When anticipating my recent business trip to France, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to speak the language. Though I studied French for some 12 years, I feared that learning Italian during the last year would erase my French memory and that when I opened my mouth to communicate, Italian words would come out. What I did not anticipate, surprisingly, was being surrounded by the temptation of incredible French wines, spirits, and ales. Somehow I had forgotten to worry about this.
In the nearly 5 years since I quit drinking I have found that some of the most difficult moments are the 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning of a meal with friends or colleagues while they select their pre-meal cocktails and discuss what wine to have with dinner. Ordering a seltzer with lime or some fruit juice-sparking water combination, or creating the physical barrier of hand flat atop wine glass to signal my abstention, often elicits at least a friendly raised eyebrow if not a verbalized “you’re not drinking?” to which I must decide if I will respond “Nope” or “I don’t drink anymore” or “it’s a condition of my parole.”
In France, however, where I have not been since I quit drinking, the presence of wine and other alcohols seems much more continuous. Beginning with the assumption by flight attendants that a glass of wine will be consumed with whatever the airline has decided to place on a 8×10 inch plastic tray for dinner. Extending to lengthy lunches that are much more likely than those in the US to include wine. To the sumptuous dinners – especially in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France and therefore the world – where the meal begins with an aperitif, continues with carefully selected wines, and often finishes with a digestif.
I am sure that France has it’s share of abstainers from alcohol, from alcoholics to a significant Muslim population, but the responses I received to my usual wine-decline seemed a touch more surprised. What’s a nice girl like you doing not enjoying some of our best national product?
Of course, this could just have been my projection on a people I longed to emulate from an early age, a sort of shame in response to not being able to enjoy alcohol in moderate quantities as the life- and meal-enhancing element it was meant to be.
Surrounded by people seemingly enjoying wine and other alcohols so “normally,” I wondered to myself, as I sometimes do, will I ever be able to have just one glass of wine? When I recall my earlier attempts at moderating my alcohol intake, how they all failed and yet it seemed I just hadn’t found the right moderation management technique yet, I see this delusion for what it is.
Though I take my sobriety one day at a time, I realize I probably will never be able to enjoy moderate alcohol consumption in my lifetime. That the enjoyment is in fact so brief before it crosses the line into guilt, shame, and loss of control, removes some (but not all) of its appeal. And so during those moments when others are anticipating their first sips and I’m sitting there holding my breath, I remind myself to inhale and exhale, to watch my desire to drink rise, abide, and dissolve. And to take special pleasure in enjoying my morning coffee with a sense of clarity, not remorse.