Resisting the Dutch drinking culture
No beer for me, please
Mohamed el Sokkary has never tasted alcohol. Ever. When the media studies student goes to a party he doesn’t drink. Not that he minds when his friends do; it’s just not for him. ‘I think I’m one of the few people who have never tried it.’
Mohamed grew up in Egypt and Qatar, where drinking is not the norm. He is Muslim and his religion forbids drinking. The interesting thing is, he says, he has never felt pressure to change his behaviour. Hasn’t even been curious. ‘Drinking norms can be related to certain cultures and countries. However, at the same time, it is an individual preference, too.’
Most of his friends like to go to parties, and they drink regularly. He himself loves techno parties, and DJ’s until the early morning. But the energy he has comes from his personality, he says, and not from alcohol.
He held onto these personal ideas, but because he grew up in the international setting of an expat family, he also learned that other people may view drinking in a completely different way. ‘Personally I don’t care if people drink. You just do you’, he says.
When Mohamed came to Groningen he had a bit of a culture shock, but at the same time, through hearing stories about the Netherlands, it was exactly how he had expected it to be. ‘Although it was different from back home, I got situated very quickly and adapted to the drinking culture, even without drinking.’ In Qatar, he notes, people need a license if they want to drink. ‘But here people only need to wait until they are eighteen to drink.’
An actual truck came by to deliver dozens of crates of beer
Other international students are downright appalled by the drinking culture in Groningen, though. Alcohol seems to be an integral part of student life. In what other country would students set up a business like Bierkoerier, which delivers crates of Bavaria right to your doorstep? Do students in other countries substitute those Bavaria beer crates for walls? Do they turn a harmless child’s game, like Looping Louie, into a drinking game?
Alcohol is an important part of the introduction at many student associations, and even though in the last few years it has been forbidden during the official hazings, it is still everywhere to be found. According to research by the UG, students drink an average of ten glasses of alcohol during a teaching week – sixteen glasses for men and six for women. Study association members, however, exceed by far the general average: they drink twenty-one glasses a week. For men, twenty-one glasses or more is considered excessive alcohol use. For women, this number stands at fourteen.
Quantity over quality
Felipe Orozco from Costa Rica, PhD student in chemical engineering and a moderate drinker himself, was perplexed when he learned of the drinking habits of students in this country. ‘The students next door were probably all first-years and they looked very young, but they drank so much that an actual truck came by to deliver dozens of crates of beer to their doorstep.’
When Felipe encountered the Dutch drinking culture, he was already mature and didn’t feel pressured into drinking in order to be accepted by his fellow students. But he dislikes what he sees: ‘Overall, I don’t like the Dutch way of drinking. It’s quantity over quality.’
People give me alternative solutions to abstaining
German psychology student Christina Drotos quit alcohol three years ago, right before coming to Groningen. She had a hard time finding friends here, she says. ‘That process was slowed down by the fact that I was not a drinker.’
She did form a friend group in the end, but sometimes she still gets into uncomfortable situations. ‘When I’m in a pub and I ask for water, it feels weird. Bartenders look at me like I’m cheap’, she says. ‘People also often try to convince me to drink, or they give me alternative solutions to abstaining when I tell them I stopped because I didn’t want to waste my weekends fighting hangovers. That’s annoying.’
When everyone around you consumes alcohol, it’s easy to feel pressured into joining them. ‘But not all international students are eager to participate in and adapt to the Dutch drinking culture’, explains Robbert Maseland, who is an associate professor of cultural and institutional economics at the UG. ‘In this sense, alcohol consumption has an exclusionary character that we don’t always realise.’
Shinjini Sengupta, a media studies student from India, experienced that pressure, too. In her first year, she tried to fit in with her fellow students, but she soon realised it just wasn’t her cup of tea. ‘I got bored quickly’, she says. ‘Work, class, drink on the weekend, repeat.’
She was also surprised to see people in the Netherlands drink while they’re eating. ‘People here will have a glass of wine during dinner; in India it’s not that common. Alcohol just has a bad connotation. When people drink, bad things happen, like domestic violence for example.’
Even Lote Leimane, a master student of applied social psychology who was used to the Latvian drinking culture, had to draw a line for herself. ‘I used to live in the Frascati international student house. It was nice there, but there was too much partying and drinking going on. At some point we were going out three or four times a week and we would always get drunk.’
When people drink, bad things happen
She definitely had fun, she says, but she decided to get her priorities straight. ‘Sometimes I needed to study or go to school the day after, but I didn’t want to be the one left out. I wanted to experience my first year to the fullest and not be the boring one.’
Lote does prefer the Dutch drinking culture to the Latvian one, she says. ‘Back home, we drink more hard liquors; here we drink beer. People drink more often than back home, but not as heavily, and I like that.’
She remembers her grandfather’s funeral, where bottles of vodka were spread out on the tables after the service. ‘All of my grandfather’s friends and family got drunk, some black-out drunk. That’s only possible in Latvia. I was surprised, considering it was a funeral, but it seemed it was supposed to be like that.’
Now, after a few years in Groningen, Lote has found a middle ground between the Dutch drinking habits and her Latvian roots. ‘I didn’t use to be a fan of beer, but I’ve learned to appreciate it since coming to the Netherlands. I enjoy having a beer by myself after a day of work or study.’