Around seven o’clock last Sunday night just as our evening was winding down and I was preparing to take the kids upstairs for baths and story time, I heard the shrill buzz of our doorbell. I couldn’t think who it might be, but then I heard familiar adult voices laughing boisterously and a group of our neighbors trooped into the kitchen. Amidst greetings of “ahoj,” one neighbor explained, quite naturally, that they’d come for a “panák” (a shot of liquor). Radek got down the shot glasses and proffered our meager liquor offerings (Jameson, Jack Daniels, Kahlua, and the Czech favorite, Becherovka). I stood in the background covering my surprise as the scene unfolded. With the informal toast “čau” and the clicking of glasses, I raised my mini-shot of Kahlua. I met each of my neighbor’s eyes, as the Czech toasting custom dictates, and smiled. There was nothing to do but take a deep breath and enjoy the unexpected turn of events. Dirty dishes and bedtime would have to wait.
In truth, I shouldn’t have been that surprised. I’ve seen versions of this same scene occur time and time again while living in the Czech Republic, particularly since we moved out of the city to our rural neighborhood. On our street, in addition to the standard celebrations associated with holidays, birthdays, weddings or the birth of a baby, even a spell of good weather is celebrated with gusto, usually in a group setting where food and alcohol are bountiful.
During the warm, late-afternoons of Indian-summer in September, mothers gathered at the cul-de-sac at the end of our street, bringing out folding chairs and a small table filled with wine, chips and some candy for the kids. I always wondered how these impromptu parties started, because I usually never noticed them until they were well-underway. But isn’t a major event, just one neighbor saying to another, let’s have a chat and enjoy a drink. Although I think our neighbors take the notion of “social drinking” to its fullest potential, I know that for most Czechs drinking in moderation is an important form of socialization, and for some, even a way of ensuring good health.
The ritual of social drinking in the Czech Republic is a long-standing tradition and a source of great national pride. No self-respecting Czech would turn down the offer to have a shot of liquor, in fear of being perceived as anti-social or just plain rude, unless, of course, he excused himself by raising his full pint of Pilnser or glass of Frankovka wine instead. And as a host, it is almost unthinkable not to offer your guests a shot (or two) during their visit. My eyebrows rose as Radek poured a second shot and then a third for our neighbors, who at first jokingly refused, then willingly downed the drinks one after another. About 20 minutes after they arrived, our neighbors ambled off to put their own children to bed, shouting their thanks over their shoulders.
Saying, “no” to a Czech who’s got alcohol in his hand is not an easy matter, particularly if the liquor being offered is locally produced or homebrewed. Last winter, one of our neighbors, who makes svařák (mulled wine) from grapes he grows in his garden, was so persuasive that he even convinced my mother, who never drinks red wine, to have a glass. When our Moravian neighbor brings slivovice (plum brandy) or meruňkovice (apricot brandy) from his hometown, I’m persuaded to at least have a taste. I’ve grown accustomed to having the requisite pivo (beer) with my hearty Czech lunches. And I believe Radek’s děda when he swears that his daily morning shot of Becherovka keeps him healthy, although I haven’t begun to implement that tradition yet. With beer as tasty as the varieties produced in the Czech Republic, it’s no wonder that pubs are rated by the quality of draft beer they serve, and in most pubs it’s the cheapest beverage on the menu.
It is also a matter of pride among Czechs to be strong enough to drink and still be functional, (although respectfully there is a 0% blood alcohol limit for driving). Whenever someone in the family complains of not feeling well after a night of social drinking, Radek’s grandfather always lectures, “If you don’t know how to drink then don’t.” Apart from his daily medicinal shot, he just sticks to beer, usually in his neighborhood pub. Like many of his contemporaries, he visits the pub weekly, as much to learn the news of the neighborhood as to enjoy the beer.
Red wine has long been touted by scientists and researchers as a healthy beverage when drunk in moderation. A recent study from Norway suggests that red wine can actually improve cognitive ability. Furthermore, research conducted last year suggested new benefits from indulging in a glass or two of red, including promoting better physical condition among older adults who are already fit, and lowering the risk of heart diseases, Alzheimer’s and lung cancer. Since the level of red wine consumption in the Czech Republic doesn’t come close to matching the consumption of beer, Czechs may be interested in new research that suggest drinking socially, no matter what the alcoholic beverage, has its benefits too.
In this September’s Time Magazine an article about health benefits for drinkers, entitled “Bottom’s Up,” goes as far to say that those who drink, even heavily, are more likely to outlive teetotalers. The article says that moderate drinkers (defined as between 1 to 3 drinks a day) have the lowest mortality rates and benefit from “improved heart health, circulation and sociability.” The article goes further to suggest that alcohol often aids social interactions which are essential for good physical and mental health. Although researchers are also quick to point out the dangers associated with drinking too much alcohol, the overall results suggest that enjoying a few drinks socially in a safe setting may add time to your overall lifespan.
I’m sure my neighbors will be glad to hear that.