Brussels seems to run solely on champagne-fuelled schmoozing. We find out what life is like for abstainers.
Journalists, it must be said, are renowned for their capacity for alcohol so my decision to stop boozing was met with several raised eyebrows, darting looks to my (actually un-pregnant) abdomen, and accusations that I was getting old and boring.
The first few parties were a serious drag. I found myself gazing longingly at the trays of champagne as they glided past while I nursed a glass of water – fizzy, if the organizers were feeling particularly racy that night. People who were mere business acquaintances felt it was okay to make a joke or inquiring comments regarding my nephalism – even certain friends were positively begging me to head down their road to oblivion. Then there was the nagging doubt that while I will remember everything people told me the next day (a dangerous trait in a journalist and one I told myself would make up for my abstention), I’m aware that bounding up to people is not quite as easy as it is after a swig of the bubbly stuff. Networking events have been built around booze for this very reason. What are often quite false social occasions where we are supposed to delight in the company of relative strangers, can be sufficiently oiled by liquor.
Too Good To Miss?
Champagne – possibly because it screams luxury and sophistication – has become the (expensive) beverage of choice at these events, where public relations gurus hope to impress their guests by giving them this subliminal message about their importance. The elitism associated with champagne was spurred during the 17th century when the English put aside their animosity for their Gallic neighbours and imported barrels of the stuff. At one point, the bubbly version (initially scorned by the French) was more popular in England.
And aside from its colourful, omnipresent history – the region of Champagne being ransacked by the Russians who became one of the world’s largest consumers of the golden nectar and being on the front during both World Wars – champagne is just, well, let’s face it, pretty damn good.
None of this helps me adapt to my new, squeaky-clean life, so I referred to several fellow teetotallers and a psychotherapist from Brussels Community Health Service who spends much of his time dealing with people with alcohol addictions. All concerned agreed that it is a talking point, but it won’t ruin your social life and could even improve your professional outlook. One recent convert said: “I wish I’d had the good sense to give up before. It can be hard at first but I feel very much in control and I know I’m not going to say or do something stupid.”
Nonetheless, one respondent admitted that she did feel the non-effect – “It’s true that with one drink, I’m a little less shy so maybe abstaining does affect my networking abilities” – while another said that the fact she didn’t want to be identified said something too: “I don’t want it to be an issue.” Abstention from booze, however, says more about the people who ask questions and seem genuinely perturbed. Harry Pomerantz, psychotherapist, said this is because we generally feel better if everyone is doing the same thing. “We tend to mirror other people.” At a recent event, a fellow hack who I barely knew asked me at least three times why I wasn’t drinking, slurring her words more and more as she scouted the room for a more complicit companion. Gradually the benefits become apparent. I felt healthier, I had no cringe-worthy recollections the next day, and I also realised just how annoying drunk people can be. Ever noticed how they get right in your face and speak so loud?
Boozing Undermines Schmoozing
As Pomerantz also explains, many people simply don’t know when they’ve had enough. That point? “If every single time you come out of an event inebriated and don’t have that self-control mechanism which says I must stop,” he said. Ultimately, boozing like this leads to problems during the day, possibly undoing all those schmoozing efforts of the night before, that’s if you hadn’t disgraced yourself by the end. A raging headache, poor sleep and dehydration will all make the little grey cells work just that bit slower. For sure, moderate drinking is unlikely to put you in any danger health-wise or ruin your career, but it’s worth bearing in mind how prevalent alcohol problems are in this city and to be able to recognise the signs. And if all of this doesn’t convince you of the righteous path, a recent survey by Brussels consultancy Burson Marsteller found that evening receptions (champagne fests) ranked right down there as the preferred way for politicians and officials to receive information. Now, boozers of Brussels, get out of my face.
* say you are driving (although this might not wash with less socially responsible nationalities).
* A firm ‘no thanks, I’ll start with a water’.
* Give short answers – you don’t have to explain yourself
* Tell the truth or a limited version of it – you are not going to be ‘on antibiotics’ forever.
* Move the conversation fast – you’re there to discuss work not your former, rampant alcoholism, yet-to-be-publicly-revealed pregnancy, penchant for sleeping with your boss when drunk, etc
* Stuff yourself silly with the canapés and tell people drinking is cheating
* Tell them alcohol turns you into a crazed, violent person (maybe save this for persistent questioners)
* Be confident in your decision – are you a teenager or a fully- fledged adult?
* Don’t feel embarrassed – leave that to the sozzled suckers who will wake with a raging hangover and that sinking feeling: “What the hell did I say or do last night?”