Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are You Really, Really Sure You Don't Want a Shot of Rakija?

No matter what time of the day or night you visit someone at home in Serbia, most will immediately haul out a bottle of rakija -- fruit brandy with a 40-60% alcohol rating. Only after your third 'Ne hvala' they'll switch tactics and ask politely if you'd prefer some beer or wine instead. It takes real persistence on the part of a guest to reject alcohol.

(They'll also offer you coffee, but as an add-on to the rakija rather than a hospitality beverage all by its lonely self.)

Rakija is, in fact, so much a part of socializing that I was amused to see a young Orthodox monk happily accepting a shot during a house visit recently. This after he'd scrupulously turned down any meat from his hosts because it's Lent. "Wait a minute, is liquor allowed during Lent?!" I just had to ask. "Well... it looks so much like water," was the explanation. Which was perfectly true.

When I told my husband this story he remarked that funnily enough he'd been visiting an Orthodox priest on the same exact day, who had done the same thing too.

As you can see from this daily alcohol consumption chart published in The Economist, people in the Balkans as a whole consume roughly double the amount of alcohol that typical Americans do.

What I hadn't realized, until I dug into the latest World Health Organization numbers, was how different the data was between Serbs and Croatians.

In fact the Croatians made the Top 10 list of biggest global drinkers. And, the data shows they used to be much worse... this is after a big downward swing in consumption! That said, they are still behind the former Soviet Union. Serbs were somewhere in the mid-20s of top drinking countries.

The difference between American over-drinking and Serb over-drinking is that in Serbia, if you have an alcohol problem people will tell you about it as soon as they notice it. To your face. Americans will not. They will be "polite" and not say a word to you until things are so very bad that you require an "intervention." Which is a fancy American word for everyone in your circle getting together and telling you something that if you were a Serb you would have heard about incessantly long before. You drink too much. You need to stop.

Perhaps as a result, there's no branch of Alcoholics Anonymous in Serbia. Nor, if you Google for clinics will you find places focused on alcohol abuse. Heroin yes, alcohol not so much.

It's not to say people don't have problems in every country. Clearly according to research they do. But perhaps problems are better handled the Serbian way.


tinica said...

Sorry, but that's bull about Americans wanting to be "polite" - indeed, there's a lot of "reverse peer pressure" these days among teens. Binge drinking and excess drinking, a right of passage in the days before the drinking age was raised nationally to 21, still happens, but is now fraught with a lot of heavy over-reaction, and frowned upon by peers.

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

Perhaps I shouldn't have spoken as broadly for all Americans, but rather for those of my own WASPy background and age...

ana.the.serious.cat said...

The rules of Lent are rather complex but, yes, in fact, alcohol is allowed, in *that* specific variant of the Lent that the majority of people adhere to. And anyway, the "mind" aspect is considered more important than the "bodily" one.

In the Orthodox faith, striving to become as virtuous as humanely possible is commendable, but it is not considered beneficial for one's soul to presume that a person has godlike qualities. In non-believer words - you don't get to be bigger than life.

Priests are encouraged to be sensible and lenient, and for monks, it would be contrary to the point to "shame" ordinary people with the extent of their devotion.

Lori Dyan said...

Omigod I love this blog! I'm married to a Serb living in Canada but we spent a month with all of his family in Serbia/Bosnia last year. We just had Easter with some of his cousins here and it was insane with LOTS of Rakija (his aunt was giving it to the 11 year old cousin who'd been sick so as to kill the germs...). Keep up the great writing...it makes us a bit homesick!