For the first 21 or 22 years of my life, I never touched a drop of alcohol. No, I exaggerate. For the first 22 years of my life, I never drank alcohol. I tasted a few drops, literally drops, less than a mouthful, a couple of times, and I knew the smell of beer, but I never drank anything. I chose not to. And then I went to Germany.
I didn’t like the way drunk people behaved. I didn’t like how they made themselves duller and slower, tried to run away from everything, or why they needed to drink alcohol to be with friends. I never saw any alcohol-related violence or accidents: although I knew drunk people fought more and crashed their cars more, that wasn’t why I didn’t drink. I didn’t drink because I wanted to sense life as clearly as possible. And then I went to Germany.
Already as a teenager, I liked to write. Writing came natural to me (as opposed to crafts), but I never really liked to write until I read The Trial when I was 15 and subsequently wrote a Kafkaesque story at school about a man who runs and runs and runs until he collapses and dies. My teacher didn’t give me the best grade, but she felt the need to explain to me why she didn’t, so it was a victory of sorts — and anyway, I liked the story, it was an expression of my thoughts, and that was good enough. I had understood that writing, even at school, doesn’t have to be the verbal equivalent of colouring in the lines: to write is to be creative.
The Chilean exchange student in our class once asked my why I didn’t drink. Don’t you realise that alcohol makes you more creative, he said. No, I said, water answers the same purpose. Oh, he said, disappointed. (He let his hair grow wild in Norway, and made feeble attempts at growing a beard, as he knew that back in Chile, he would have to toe the line again.) No-one stopped me, so why wouldn’t I drink? He had a point, but I was steadfast: I didn’t want to drink, no matter how creative I might become. But then I went to Germany.
Halfway through my year of studying German, I went to Kiel for a month with all the other first-year students, to learn and practice the language. When I left Germany, it was after three weeks of more or less constant drinking — my German proficiency, on the other hand, remained more or less the same.
It began after a few days. Most of us sat around the kitchen table and had a pre-party. (It was much more like a Norwegian vorspiel, though: to drink as much as possible at home since you can’t afford to buy that much when you go out. Alcohol is much cheaper in Germany than in Norway, but it’s hard to change your cultural habits.) Someone had a bottle of vodka or whiskey or something similar and asked me if I wanted to have some. No, someone else cried out, he doesn’t drink!
Yes, I said. Tonight I’ll drink.
It didn’t taste good, but I poured glass after glass. And after each glass I asked people around me: do I look different? Do I talk differently? Do I look drunk?
I was curious, you see. It was probably an experiment more than anything else.
Some hours later, I was thrown out of a disco. I remember sitting outside, all woozy, and still trying to ask the guy next to me: do I look drunk? Do I speak like I am drunk? Why did that guy throw me out? Why can’t I walk properly?
I do not remember how I got back to my room. I do remember, though, that I drank every single day after that. Not because I liked it, but because the people I liked went out every day, and because I wanted to do some more experimenting. One night I woke up under the kitchen table as one of the lesser alcoholically inclined opened the fridge for some breakfast. One day I stayed in bed, crying and feeling sorry for myself for no particular reason, until it was time to go out and drink some more.
When I came back to Norway three weeks later, I had changed. I had become a seasoned drinker. Suddenly I didn’t feel as an outsider at parties: suddenly I drank just as much as anyone else, and often more. There were quite a few occasions when I was the last man standing and still wanted the party to continue.
I am ashamed to say that I even did what many Norwegian students do but are ashamed to say: I went through the Vinmonopol price list and calculated which beverage gave the most alcohol for the least amount of money. I think it was some kind of Madeira, and I dutifully went down to my local Vinmonopol and bought three small bottles. I didn’t manage to drink more than one of them.
But after a few years, it slowly changed back to what it had been. I drank less and less. I had my rounds of Guinness and Czech pivo, but fewer and fewer as time went by. Last year, after getting drunk for the first time in many months, I staggered home from a pub around midnight, and I remember thinking: this is just not worth it.
This year, I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol. Not by conscious choice, not because I have made a New Year’s resolution to stay sober. It’s just that I don’t like the taste that much. It’s seldom a pleasure to drink beer — and whiskey or vodka or whatever was in my first ever bottle in Kiel? Undrinkable. And if you want a thirst quencher, water answers the same purpose and works even better.
But does that mean I am less creative than I could have been?
I just borrowed a book by Hunter S Thompson at the library: Kingdom of Fear. Unlike many of my journalist acquaintances, I have never read him, nor have I seen but a few minutes of the film. He has never been a hero of mine. But having read a few pages, I am hooked. And, strangely enough, despite my antipathy towards drugs and despite not being a fan of getting drunk (or anyone else getting drunk for that matter), I find it fascinating to read Thompson when ha talks about these things. And as far as I can tell, it seems obvious that drugs and alcohol in part is what made him creative. At least in his opinion.
So, should I drink to be more creative? Research suggest yes, it seems to make you slightly more creative, but only if you drink small quantities. Binge drinking, the Norwegian way, doesn’t help you.
A wise man is creative. So a wise man should drink alcohol? But a wise old man needs to be old too. He must survive into old age. Binge drinking won’t help you achieve that goal. (Or does it?!) What about drinking small quantities?
Apparently, it might. Now, research into this is difficult and complex, and it will always be the “alcohold makes you live longer”-studies that make the headlines, but still — if this is true, I should start drinking again, just a couple of beers every Saturday or so. If that’s what it takes, I don’t mind.
After all, there are worse ways of becoming old and wise.