Among the several cultural differences one notices when traveling from America to England, one of the first is the attitude towards alcohol. In general, I would characterized it as simply more relaxed. In years past, if you drank water you were likely to contract cholera, so why not drink beer? This attitude towards alcohol still continues.
The drinking age is lower in the UK at 18 years old. Although bars that expect a lot of American tourists card hard, at most Cambridge pubs I never show ID, especially when I’m with a small number of people. Pubs fill social purposes – they are local meeting places where the “regulars” are extended family for each other. While European beer is far stronger than US beer, the primary goal is not to get drunk but to nurse a pint and enjoy the atmosphere and conversation. As an American, it can be difficult to integrate and mix among local patrons, but I’ve found that if you wait until the locals have had a few drinks they stop caring that you are an American and will strike up a conversation with you (I was able to cross off one of my goals my first week here and convince a local that I was also British… and no he wasn’t that drunk!).
One of my favorite aspects of traveling around the country is having the opportunity to try the local brews. Of course, some drinks like Guinness, Strongbow, and Carlsburg are staples at basically every location. Cider is another beverage that is very popular in the UK, and many pubs serve more than one variety. If you don’t want to have alcohol but still want to “fit in,” you can order a shandy. This consists mostly of British lemonade, but has enough lager in it to look like a beer.
Of course, alcohol still causes its share of problems in the UK. Adolescent drinking is a problem that cannot be ignored…newspaper headlines following holidays contain stories of drunken revelry complete with the evening’s strain on the National Health Service… and true Englishmen are notorious for loving to fight when drunk. But because of the otherwise relaxed attitude there isn’t as much of a taboo on openly discussing the subject and dealing with problems.
What do I notice most in England? It’s just alcohol – no hypersensitivity or stigmas. While I’m not saying the US is wrong for having a relatively high drinking age, I think that the European openness about alcohol is something that should be widely adopted in the States.
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