The Irish are (in)famous for their love of drinking, but this Irishman has met his match. In this post, Kevin has a look at cultural differences when it comes to drinking.
I can’t recall whether it was the cool breeze or the early sunlight on my face which woke me one warm Spring morning a number of years ago, but I immediately felt something was out of place. My last memory was of arriving at a house party in Belfast the day before. But here I was, part of a contorted ring of unconscious bodies, around the embers of a campfire on the side of a mountain overlooking the town of Newcastle 35 miles from the house where the party was meant to have been. After a few minutes of putting random flashbacks into order I relaxed having made sense of my predicament and thought to myself, ‘now this is a party.’
I had a similar feeling a couple of years ago. A familiar voice speaking perfect English but with a strange accent brought me out of an alcohol induced unconsciousness saying, ‘Kevin, wake up. This is Eric he has just finished worked. You have to do Brotherhood.’ I found myself lying on a couch at 3 am in a room full of people, all talking, but I could not understand a word. Two smiling faces were standing over me. One handed me a shot glass loaded with that lethal Polish invention, vodka (which should have been banned by the UN along with the other chemical weapons.) Then I remembered that I was at my first Polish birthday party in Belfast. There was no time for sleeping, I had new friends to meet.
The night had started off unusually. I had been told the party started at 8 pm. When an Irish person invites you to a house party which they say will begin around 8 pm they mean 9, 10 pm, or even after the pub closes. At 7.30 pm my Polish partner entered the room looking stunning and asked me why I was not ready? This was when I realised that when Polish people, like the rest of their Northern European cousins, say they will meet you at 8 pm they mean 8 pm or 7.50 pm. That’s Polish time. Irish time on the other hand has more in common with Latin American time; it’s just a rough estimate of when we are likely to arrive.
When we got to the party, at 7.55 pm, we were greeted warmly by the host, however, I grew concerned as my partner took her shoes off as well as her coat, motioned to me to do the same, before she set them beside about 30 other pairs of shoes in the hall. In Ireland socks are considered to be part of your underwear only to be exposed in the privacy of your own home. It is not uncommon for Irish men to wear socks for many months after holes first appear in them. Some have even been known to wear the same pair for a number of days in a row turning them inside out in the mistaken belief that they only get dirty on one side at a time. As I reticently followed her example I wondered what else was coming off. Was this one of those parties my mother had warned me to be careful of before I left the country for the first time at a tender age? Seeing my worried look my partner assured me that this was a Polish custom to do with hygiene.
I began to enjoy myself when I was handed a beer, shown into one of the living rooms and introduced to about 20 people, all Polish. There was no way I was going to be able to remember most of the names as I couldn’t even pronounce them. But the Poles have a clever method for introducing people one to one which involves vodka, of course. It’s called “Brotherhood” (“Bruderschaft”) and it was responsible for me finding myself asleep on the couch at 3 am. More on that later.
The people I met were all very friendly and had a very good grasp of the English language. Better than some of the locals I know who still struggle to be understood after having had a lifetime to learn it. I was embarrassed having only the odd word of Polish in return.
The craic* was great as I found myself trying to answer questions such as ‘when is the Irish summer,’ a question which was asked by someone who had lived here for two years. And ‘why do we have separate hot and cold taps,’ as I was showed various scars where people had been burned when trying to wash themselves.
The Irish generally don’t mix food with alcohol. Food simply delays the process of getting drunk which is the main aim of an Irish good night out. It is perfectly acceptable to have a kebab and chips on the way home from the pub, but never should food interrupt the flow of pints. This is another cultural barrier between our peoples. I was amazed when plate after plate of the most wonderful food was brought out. For me it was like a Sunday dinner served about 10 pm. Being the only Irish person present I was invited to try everything. I got stuck in and at one stage I was handed what appeared to be a cup of tea. On drinking it I realised it was soup. Beetroot soup – in a cup you normally get coffee, tea or alcohol in if there are more guests than anticipated. Although there wasn’t a potato or chip in sight the food was all beautiful. It was a strange combination by Irish standards which admittedly aren’t very high - when have you ever seen an Irish restaurant outside of Ireland? Plenty of Irish pubs though.
After the food my trouble began - the vodka bottles were brought out in what seemed to an unending supply. Birthday presents were given and toasts were made, each one followed by the downing-in-one of a shot glass full of neat vodka. I thought I was in heaven. I was expecting to hear a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ but instead the room burst into a song called ‘Stollat’ traditionally sung by Poles at birthdays, weddings and from what I now believe to any other occasion when two or more Poles meet with plenty of vodka to hand. On hearing this I thought to myself Ireland has nothing to fear from the Polish entrants to the Eurovision song contest.
Suitably full of vodka the music and dancing began and went on till the last person could no longer stand. The only break in the music was what seemed to be furious arguments about which song should be played next but once the music started all were the best of friends again.
Someone discovered that I hadn’t really grasped the majority of the people’s names. It was then that I was introduced to ‘Brotherhood.’
‘Brotherhood’ entailed linking arms with a person with a shot glass of vodka in your hand, introducing yourself by saying your name, then shouting ‘Brotherhood’ and downing the vodka with arms still linked. As I was the new entity at the party I had a lot of introductions to make. Once I had gotten to know everybody, again, I think I had well exceeded the Recommended Daily Allowance for vodka.
The more the vodka flowed the less English was spoken. I avoided the Smirnov and stuck to the Polish vodka as I thought that it appeared to improve my understanding of the Polish language. At one stage I thought that I had swallowed so much of this Polish ‘water of life’ that I was actually speaking the language like a native. It was then that I passed out on the couch.
As there was a lot of people living in the house, new additions to the party arrived as their working day ended. That is how I came to be woken at 3 am and thought to myself, ‘now this is a party.’
*craic – from Gaelic Irish – to have a good time, fun
*water of life” – from Gaelic Irish “uisce beatha” meaning whisky