Sunday, October 02, 2022

When an Italian Takes to Drink

Normally, most of us find it inconceivable to come upon an Italian with a drinking problem. Wine, and to a lesser extent, beer and spirits, have been an integral part of the Italian table. Moderation was something my Sicilian grandfather instilled in me as a young boy. I rarely saw anyone, at our family gatherings, mildly drunk or otherwise. It just wasn’t a thing, alcoholism, in our family or our Italian culture.

And then, we moved to the desert when I was a kid, and we lived across from an Italian family. The husband was a screen writer, although his wife once told me he was a gofer for a famous television producer. He always seemed to be hanging around the house when he wasn’t out running errands, or as he liked to say, polishing up a script. Actually, what he was really good at was polishing off a bottle, night after night. He was harmless enough when he was sauced up, as long as he wasn’t behind the wheel. But I saw, first-hand, how an alcoholic functioned in his world. And it wasn’t pretty.

It is no small thing, when an Italian takes to drink. In my travels in Italy, over 50 years, I’ve witnessed little, if any, examples of an Italian for whom alcohol have gotten the better of them. Americans, well, that’s another story. Countless times I’ve dragged besotted colleagues to their room and dumped them in their bed, dead drunk. How, I asked myself, did they get that way? I was with them the whole evening. I'd had my share of wine, but it didn’t waste me.

I remember this one person. They were highly intelligent, with advanced degrees. Loved all things Italian. But once they landed at the airport, they couldn’t wait to get their drink on. Often, when they’d be further from the city and the urban gendarmes, they'd pull out a doobie, and enhance their intoxication with another level of bliss. Usually, the person would excuse themselves early and stumble back to their room. So much for enlightened conversation.

Alcohol abuse has destroyed families and friendships, yet the Italians, historically have dodged that bullet. Why, I ask. And is that really the case now? In this age of Covid, when so many people have been sequestered and sheltered, with access to anything just a delivery away, with any number of temptations, are the Italians still stalwart in their temperance?

Our neighbor was a casualty. And several of the Italians who came over in the 1970’s, on the cruise ships, who eventually married here and stayed and opened up restaurants, some of them didn’t escape the temptation of the easy flowing wine tap. They worked long hours, had little social (or family) life outside the restaurant, and at the end of a fast lunch or a long dinner rush, they just wanted to kick back and mellow out. I get it. But I’ve lost a couple of them along the way.

Just like my erstwhile colleague, who couldn’t wait to get their drink on, so too, my Italian friends, far from home, succumbed to enslavement by intoxicants – beer, wine, whisky. Sad.

Recently at lunch, with one of my non-transactional friends (i.e., a genuine chum) we got to talking about what would happen if someday a doctor said either of us could no longer drink any alcohol due to a physical condition.

“It would depend on the severity of the malady, but I would be inclined to temper the doctor’s advice with regards to the situation I was finding myself in,” my friend said. “If I was a goner, I probably wouldn’t stop drinking wine, as my condition would be terminal. But if my life would be better for it, and my condition would improve, if I stopped, I’d do it in a New York second.”

I thought about my response. Simply, if someone told me I had to stop drinking wine, I’d say, “OK, but that ginger kombucha, you’re not taking that away from me.” I had an alternate and a plan, a contingency.

I probably won’t be needing to, but I contemplated a life free of alcohol. And it brought up the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism – the root of all suffering is desire. I could give up wine, but could I give up wanting it?

Wanting it would still impart suffering from an affliction that could be worse than the diagnosis the doctor made, which put into motion the whole thing about quitting alcohol.

And then, something inside me said, “Keep it simple.”

I was going down a rabbit hole.

I was missing something that I hadn’t given up. I like wine, sometimes I even love wine. But I can live without wine.

Is that cultural? Or is it behavioral?

However we parse it out, what is it about the Italian culture that has allowed it to create and enjoy these amazing gifts from the earth, yet, not become obsessed and hooked on them?

And what is it about so many Americans, young and old, highly intelligent ones too, that wine, this intriguing intoxicant, gets the better of them? 



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