Hello, my name is Elizabeth and I’m an alcoholic.
Well I’m not really, but as everybody here seems to think us ex-pats have multiple drink problems, I’m just waiting for someone to hand me the address of the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and thought I should get some practice in.
I first had the inkling that we didn’t share the same ideas on drink several months ago, on a night out with Laura, Marie-Jose and their friends. We started off fine, with tapas and a cerveza, but then moved on to the fashionable area of Huertas, where the streets are paved with discos all thumping to the same Latin beat.
Latin music moves me to tears . . . of absolute boredom, so I headed to the bar to drown my ears, noting that the order consisted of coke, claras (shandies) and one beer. No prizes for guessing who that was for. In the next bar, the girls all headed straight for the dancefloor to boogie down to David Bisbal or one of the many other Operación Triunfo TV stars and then, with the grand number of no drinks consumed, moved on to the next bar, and then the next, and then the next. We hit five discos without buying one drink. They even turned their noses up at the free shots the touts were offering. Now come on, if I have to suffer Shakira five times in a row I think some form of liquid medication is called for.
So I asked if anyone wanted a drink. They all agreed they were thirsty. And asked for: “Agua, por favor”.
I explained to Marie-Jose how strange this behaviour was compared to the UK and told her about nights out with my girlfriends, trying to imitate Carrie and Co by ordering cocktails and giggling home on our stilletoes. “I know,” she replied. “When my mother and I visited Edinburgh we saw two girls in the bar and you know what? They drank a whole bottle of wine.”
After a few seconds silence, I realised Marie-Jose expected an answer to this less-than-shattering news - and that she expected that answer to be negative. I struggled for a reply and ended up with: “And . . . ?”
“A whole bottle. Just the two of them.” She shook her head in disbelief.
“But,” I began, trying to think of a time me and my best friend had ever been so restrained on a night out, “I often see businessmen drinking a whole bottle of wine at lunchtime.”
“Well of course - at lunchtime,” and she gave me that special Spanish look that says more than words ever could about how stupid us guiris are. “They are having lunch,” she added, slowly, as if talking to a child.
Doh! Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a whole bottle of wine - even by yourself - at lunchtime because then it’s not alcohol. Have a three-course meal and you’re a connoisseur; have a bag of salt-and-vinegar and you’re a drunk. (Sadly, this attitude is reflected in the fact that many of these connoisseurs still think nothing of climbing into their cars after their wine-laden lunch.)
I tried to answer, but it’s a bit hard not to appear an alcoholic when you’re arguing the merits of spending tiddly-time with your best friend to a girl who’s serenely sipping a glass of water at three in the morning. So I just nodded - and I swear I heard a cock crow.
It gets worse. Laura began talking about the amount Ged and I had drank once on a night out. The grand total of four cañas each For the record, a caña is a glass of lager so small that it doesn’t even fill a half-pint glass. “You drink so much,” she chastised. See what I mean about the AA meetings?
But then, back in the UK on a visit, I realised I’d been brainwashed. Sitting in a friend’s house, I looked up from my take-away to see them all staring at me - as I added lemonade to my red wine and asked for a glass of water.
Later, I picked up a can of lager and poured some into a small glass - about cana-sized - before wandering off, leaving the half-filled can standing and my friends shaking their heads while I looked through the CDs.
And there she was - Shakira, gazing up at me from the cover of her latest record. I looked at my glass of beer and then back at the CD. The two things seemed to go so well together. Should I? Could I?
No way! I mean, they can change my drinking habits but somethings are untouchable. Shakira was pushed to the back of the collection and soon the sounds of the Arctic Monkeys came blaring out.
And that was worth raising a glass to - no matter how small it was.