It’s not called piste for nothing

A report the other day leads one to the conclusion that après ski should henceforth be replaced with avant ski and pendant ski.

Here I am, writing when some people are already having fun

Apparently, some 100,000 British skiers get injured every year by taking to the slopes well-oiled and then making sure that blissful state is lovingly maintained throughout that sporting activity.

Tests show, says the report, that consuming a mere seven units of alcohol reduces one’s slalom skills by 45 per cent. Percentages aren’t always reliable: an Olympic champion performing at 55 per cent of his ability would still ski rings around me operating at 100 per cent of mine.

Still, the report is interesting. After all, much can be inferred about a nation’s character from its drinking habits.

Growing up in Russia, I downed my first 7-ounce tumbler of vodka at 14, but then I always was a late bloomer. A cabbie once boasted to me with unmistakable paternal pride about his 7-year-old son who could do the same thing and stay stone-sober.

I saw faraway villages where all children, especially boys, reeked of moonshine. And even scions of good Moscow families, such as mine, seldom bypassed a bibulous phase on the way to maturity.

Drinking heavily was a rite of passage, complete with its own paraphernalia and rituals. Since in my day drinking establishments were few, much drinking was done ‘from the neck’ on park benches or in stinking doorways (public loos were also in short supply).

For many people that phase never ended, and during my numerous hospital stays I often shared a ward with canary-yellow alcoholics dying of uremia or greenish ones dying of cirrhosis.

No comparative data were available, but to a naked eye Russia had more, certainly more visible, alcoholics than any other country I know. And, having ventured to the outskirts of Moscow on my last visit some 10 years ago, I didn’t notice much change in that respect.

Some cite physiological explanations. Apparently, Russian livers are blessed or, depending on your point of view, cursed with high amounts of ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase), the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.

Perhaps. But Russian life, with its endemic dark hopelessness, must be a more significant factor. Many Russians don’t drink to have a good time. They drink to kill themselves, and surely alcohol contributes to the country’s male life expectancy being about 10 years lower than anywhere in the West.

The British are a hard-drinking nation too, though they tend to prefer beer or wine to spirits. I used to drink quite a lot, having been known to drive home a quart of whisky in the bag, but when I moved to London 31 years ago, I was amazed at my colleagues’ ability to consume gallons of lager.

One chap, 11 stone dripping wet, told me 14-15 pints was regarded as the norm in a pub session. That’s eight litres to a continental, four six-packs to an American and a bucket to a Russian. Impressive, in any measurement units.

Whatever their nationality, real sots are easy to understand. They drink because they have to, not because they want to. More interesting are people who don’t normally drink much, but still do so in certain situations.

Italians and Frenchmen drink to have a good time, and because they – especially the former – are naturally exuberant, it doesn’t take much. Alas, capacity for joyous exuberance doesn’t come naturally to many young Britons.

Those I used to know drank to remove inhibitions, forcing themselves to have fun because the social occasion demanded it. Hence young people (aged 25-35, not teenagers) go out fully intent on getting drunk – something, say, Americans seldom do.

For them, as it was for me, getting drunk is an accident occurring when one unwittingly oversteps a certain limit. Even Russians, out to dull their Weltschmerz, treat vomiting on passers-by as an unfortunate consequence of drinking, not its main purpose.

Being a nosy parker, I once conducted my own comparative study in a Verona restaurant around Christmas time. Occupying a large table next to ours was a group of 12 youngish Italians, clearly an office party.

They ordered a sumptuous meal and four bottles of wine. Over the next hour I was watching them like a hawk, fearful of missing the moment when the next four arrived, then another four and so forth.

They never did. Four bottles were all they drank, although one couldn’t tell that from the din they produced. Now, my expectations were based on experience.

Christmas parties at my advertising agency weren’t quite so abstemious. They usually started with cocktails and pints of beer. Then, during dinner, the average consumption was two bottles of wine per head – followed by whisky or brandy.

Afterwards the management called some taxis to take drunk youngsters (mainly middle-class women) home. Many of them couldn’t remember their address; some vomited in the car, and we had to pay the cleaning costs afterwards.

Inhibitions were successfully removed, along with civility. Why? Most of those girls never drank heavily and seldom at all. Why did they, and millions of others, feel compelled to change their consumption so drastically?

Every day one reads the accounts of nice, middle-class girls sharing a bottle of wine at home, before going out on a Saturday night. Then, goes a typical account I recall, “I had 12 double vodkas, some wine and a few flaming Sambucas…”

The inhibitions some of those youngsters, particularly women, wish to remove are often sexual. By drinking heavily, they hope to absolve themselves of any residual guilt from hopping into bed with a stranger.

Speaking strictly from hearsay, as I hope you and Penelope realise, Russian or American women rarely have their sexual behaviour affected by alcohol or its absence. They say either yes or no, and that vote hardly ever changes if one plies them with drink (unless it’s champagne at a five-star hotel, but then it’s money that clinches the deal, not the wine).

Much of this in Britain comes from what’s kindly called peer pressure or, unkindly, the herd instinct. Britons drink because it’s expected, meaning they are in the company of those who do the expecting.

Since few people ever go on skiing holidays by themselves, their herd instinct kicks in. The situation demands, and their companions expect, that THOU SHALT DRINK in the morning before skiing and throughout the day.

They oblige – and end up in the infirmary, hospital or, occasionally, morgue. Oh well, few of us ever leave this world alive anyway.

3 thoughts on “It’s not called piste for nothing”

  1. In Australia its been beer for at least a century, (which is pretty much ‘white invasions’ existence.) The big six beer companies have taken a beating in recent decades, initially by increased consumption of Australian wine, which has improved significantly in quality, and more recently by ‘craft’ beer. These small brewers knock out amazing beverages!
    One can always tell when drinking ‘down-under’ is having its effect as voice and music volume rises in proportion with consumption, and variety of adjectives diminish.

  2. “Four bottles were all they drank, although one couldn’t tell that from the din they produced. ”

    From 800 A.D. Charlemagne his edict the amount of allowable wine was two glasses of wine twice per day if drunk with a meal. Size of glass not defined.

  3. “Apparently, Russian livers are blessed or, depending on your point of view, cursed with high amounts of ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase),”

    Certain races,nationalities,ethnic groups share the same “high amounts of ADH” level. Genetics is involved.

    Russians, Irish, American Indians, etc.

    Groups that drink a lot such as Germans or Italians normally do not have in their system “high amounts of ADH”.

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