great night out.

For the men in the dorms, the clothing choices and makeup rarely (or never) are a big enough deal for consultation. Some guys start with 40s at 4, some take a nap before the evening festivities begin, and some start with drunk video games. Usually the closest friends find each other in one guy’s dorm room, collapse onto the futon, pour a few drinks, and hang out as they wait for the pregame, sipping beer or mixed drinks between conversations.

Both genders usually meet up in another dorm room—a men’s dorm room—for a pregame. More shots, mixed drinks, and even beers are poured. The two groups meet up, chat, laugh, and drink together. Sometimes they stay there, watching movies, playing dirty board games, or trying their mind-numbed skills at drunken video games. But other times, the group boisterously stumbles across the hall or across campus to a bigger dorm party. Here, the lights are off, music is blaring, and students hunt down the alcohol before it runs out and their friends before they pass out. Too loud to talk, the reverberating dorm space is only good for dancing and taking more shots. But once parietals shoo the guests away, they pass up TacoHut drunk food and instead hail a cab destined for a house party off campus.

At the designated party house, students nearly fall out of the cabs, stumble up the front stairs, counting each other and sometimes pausing to vomit in the bushes before going inside. On the main floor, empty beer cans litter the ground and every available ledge, and a group of upperclassmen are usually playing beer pong or flip cup on a rickety table. Downstairs, dank basements with sticky floors, exposed pipes, and even the glamour of human-sized holes in the wall show the freshman what ratchet and fire hazard really mean. A single strobe light rapidly pierces the dark, or a string of colorful Christmas lights warmly illuminate glassy-eyed, slightly slack-jawed faces. Hands grip red solo cups and others’ waists or shoulders for balance, either drunkenly debating or still dancing on sore, sticky feet. With any remaining alcohol at the party, empty cups are quickly dispersed and filled in fellowship between the blissful and the despairing. The learned and the learning voices sing praises to Bacchus and slosh their drinks. Just as they have been doing all night, they raise their beers, Fireball, and tequila shots to the sky and chant: ALL HAIL THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT, ALL HAIL THE GOD OF ALCOHOL!

Eventually, the cops arrive or the party ends, and the underage scramble for home while those over 21 stroll and stumble to a bar. At some point, friends will grin at each other and slur, “Man, what a good night!”

For the average Notre Dame student, this kind of night has happened at least once—or maybe once a semester, once a month, even once a weekend. It has become part of our culture. Even with a lower frequency, it’s still seen as a pretty standard college party night, nothing too unusual. But not to other US colleges, and definitely not to Europeans.

Whereas our drinking age starts at 21, theirs starts around 18, and the youth generally are drinking in their homes before then. At dinner, at parties, surrounded by family, they are seasoned wine- and beer-sippers by the time they may legally buy alcohol from shops and local bars. And perhaps that has made all the difference.

During spring 2016, I studied abroad in Toledo, Spain, where the air is thick with the lispy Spanish accent (“athento”) and the sweet smell of sangria. It is a land abundant with sangria, wine, and youths. However, I have never come across belligerent partiers in the way I did at Notre Dame. That’s not to say that the Spanish don’t know how to party, because they do. Us American babies would start pre-gaming at the bars around 11 p.m. and going to clubs around 1 a.m.; the real party crowd, however, swaggers into the nightclub as we are sleepily stumbling home—usually between 3 and 4 a.m. A few of my friends struck up a conversation with some other twenty-something partiers and decided to stay with them until 6 a.m. Their new Spanish friends weren’t even close to leaving.

It’s not just the late timing in Spain that makes a difference (dinner at 10 p.m., anyone?) or the stronger Latin dance culture that keeps everyone out so late. It’s the fact that they go out to first have fun, and secondly to drink. Without alcohol as the priority, they aren’t planning on getting so blasted that the alcohol takes over and they fall asleep in a dirty corner. Additionally, there are tapas: the magical, delicious concept of free snacks with alcohol at restaurants. The thought of drinking without them is absurd, because the Spanish don’t believe in drinking on an empty stomach—nor in drinking to be drunk.

On a trip to Ireland (GO IRISH), I found that the pubs (GO IRISH) are nothing like the “Irish” pubs of Eddy Street and South Bend (GOOOOOO! IRISH!). While our South Bend scene is crowded, messy, and sticky, Irish pubs are incredibly cozy—pastoral, even. First of all, the typical pub drink is a pint of beer, not a shot or cocktail. Pints are very filling, and one would be too full to attempt to be drunk off of them. Secondly, the frequenters are there to be with friends and family; like in Spain, the focus is to enjoy time with other people. Thirdly, if one is there alone, one may sit and enjoy the traditional music playing from Irish folk bands—“trad music,” as it’s called. This concept really amazed me because it’s not part of a tourist trap, but rather what the Irish do. A folk band or two is usually at any given bar a couple nights of the week, singing and playing songs that are culturally traditional for the drinkers to enjoy. If not a trad band, then other musicians come in to play music. Not only is Ireland’s pub scene about pints and company, it’s about music appreciation and cultural pride!

Further east, Hungary’s drinking scene is no wilder than Spain’s or Ireland’s. Budapest’s pub scene struck me as the most interesting simply because of the “ruin bars” concept. Long story short, abandoned buildings were converted into incredible bars by letting nature and the creative minds of graffiti artists and thrift shop enthusiasts take over. I’ve seen trees growing out of bathtubs, cars turned into seating areas, and record tapes become creative sculptures. It’s the perfect place to hang out and catch up after work—and that’s exactly what the youths do! Akin to the coffeehouse culture of Hungary’s leading intellectuals, young drinkers go to bars to meet up and talk to each other first, and drink second. Any occasion where alcohol becomes the priority typically happens at one’s home—and even that is rare.

So why are we so different? Are college students so nuts about getting drunk because we never had the chance to learn how to drink socially, or is it because our culture calls for us to be so belligerent? I think these are important factors, but I have an additional personal theory: rebellion to the legal drinking age. For schools like Notre Dame, a throng of intelligent, rule abiding, reined-in students break free from standards at home. They want to start enjoying life a little more, loosen up a little more, and rebel a little more. In a country where one may legally drink after two to three years of college, alcohol is the apple of Eden, the enticing key to the kind of rebellion we seek—a rebellion so common, it becomes the norm. Beyond unintentional peer pressure, we enter Notre Dame knowing the mantra of “work hard, play hard(er).” How can a rebelling US college student “play harder”? Easy: alcohol.

Photo: Budapest, Hungary; courtesy of Megan Toal

Megan Toal is a senior majoring in Spanish and PLS. She spent about half of 2016 in Europe. Contact Megan at Megan.E.Toal.2@nd.edu.

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