When in Rome, do as young Romans do: binge like a Brit

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The Independent Online

The relaxed Mediterranean way with drink has long been admired in Britain, and has helped make the case for the abolition of British restrictions on drinking.

Look at the Continent, they say: no licensing hours; no binge drinking. No last orders; no feverish pouring back of pints as the bell clangs. If only we abolished our primitive restrictions, Britons would drink like the Italians - like grown-ups.

Well, perhaps. It's true that the Continental attitude to drinking has long been profoundly different to the British one. But it's the attitude that has governed the availability of drink, rather than the availability governing the attitude.

It seems improbable that roaring Britons can be turned into suave, slightly tipsy Latins overnight, merely by changing the law. But the unpleasant truth is that southern Europeans - or some of them - are rapidly becoming more like us.

Historically, binge drinking has not been a problem in Mediterranean countries because drinking was intimately connected with eating. You might have an aperitif before a meal, a wine with it and a spirit to follow, but with food in the stomach the wild drunkenness that plagues British cities is hard to contrive. Cheerful garrulity, followed by a nap, is the worst that's likely to happen.

The British have learnt about wine for decades now, but the interdependence of food and drink doesn't come naturally. In cafés in Rome one sees respectable English couples solidly drinking their way through a bottle of wine, with no food. For Italians it's an exotic sight. The pleasure of intoxication per se is not one they understand. You would only set out to get drunk if you were upset. It's not a pleasure but a temporary relief from pain.

The food connection also explains why the exclusion of children from pubs is incomprehensible to people from Italy, France or Spain: children, food and drink are all part of the same family-based ritual, and you would no more ban the children than exclude them from a game of Scrabble.

Restrictions on alcohol make no sense where its abuse has never been a problem. Anywhere you can get lemonade you can get wine, beer, or a bottle of whisky, if that's what your heart is set on. Restricting supply would strike most people here as bizarre.

But that may change, and in ways that should give pause to those convinced that the abolition of restrictions in Britain must be a good thing. Countries can learn from each other in bad ways as well as good.

With Irish pubs and other boozing joints colonising Italy's big cities, it's doubtful that Italian authorities would be so phlegmatic about allowing drinking without control if they could start from scratch today. The use and meaning of drink to young Italians is changing rapidly - and for the worse.

Their parents would not dream of taking a drink lontana dalla pasta - out of the context of a meal. But for many young Italians, getting smashed is one of the joys of life. The contagion arrived with the 1990 World Cup, when Italians who had never travelled were treated to the sight of northern Europeans staggering around their streets, chanting and puking. Many were disgusted; some were impressed.

Fifteen years on, the contagion is firmly in place. The streets of a fashionable area such as Trastevere in the early morning - packed with noisy drunks, both Italian and foreign - are a poor advertisement for the abolition of drinking restrictions. And a grim portent of the way Britain could go.