“Want a beer?” is what I’d hear if I walked into a Wisconsin friend’s house because it’s what is first said when terrible (and good) things are actively happening.
I’m so demoralized and not surprised by all the news reports about American violence of late I’m going to talk about drinking alcohol.
However, I’m not drinking alcohol because it’s early and it’s too hot to drink red wine which is all I have and I don’t want to leave the couch.
I started a series of Scotland-based stories from the past because I was looking to create a distraction from present day America and the coronavirus.
But today… I can’t do it.
Instead, I dig in and focus on Scottish and Wisconsin drinking cultures, tolerance, as well as commonalities and differences.
In short, I tell a couple stories which illustrate a rather violent drinking culture in Edinburgh which caught me off guard while also realizing that the people in my home state of Wisconsin drink a truly mind-blowing amount of alcohol which I didn’t before notice until I returned home for a visit after spending the last year and a half in a different country.
Here we go.
My husband David and I had been recently married when we first moved to Edinburgh, Scotland in 2007.
When I received unexpected word that I’d been awarded an academic scholarship and we’d be moving to Scotland, we had to stop being engaged and start getting married or else David couldn’t come with.
We got married.
Life seemed exciting and possible.
But we didn’t have any money. My wedding dress was from eBay.
Therefore, we had to sell most of our possessions (what we left behind was subsequently destroyed in flooding) and also use the money we had strategically acquired from our wedding to get to Scotland.
As a result, by the time we arrived in Edinburgh and largely throughout the three years we lived there, we were quite poor, exhausted, romantically desperate and thought about the logistics of death a lot.
Specifically, what would we do with our bodies and how would we even begin to untangle the bureaucracy of transporting our body/remains and notifying people via international calling…
It was enough to keep us alive.
But it was still worth talking about, just in case.
So I’d ask my husband what he’d do if I died and he said the first thing he’d do is walk the short distance to our friend Paul’s flat because the first thing Paul would have done is put the kettle on.
Step One in any emergency in the UK: put the kettle on.
It was comfortingly predictable.
Paul was Irish but we forgot he was Irish until one day he exclaimed,
“Oh no! Me brudder is coming to visit this week end!”
And my husband and I squinted our eyes as we looked up at him to say,
“Holy shit. You’re Irish.”
It’s not like we had forgotten where he was from but in a way we had forgotten where he was from because, in our world, he was from the house behind our tenement building and where David would go if I died.
It was nice to kind of forget about “what people were” for a time and look beyond all that, when possible.
Because it seems so rarely possible.
As an American who is feeling destroyed by how Americans are turning on one another, I think about England, Scotland and Ireland… oh yeah, and… Wales… and realize, oh this is just how we humans are and have been since the dawn of time.
People sometimes ask “Why can’t we all get along?”
And, in response, I say, “What are you talking about? We’ve never gotten along. We’re human.”
You know those movies with aliens who are coming here to destroy humans in order to save the earth unless humans change?
And then the spokesalien quickly learns that humans don’t change or, at least, they don’t change as a unified, collaborative unit?
But then the alien meets one good person and their family and thereby witnesses “humanity” and consequently rethinks their plan to destroy the human species?
“Okay, Helen! You’ve changed my mind!” – alien messenger
That’s just stupid.
And, for a more recent film example: Thanos of the Marvel Avengers series.
Really, the problem with the whole “kill half the people+” plan of Thanos in order to save the universal climate was his “might is right” approach and how he aimed to randomly kill them.
We humans are much more accustomed to systematic genocide determined by identity politics, after all.
In any case, a friend recently said that this global pandemic we are currently attempting to live through has revealed people’s true character.
Especially in America.
And I agreed. The coronavirus situation has revealed the character of people in a similar way that intense grief and trauma does.
When our lives are shaken, we react and how we react illustrates who we essentially are.
And, in Wisconsin, on some cultural level, many of us are apparently, relatively, drunks.
I remember rolling my eyes when living in Edinburgh because it seemed that Scottish culture required going out and getting shitfaced which would then, if everything went right, lead to watching others get into physical fights with apparently willing parties who seemed just as ready to go as the one who had happily thrown the first punch.
For example, once we went out with Scottish friends from my husband’s work and one of them had a pint at the bar and then turned around to stand in the middle of the narrow walkway of the crowded pub, smiling and willing someone to bump into him so he could gleefully destroy them.
He looked so happy, standing there with his chest puffed out and fists clenched.
He was also not afraid to loudly sing Stone Roses songs as we walked down the street.
Singing, drinking and fighting. This seemed to summarize the drinking culture of Edinburgh when you scraped off all the tourists.
Yet, maybe that was healthy in some warped way.
In Wisconsin and elsewhere, we now have small businesses which offer axe-throwing activities and “smash rooms,” or places where you are given a bat or sledgehammer and then encouraged to smash everything you see.
Since these activities are popular it’s clear many of us have some pent-up emotions to burn.
The Scottish culture has been around a lot longer than the American culture, so maybe the Scots are on to something with their violent drinking culture.
Go out, have a pint, get in a fight, laugh about it, have another pint, go home, sleep and go back to work and then go out, have a pint, get in a fight…
When I first started to make friends in Edinburgh through the university once school started instead of just watching Laguna Beach or Hollyoaks on Channel Four and having seizures all the time (see earlier posts if that confused you or, to save you time and energy as it’s hot out, I’m epileptic), I went out with a couple French classmates one afternoon and we stumbled upon a bloody and broken man simply laying unconscious on the cobblestone street in Grassmarket.
I looked at them and they looked at me and we all reacted the same or “with deep concern.”
We looked around but nobody else seemed to notice this man and they just walked by.
We didn’t understand. This man clearly needed medical attention.
Therefore, we knelt down and asked if he was all right and one of them called 9-9-9 or emergency services and… the bloody man on the ground suddenly lifted his arm and said “Stop!”
We were kind of alarmed because this man was rather giant and quite bloody and possibly insane so we jumped to our feet and backed up, spooked.
As we did so, we became aware of a small crowd of men spilling out of the doorway of the pub across the road, and they were hooting and hollering and laughing and making quite a commotion which became louder when they saw the man at our feet regaining consciousness.
He raised his arms again and, confused, we again rushed forward to help him to his feet.
And soon he was shakily standing there with one arm draped around one of the French girl’s neck and the other around the other French girl’s neck.
And he leaned forward and just kind of hung there, casually.
Still actively bleeding.
And the men in the doorway across the road roared.
The bloody man roared back and then he really leaned forward, casting aside his human crutches, and began to stagger forward toward the men in the doorway who quickly rushed forward to help him get back inside the pub.
And then they were gone.
The two French girls and I, the American, were left standing in a pool of the man’s blood on the busy city center street, wondering if we had made a terrible mistake leaving our respective countries.
Yet, eventually we simply avoided Grassmarket and other areas and learned to get by as one does anywhere.
At the same time, since my husband and I were from Wisconsin where alcohol serves as the lifeblood of all civil and non-civil activities, we liked to go out and drink but we didn’t want to go out to drink and then get in physical altercations.
Sure. It was a class thing. But it was also a cultural thing.
We Wisconsin yanks preferred to go out and enjoy a few drinks in a corner of a dark pub and engage in lively conversation with laughter which was ideally magnified by some old men randomly playing fiddles in the corner of the pub on any given night
just because music is medicine.
However, that low-key night rarely happened and instead it was an exciting drunken mess in Edinburgh on most nights when we went out.
At the same time, we somehow drank less while living there.
And this is because we didn’t have any money but also because it was more difficult for me to find the drink as I didn’t prefer beer, and, when I did find the drink, it was sparingly served.
One thing I immediately learned upon arrival in Edinburgh at age 27 was to stop drinking Jameson because the Scottish didn’t acknowledge it existed. I thought I was to be murdered on the spot I stood when I erroneously ordered an Irish whiskey at the Blue Blazer.
Thus, I acquired a taste for scotch which is not called “scotch” in Scotland, it is called whisky.
And if you’re all, “No, that’s scotch” you may as well punch yourself.
Again, since I wasn’t a huge fan of beer back then, I’d often order whisky when living in Scotland and the bartenders would then painstakingly measure out what seemed like the smallest amount imaginable which sort of just covered the bottom of the glass.
I had to drink it neat.
If I didn’t, the liquid would completely disappear with the addition of ice.
I had become accustomed to how it was in Wisconsin where, if you knew the bartender, and most of my friends were bartenders when I was in my twenties, your Jameson or Makers on the rocks was filled to the glass brim.
Therefore, we’d sometimes go to the “American Bar” with David’s rowdy Scottish workmates because it offered a two-for-one special on Friday nights and it was an economical way to get what I considered by Wisconsin standards to be a decent amount of whisky.
However, before we entered the pub, we had to pass by a giant Corona beer bottle which glowed and towered above us.
Then, once inside, I’d order two whiskys and pour one into the other and then look up to see how my husband’s Scottish workmates who loved to get drunk and fight were visibly gobsmacked by my doing so.
It was so weird to me. I still was drinking maybe only a thumb’s worth of whisky.
“I’m from Wisconsin,” I’d say to them.
As if that explained everything. I don’t know if they knew what or where Wisconsin even was. After all, I had no idea what or where Fife was in my first few months of living in Edinburgh.
The only time I got my fill of spirits when living in Edinburgh (before we discovered the Black Bull on Leith Walk) was when Wisconsin friends visited and brought multiple bottles of bourbon hidden in their luggage.
Or when the Scottish Brewery BrewDog produced a whisky-cask ale which our local, the Blue Blazer, proudly had on tap as soon as it was released.
Yet, the proportions were off in the first release batch so it was like drinking an entire pint glass of warm whisky.
I couldn’t even finish my pint.
That night I had enough whisky.
I’m sure many people died in a pool of blood on the streets of Edinburgh that cask ale debut night.
Eventually, we managed to fly back home to Wisconsin for the first time at Christmas of our second year (our dads had chipped in to help pay the airfare) and really saw how much people drink here in Wisconsin.
The excessive drinking in Wisconsin is often very casual, low-key and normalized.
That Christmas I saw older family members pack down at least five beers and it was as if they were drinking lemonade because it didn’t seem to affect them or alter their behavior in any real way.
If our Scottish friends drank five pints there would have been blood and towns pillaged.
In any case, when witnessing all the partisan violence and anger and divisiveness in Wisconsin lately, I’m starting to sadly realize my home state has wasted its tolerance on alcohol.
Yet, we keep on drinking.
And, since I’m from Wisconsin, I’m not quite sure how to make people stop behaving like people and so what is there to do but drink or write a blog about drinking.
Of course, I am generalizing Scottish drinking and Wisconsin drinking.
And, sure, it’s usually a minority of people who are shouting the loudest or behaving the most obnoxiously or accidentally or purposefully given the microphone who make it seem like things are a certain way.
That’s how it is everywhere.
My University of Edinburgh research supervisor had spent some time in Ohio and felt as if he knew all about Americans from that single experience.
I told him that I could say for a fact that Americans are not comprehensively represented by Ohio.
Some of us are from Wisconsin and we can drink more than you.
Which is again sort of the problem.
Or the solution.
But we can’t all go to the pub right now.
Sure, it all feels a bit doomed but that’s what life is all about.
Yet, despite the imminent feeling of doom and futility, we can’t ever stop trying to get along and,
if we need to add ice and orange juice to our boxed wine in order to fake the energy and strength it takes to try during a health crisis as the temperature increases and the violence starts to increase since now it’s mid-afternoon and a more decent drinking time,
then so be it.
Even our infested apartment’s mice are panting in the corner, seeking respite.
In my lifetime, opposing fascism and tyranny as an American just seemed so obvious and clear.
Yet, whenever it feels like all hope is lost, I tell myself that that is mathematically impossible.
Though it can certainly feel that way.
On days like this when it feels like the sky is falling down, we have to breathe, unplug and sip so we can all live to fight, strategically, not violently or blindly or stupidly, another day
and prove Dark Helmet wrong.