You can drink alcohol almost everywhere in public in Germany, but chances are this would not work well in New Zealand.
As temperatures rise in central Europe, there is a variety of delightful things to marvel at in Berlin. Leaves on trees. Beautiful hipsters on streets. Bicycle traffic jams. All sorts of musical and cultural festivals. The fact that it doesn’t get dark at 5pm any more.
But there’s one thing that visitors often marvel at most: public drinking. Unlike in New Zealand, Australia, the US, Canada and the UK, you can drink alcohol almost anywhere. On the street. In a park. Even, until recently, on the subway. No official will try to confiscate your tipple. You don’t have to hide your libationary sins in a brown paper bag. You will never queue to get into the drinking area at a festival.
Germany has some of the most relaxed liquor laws in the world. Closing times barely exist, and you can buy everything from a €1 beer to a hip flask of the hard stuff, 24 hours a day, from your corner store. Like some wonder of the civilised world, you can even get red wine to go with your popcorn at the movies.
It’s hard to know what would happen in New Zealand if everyone was allowed to drink in public. Judging by the country’s restrictive laws, which indicate drinkers are not to be trusted, we might witness, oh, maybe a bit of binge drinking and certainly some vomiting. Then maybe a few fights we can watch later on YouTube, booze-fuelled violence in suburbia, some drink-driving and, if things get really loose, a good old-fashioned riot in a campground.
It makes you wonder what’s in the fun water down under. Maybe it’s about attitudes? For many Europeans, alcohol is just part of everyday life. Germans have been drinking beer daily for centuries, the same way the French drink wine. From age 16 onwards, you are entitled to drink beer or wine in Germany – so for a lot of the teenagers here, alcohol is nothing special.
German laws also tend to emphasise individual responsibility. Cross that red line and the authorities will send you threatening letters, then hunt you down. But until then, you are left to your own devices, in the park with a beer. And somehow getting really pissed in public is frowned upon here. It’s as though an unwritten social code says if we treat you like an adult, you’d better act like one.
However, Germans are apparently some of the heaviest beer drinkers in the world; New Zealanders consume far less. The World Health Organisation also notes that fewer Kiwis binge-drink and that New Zealand has a lower percentage of alcohol-attributable deaths.
Researchers have come to the conclusion that it’s not the booze but the boozing culture. As one study put it, in New Zealand there’s “a strong alcohol-culture interaction, with cultural variables modifying, directing or even overriding the physiological and psychological effects of alcohol”. In other words, it might not matter how drunk you are. If the people around you don’t think it’s cool to get wasted and start a fight in public, it’s highly likely that you won’t, and vice versa.
Another study, based on interviews with Kiwi teens, indicates that New Zealanders were drinking to “get drunk”, to lose their inhibitions. Aside from Deutschland football fans after a match, that isn’t an overriding aim here. Maybe that’s where the crucial difference between drinking in public and getting drunk in public lies.
Could being allowed to drink beer in the local park be a cornerstone of European civilisation? It sure feels that way, although we may never know for sure. Cheers to the idea, anyway.
Kiwi Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news site Niqash.org, based in Berlin.
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