Relocated Reporting: Drinking age a foreign concept to Europeans

Students studying abroad may not find as many extreme cultural differences as they may expect. A major one, however, is the attitude toward adolescent drinking.

OVIEDO, Spain – After 11 weeks in Europe, I have lived like a native in northern Spain. I’ve gone south to the Canary Islands for Europe’s biggest celebration of Carnival, and I have ridden a bike through the famous Red Light district of Amsterdam.

What have I found in those 11 weeks? Nothing more than the fact that Europe isn’t really that crazy. It seems that there’s an American connotation of Europe as being a land where anything goes, with mullet-wearing toddlers shooting up in the street and anything else you could imagine.

But people are the same all over the world. Whether you are in Harlem in New York or Haarlem in the Netherlands, it doesn’t vary much. Boys will always be boys, girls (just) want to have fun and teenagers need to make their parents angry.

For some reason, although the phrase “drinking age” is just as foreign to Europeans as Europe is to Americans, none of these rebellious teenagers are alcoholics – not even close. They still have curfews, although they may sometimes ignore them, and they still have school Monday through Friday. So, what’s the big deal with drinking, anyway?

The younger drinking age in Spain allows all college students to legally drink, making it common for college cafeterias to serve alcohol (Carlene Majorino/TTN).

It’s easy to make friends where I’m situated in Spain – people are so intrigued by Americans. As a result, I often find myself talking with strangers at restaurants, around the town at night or while traveling.

I get the typical questions, of course: “Obama or Bush?” and, “Do you know Will Smith in real life?” But sandwiched between politics and pop culture, Europeans always think it’s funny to ask me if I can drink in the United States yet. And obviously, the reason it’s so funny to them is because they find the concept of a drinking age ridiculous.

To me, it’s not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just a fundamental, cultural difference. Imagine what would happen if the United States took away its drinking age tomorrow. It would be total chaos. Parents would be furious, and the hospitals would swarm with sick, liquored-up teenagers.

On the other hand, if European countries began enforcing their drinking ages tomorrow (contrary to popular belief, they do exist and are different in each country), I don’t think anyone would listen. Culturally, European mothers see casual drinking as normal among their children beginning at about age 15 or so.

If their moms don’t care, who do kids have to be afraid of? The cops? Nonsense.

“It’s a different culture,” said Toby Katz, a junior psychology major. “In the U.S., instead of, ‘We can drink at the bars,’ it’s, ‘My older brother got us the beer.’ It’s just a different way of living your teenage years.”

One negative thing I hear sometimes from Europeans, as well as some Americans who come to Europe, is that Americans drink to get drunk. Of course, that’s true in some cases, but it’s true in certain cases everywhere.

As long as alcohol causes intoxication upon consumption, that’s what people will do. It’s not that there are more problems with alcohol in the United States than in Europe; the drinking age of the former is simply more heavily enforced.

“I think it’s probably about the same,” Katz said. “If people are going to abuse it, they’ll abuse it either way.”

Although I personally favor the cultural view of alcohol in Europe, I understand that the closest the United States could possibly come would be to lower the drinking age, but that seems almost as controversial as the Iraq War right now.

“If the drinking age was lowered, I don’t think it would change much, except for maybe safer drinking among the young people,” Katz said. “The experience in the U.S. with drinking just happens at a later age.”

Until an entire generation of teens is wiped out on either side of the globe, it doesn’t seem likely that the Eastern or Western hemispheres will be in harmony on the subject of alcohol consumption. But if something drastic did cause this to happen, I’d really like to be alive to see it.

As alike as all people are inside, there will always be surface morals that prevent Europeans from living in America and vice versa. Between drinking, fast food and mullets, America and Europe seem forever doomed to disagree.

Carlene Majorino can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. I Australia the drinking age is 18. I had a friend who went to the US when he was 20, and was annoyed he couldn’t drink there for another year, even though he had been legal for 2 years.

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