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Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

On not drinking in Italy

Once again it’s Italy Blogging Roundtable time, and this time my colleagues have come up with a helluva topic: Drinking (and/in Italy). I will tell you why I find this to be a difficult topic, and then talk about what it’s like to be a non-drinker in this country.

1) Water: I am not an authority on drinking of any sort, except, perhaps, on the consumption of water (in Italy, and elsewhere). One thing I’ve always told visitors is that the tap water is perfectly safe to drink anywhere in Italy, even if in some areas it has a funny taste. In Florence, they’ve recently installed purified water distributors which I’ve blogged about here, and make a point of using to avoid wasting plastic. But water, in any case, is pretty much the only liquid I drink. And I can’t think of anything more boring about which to read.

2) Coffee. There are some bloggers who are authorities on coffee, like Sara Rosso, who has actually written a book about How to Order an Italian Coffee in Italy. I, on the other hand, don’t drink coffee. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I would love to. Just that stimulants have been pretty much cut out of my diet for medical reasons (I still can’t say no to chocolate, but out with coffee).

3) Wine. A post about wine in Italy would be wonderful. The problem is, I don’t drink any alcohol. See section 2, stimulants. No-go.

4) Juice. I don’t make juices, that’s too lefty-vegetarian-time-consuming for my lifestyle. But I do drink juice occasionally. It’s a good alternative to water, when you don’t drink wine, coffee, or anything with fizz or added sugar… Luckily in Italy all bars carry yummy juices like pear juice, which I sometimes use as a substitute for an afternoon snack. But you can’t make an article out of that.

So, I don’t drink (alcohol). In Italian they say “sono astemia” which means “I am a teetotaler“, a word that probably 80% of the non-UK English-speaking population has never heard. The very fact that there is a word in common use to describe the condition of not drinking, that does not conjure up images of an auntie with a doily-covered armrest, is a positive thing.

Generally I say this phrase – “sono astemia” – with an apologetic smile while turning over my wine-glass at a dinner table or refusing a handout of spumante at a toast. Used to the routine quip “but it’s bad luck to toast with water”, I have a standard answer (“I toasted with water at my wedding and am still married”). Anyway, at my age, a woman who refuses a drink is assumed to be pregnant, so I figure I can run with that for the next 15 years or so. Many, upon learning that I don’t drink and am not pregnant, think I am a virtuous health nut (combine this with my vegetarianism and you can see where they might think that), but I do my best to dispel this myth and encourage them to eat steak and drink red wine as much as they wish.

There are cultures in which not drinking is easier than in others, I believe, and Italy is not too bad for a teetotaler like me, despite what you might think about the country’s love of wine. In fact, while Italy and France produce a lot of wine, the number of adult Italians who declared, in a recent survey, to be “astemi” (who do not drink) is a whopping 39% (source). And although their young people are starting to catch on to binge drinking, the consumption of alcohol pro-capita is lower than the European average (8.02 liters of pure ethyl alcohol per person per year vs the EU average 11.6 – the UK is at 11.67) (source). This low average is likely related to the tradition of pairing (good) food and wine at table, where the majority of alcohol consumption takes place in this culture, rather than away from meals.

I don’t want to get into stereotypes or a discussion of the merits of one or another culture, but rather wish to make just one, small observation: not drinking in Italy is much less remarkable than not drinking in the States, Canada, or England. The announcement engenders little surprise, some good humour, and total respect, and the conversation continues.

Italy Roundtable on Drinking

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • Gloria Casina Di Rosa

    Totally true Alex. Actually, until not long ago, maybe 20 years, drinking as getting drunk, was a real taboo here (probably because it was a social problem in some cases). Women did not drink at all. Maybe a sip of red wine with their meals, but certainly no drinks at the bar. My mum and grandmother are still of the generation for which being astemia is a total virtue, and should be the normal condition for a woman. For a man a couple of glasses are more acceptable, still the “northern European//North American” culture for drinking is something which until very recently was absolutely not ours. Going out to get drunk is something that is becoming more common among the younger generations (globalization, eh?) but even for my generation, drinking meant a couple (or more… ok) of good glasses of wine with your dinner with friends or at a sagra, but ending up trashed at the end of the evening was a real no no.

    So I believe not drinking here is absolutely acceptable, except maybe at toasts! Unlike you, I do like having a couple of drinks when the occasion is right, but like you I do not go near sparkling wines because they kill my stomach. But at my wedding, I did toast with spumante as I had in the back of my mind something my dad’s uncle once told as a joke at the Christmas table. My grandmother had just said the same you said “I toasted with water at my wedding and I am still married!” and my uncle whispered “La sfortuna l’ha portata al tu’ marito infatti!” (it is your husband who got the bad luck then!) to which she replied “mal cercato unn’è mai troppo” (no idea how to translate that… I’ll leave it up to you!) But I am sure Tommy is a lucky man! LOL

  • arttrav

    ah hahahah Gloria!! I can hear the Tuscan dialect in the exchange you wrote about your grandmother’s lucky marriage. In fact the quips usually continue about being married as bad luck… I decided to eliminate the dialogue.

  • Georgette Jupe

    Great post Alex, I have some friends who don’t drink much and Italy doesn’t feel to me like a place that presses drinking like it does during social occasions at home {home being Texas for me}. Most of my Italian girl friends barely drink anything and even the guys I know as well. My tommy is definitely the one who drinks the least between me and him!

    *btw love the “I’m drinking water so I must be pregnant” excuse! you can use that for a long long time to come ;-)

  • Sara Rosso

    Great perspective – helps to hear how the other side lives, too. I think in Italy it’s really only the toasts where no-alcohol tends to stick out. I think you’ve come up with a great reasoning behind your water-toast :)

  • arttrav

    Thanks Sara! I am surprised so many people can relate to this post… Gloria’s explanation, above, about women of a previous generation not drinking at all might explain the statistic I found about 39% of Italians not drinking, but it’s nice to read that others enjoy my crazed reasoning :)

  • Stephanie Andrews

    This is very interesting (especially Gloria’s comment). Coming from Canada, I had the expectation that all Italians enjoyed at least a bit of red wine with dinner. I was pleasantly surprised when I met my boyfriend, who is from Basilicata and lives in Florence, to discover that not only does he not drink, but neither do his parents. I had assumed that this was because his father was a doctor. At Christmas, a very little bit of wine is passed around for the taste, but otherwise, they don’t even serve it. His sisters drink a little bit with a special dinner, but partly because of strong connections with other countries and in one case a spouse from a northern country who enjoys wine.
    It’s not that I dislike alcohol altogether, but I am incredibly turned off by the drinking culture that I knew when I was in university here in North America (or that I’ve experienced in England and Australia). I have never liked being around drunk people, and I find it depressing to see herds of young girls in skimpy outfits, drunk out of their minds, and urinating in the streets (which I have seen in Florence on more than one occasion). I have assumed that these are largely visiting American students, although I must say that the atmosphere last New Year’s Eve in Florence was a bit scary. My boyfriend commented that many of the drunk young people in the streets were young people from smaller towns (Italians) who had come into Florence to cause a bit of trouble. We had to go to the police precinct the next day for something else, and heard a bit more about the vandalism that was done.
    Sorry – long, meandering comment. More about the water in Italy would be interesting. I’ve had a hard time getting my boyfriend to understand that I only ever drink tap water in Canada. When he here he has a hard time with that and ends up buying bottled water, much to my chagrin. I read a while ago that the mayor of Venice was/is? a philosopher who has actively campaigned to get Venetians to switch from bottled to tap water.

  • arttrav

    Hi Steph! Aha now the truth comes out… do we see a future canadian expat in Florence here? I know what you mean about university drinking culture; the last time i ever had a drink was during frosh week at York University. Florence does have a problem with drunk American students; at the newspaper (The Florentine) we often find ourselves the target of such complaints but we are also in between those issues and the schools trying to combat this problem as well as deny it. This is an issue I purposely avoided in my article, which I wanted to just keep personal, because it’s quite complex and I don’t think I have the whole story. I know that many schools have made really good progress in the matter, but it is true that most 20-21 year old study abroad students are quite more interested in pubs than in their lessons and in fact this is one of the main reasons I am not teaching on those programs any more. The local bars can also be blamed for promoting cheap shots happy hour, something they developed only to attract americans. There are also tour agencies that sell pub crawls. For example, at the newspaper we refuse all advertising from these places, since we have a wide student readership – it’s not worth the money to us to condone this activity.
    A rant for a rant! ciao!!

  • Gloria – Casina di Rosa

    I think the new generations here in Italy have the same attitude towards drinking as the English-speaking world now. It is a recent change of the past 20 years, but it is only in the last 10 that it has become very bad. Globalization.

  • Jenna Francisco

    I love coffee and wine but I enjoyed this post…your dry sense of humor really came through, and it’s good to know that your choice is respected in Italy. When I lived in the Czech Republic, it was very hard to avoid the seemingly constant supply of beer, shots, local wines, and after-dinner drinks, and people just didn’t understand why someone would say no.

  • Stephanie Andrews

    Interesting. Thanks, Gloria.

  • Amanda Kirk

    Just curious both why you can’t have stimulants & why you think alcohol is a stimulant. I can’t have stimulants due to an arrhythmia and an anxiety disorder, but I drink decaf coffee (which was hard to find when I was studying in Florence, but I bet it is easier now), have some chocolate, and drink wine. I don’t drink hard liquor or beer, but I have never had a problem with a glass of wine. Alcohol is more of a depressant than a stimulant in its effects; it won’t get you wired like caffeine. & I am extremely sensitive to caffeine — an accidental ingestion would put me in the ER. Oh, and like you, I am also a vegetarian.

  • arttrav

    Hi Amanda
    Alcohol is considered a stimulant for the digestive system, and mine doesn’t work quite right. But poor you, allergic to caffeine?!! If i could not drink tea I would be very unhappy! Alexandra

  • Tami

    I appreciate this post so much! I’m a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for nearly 20 years. My husband and I are heading to Italy for the first time, for our 15th anniversary, and I was really nervous about this issue. My perception is that wine, and almost only wine, is served everywhere in Italy. Was worried to not partake would be considered rude (or foolish). Love your tip to just say “sono astemia!” THANK YOU!

    2 other questions I’d love your input on:
    * Will I be able to find diet Coke, in small restaurants? We will be in Rome – Florence – Venice.
    * I’ve read about hopping around early evenings to places that serve aperitivo with purchase of a drink. Does that have to be an alcoholic drink, or would this still be an option for us?

    Really appreciate any insight!


  • arttrav

    Hi Tami, congratulations! I’ve responded to you by (long) email. Ciao!