French Drinking Culture

My experience with the French drinking culture might very well be different from many French people because I work in a bar, but I’m sure there are some similarities. Here’s what I learned about the drinking culture.

There are three main ways that I learned to say cheers in France; “Santé!”, “Tchin” (pronounced chin), and “A la tienne!”. All three can be used pretty much interchangeably and I just tend to choose whichever one comes to mind. Personally, “Tchin” usually comes to mind because it’s the closest to “Cheers” which is what I would say in the US. Sometimes I just say “Cheers!” because they people I’m drinking with know I’m American and they don’t really care. Plus English is the universal language and you can probably say “Cheers!” anywhere as long as people have a drink they’re looking forward to sipping. While raising your glass you must keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, when you touch someone’s glass with yours you MUST be looking into their eyes. No, you can not look at your glass to make sure you’re actually touching your glass to yours, you must figure it out using your peripherals. I had a really hard time with that at first. But after a decent amount of practice I’ve gotten the hang of it. It still happens sometimes where I’m not thinking and I look down at my glass but generally my friends pull their drink away and tell me to try again. Another thing is that you cannot cross your drinks. So, if you’re trying to toast with someone on the other side of the table, you must wait for everyone else to have toasted or wait for your window in order to cheers without crossing over or under others. That one was always strange to me because if you’re at a party where let’s say you’re toasting with 10 different people. That mean’s that you must individually cheers with 10 different people without crossing over others. “Wow Chloe, that sounds like it takes forever…” Yes. It does. When you’re drink is poured don’t expect to be drinking right away. Oh yes, also if you have a drink but not everyone else does and you haven’t toasted yet, DO NOT DRINK. If you do, you’re rude. It doesn’t matter the situation. The general thought process of the others in the group is essentially that you think your life, your drink, or what you need to go do is more important than toasting and wishing health for whomever is drinking with you. Even if it just happens that you’re thirsty and you forgot the rules.

Fun little history fact: Toasting and clinking two classes together came from medieval times with the knights. Two people toasting would clink their glasses together hard enough to have some of their drink spill into the other person’s drink. This is a simple “trust but verify” method that would ensure that neither of the two had poisoned the other persons drink.

Three important things to remember when toasting:

  1. Eye contact!
  2. Don’t cross your drinks or your arms with others!
  3. Don’t drink unless everyone has a drink and the toast has been done!

“I’ll just have water”:
“I’m sorry what? Water? No you won’t, you’ll have a beer. It’s like water.” Drinking alcohol is a very important part of the French culture. I mean I understand why, the French really know how to produce alcohol. The French are the best in the world at producing wine and have been doing it since pretty much forever. They are the only people in the world that are rightfully allowed to call Champagne, “Champagne” because it comes from the region of Champagne in France. Pastis, a licorice tasting liquor famous around the world comes from Marseille. They have Cognac, and so many other things. I could go on, but I think you get the point. These alcohols have been produced for hundreds and hundreds of years, therefore alcohol is a big part of the French history and culture. So, if you’re drinking water it’s not normal. It’s a lot of pressure though. When you ask for water, or simply not an alcoholic beverage you tend to get a response like, “What? You’re not drinking? C’mon… Just one drink!” And after hearing all of the remarks about you not drinking, you feel almost bad if you don’t drink. It’s a weird thing and I don’t like it very much. I like drinking but I like drinking when I want to drink, if I don’t want to drink, I don’t want to drink, end of discussion. I’ve felt almost rude at times when I decide not to drink. So odd. The crazy thing is that even though I don’t like being pressured to drink, I occasionally have thoughts that cross my mind while I’m working and someone orders a non-alcoholic drink like, “Boooooo, lame-o, have some fun, have a drink!”. Those thoughts are soon after followed by thoughts like, “What the heck? Who am I? why would I think that? People can have fun without drinking.” The French mentality about drinking is getting in my head and it’s a bit scary. I don’t want to make people feel pressured to drink with me. I want people to drink with me if they want to drink with me! And I guess I just need to continue reminding myself of that because I don’t like when people pressure me!

Drinking is casual:
One thing that I never grasped in the US is that drinking is a casual thing. I mean it can be casual or it can be the opposite but pretty much it can be whatever you want it to be. In France, something that I love about the drinking culture is that grabbing a drink is something to do. It’s a way to get out of the house and it’s a great thing to do to catch up with someone or just relax. Back home, I was not legally allowed to drink and I’m still not so, maybe that’s why I never saw drinking with friends as a casual thing. It was always about getting drunk off of whatever you had and partying. The fact that I am allowed to drink in France makes it less of a “drink a lot and quick” situation and more of a, “I’ll have a nice cocktail sitting at the bar with my friends watching the sunset” kind of thing. It’s one of my favorite things to do with others.

Alcohol from Everywhere:
Like I said in the “I’ll just have water” section, France is well-known for their alcohol. Pretty much everywhere that you go in France has an alcohol that comes from “le coin” (the area). I recommend that if any of you ever come to France and travel a bit throughout the country that you ask the bartenders at every bar you go to what comes from the area. They will bring you something new or at least tell you somewhere that you might be able to try something from the area. Plus there is usually a story behind the alcohol which makes it even more interesting.

For example in La Rochelle there are many things to try but one that I would recommend that anyone tries is “La Guinguette”. It’s a sort of sweet, sparkling wine produced and sold in La Rochelle. Be careful though, it’s pretty strong. In order to try it you can purchase it at any grocery store in La Rochelle or head to the bar, “La Cave de La Guinguette” and ask for a bottle. If you come visit me in France, I will personally take you there and buy you a bottle! (To share of course…)

Alcohol is a big part of the French culture. Drinking in France is a fun, casual way to catch up with friends and taste the different flavors of alcohol in different parts of France. As long as one drinks only when they truly want to drink it’s a really great thing. The pressure to drink when not really feeling like it is the only bummer. That is my experience though. I guess you all have to come and see for yourself! Cheers!

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