“Can I have sparkling water instead?” is a dangerous sentence to say when you’re a woman married for a little more than a year. Eyes go down to my stomach, then up. Drinking alcohol in France is such a common thing that not drinking means you’re either pregnant (I’m not), driving (I don’t have a driving license), under antibiotics (never felt better), or… a recovering alcoholic (I’m not that either). It creates a range of questions that I did not plan to answer when I decided to stop drinking somewhere around August. I’m not totally sober, but just enough to fall under the spotlight in an uncomfortable amount of parties. I want to knit myself an “I’M NOT PREGNANT” sweater for Christmas.
It’s not my first rodeo at refusing drinks: I’ve been an aficionado of Dry January and other months of soberness since I was 21 and fed up with hangovers. I have since become a real PR genius on soberness. I can quote fellow sober names, research papers on the dangers of alcohol, books on soberness journeys, and even TikToks now. I can tell you how bad alcohol is for you, especially for women by the way, how great I now feel, and my top 3 non-alcoholic beverages (bissap juice, spicy gingery kefir, CBD water). I can give you all of my reasons for not drinking too!
My first reason in August was lame: I wanted to lose weight. I didn’t even succeed. The reasons that came after were boring: more energy, better gut health, better focus, no hangovers… Of course, there are other reasons that science has provided me: alcohol is the source of many liver diseases, it has an impact on blood pressure and heart health, and it is a group 1 carcinogenic (like radiation, asbestos, or cigarettes). This year, the World Health Organisation released a gloomy statement: “No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health”. But personally, they are all here to post-rationalize the real deal: it’s just easier for me to live a life with no alcohol in my stomach.
Some people will take it the wrong way when you decline a drink. I have felt like a mirror to them and their alcohol consumption: the doubts, the anger, the fear. The ghost of “alcoholism” is always looming in my generation. We bumped into it at “integration” parties at university or in business and engineering schools. We met in cheap bars for students where the smell of sweat mixed with the smell of tasteless beer. The sticky tables and the bad breath. The smell of Ricard in the summer mixed with cigarettes in parks. My husband’s business school had an annual contest where two clubs competed on which could drink the most beer in one week.
French people love to say that we know how to drink, not like the other ones, the Brits or the East-Europeans. One year, I met seasonal workers at Tignes, a ski resort loved by British people who drink beer before skiing at 10 AM. If that doesn’t convince you to wear a helmet when you ski, I don’t know what will. They told me horror stories about British tourists urinating on themselves in the resort bus and the state of the hotel rooms when they leave. “The Russians at Val d’Isère also drink a lot. But they drink by themselves; you don’t see them. And at least they tip well.”
Are we better than the Brits, really? France drinks more alcohol than the UK, if you want to know, but because our consumption looks more private and educated, we believe we have the higher ground. A more elegant and hidden one, different from the one that makes great pictures in the Daily Mail on the 1st of January. There is no “binge drinking” translation in French; we use the English word as is.
French drinking culture is so understated that it is no wonder I feel like an elephant in a porcelain shop when I ask for a Coke Zero. I’m supposed to be the boring woman with a little silly drink in my hand, but instead, I gain some spotlight sipping a glass of Bordeaux wouldn’t have given me. The question is: do I secretly love the attention? Is my ego being secretly boosted by the feeling of feeling morally superior for not drinking? Am I really annoyed by this nagging about my sobriety, or do I secretly love to unfold all my newfound knowledge about booze? I mean, I’m writing an article about it.
When I was 19, I was at a party where I met the first person my age with a tattoo. I pointed at it with a smile, and they immediately gave me the significance behind the drawing of a small feather at record speed. A whole storytelling! They preemptively gave me an answer to a question I didn’t ask in the first place, which struck me because that was not the question I had in mind. But they had to justify their edgy decisions to parents, family members, and friends so often that the elevator pitch was ready to be unrolled. I behave with the same logic: so many people have already asked why I don’t drink, now I have a whole spiel ready. I’m almost disappointed when people don’t ask anything.
Alcohol is also such a fascinating subject. I already mentioned the medical aspect of it. Still, because it is a “legal addiction,” it also sparks lots of reflections on choice, behaviors, and free will against an environment where alcohol is a norm. Last year at my business school, the administration organized an awareness meeting on sexual harassment for all MBA students. During that meeting, the medical staff made a small presentation: not on mental health or on practical steps on how to report abuse medically, but on the effect of alcohol. They showed a cross-sectional view of the human brain: “This is the part of the brain affected by alcohol, the decision-making part.” They clumsily concluded that if you don’t want to end up in someone else’s room by mistake, you should drink less, implying women shouldn’t drink if they want to avoid being hurt by others. Alcohol is an excellent fuel for violence; there is no denying that. But I didn’t come to the same conclusion as the medical staff: if alcohol is so good for wrong decisions and violence, I thought business schools and campuses should ask men to stop drinking.
This belief that it is “rationally” (scientifically, medically, socially) better not to drink can give me this weird urge to preach. Like a prophet on a hill, I want to create more followers for this sober religion… for everyone’s good. But from preaching to judging, there is a small step. I now somewhat understand the temperance movements in the United States that managed to ban alcohol during the Prohibition era. If people can’t make good decisions themselves, let’s make them for them!
Recently, though, I had a very tough day. My husband was drinking a glass of wine, and I asked for one too, like a priest meeting an old mistress. The wine was not great, I didn’t feel the relief I wanted, and I felt slightly disappointed in myself. But in a way, my zealot identity left me; the preacher left her hill. Drink whatever you want; you’ve been warned. In the meantime, leave women who drink —or who don’t drink— alone.