You don't want a beer?

“What would you like to drink?” asks the attendant at the brewery restaurant where my friends and I went for lunch. “Beer, beer, for me too,” they announce one by one. “And you?” the waiter waits for my answer and looks me straight in the eye, “Nothing for me, thank you.“ “You won't drink?” He wonders, and walks off in a huff. It's difficult even with colleagues and friends. “You don't want a beer? Or are you here by car?”, I often hear. Sometimes there is some persuasion: “Come on, you can have one with us, right?” “But you had a beer last week, so why not today?”

Not drinking alcohol is a fad. And if you don't drink in a brewery restaurant, you're weird. “Do you have anything non-alcoholic?” I try to ask sometimes. “Yes, beer. Would you like a Birell?” Beer is one of the cheapest drinks in the restaurant. For a similar price, I can order a third of Rájec water or an over-sweetened draft raspberry. If I want to splurge, I'll order a homemade lemonade.

I'm lucky I don't like alcohol. It makes me all the more aware of the cult that exists around alcohol in the Czech Republic. Almost everyone drinks. When I walk past the newsagents in the morning, I see single shots of rum or vodka. My colleagues routinely have a beer with their lunch menu to help them digest. And many people can't imagine an evening without a couple of wines.

We drink so much that we have to stay sober for a month. And if we do have a Dry February, we'll celebrate on the first of March, with alcohol, of course. Drinking has become the norm. In advertising, alcohol is portrayed as a party with friends and associated exclusively with pleasant feelings. It's also common in movies and TV shows. Who can't think of the drinks in Sex and the City or James Bond's shake don't stir line. Most of How I Met Your Mother took place in a bar, and Vin Diesel regularly enjoyed a Corona in The Fast and the Furious. Bottles of wine or hard liquor are now given as corporate gifts, whether the recipient drinks or not. “Then give it to someone,” is the most common advice I get after receiving such a gift.

My relationship with alcohol is always evolving and changing. It was most profound when I was in college. Everyone drank in college. Alcohol was available at any time and in any quantity. And we had plenty of free time. Our next-door neighbor drank and sold wine, someone else offered rum that made us drunk, another dealt in plum brandy. Sometimes there was a patrol and sometimes we went to the club. I didn't drink every day, but the intensity increased.

It was nearing the end of the fourth semester and I hadn't had a single credit yet. I wanted to enjoy the maypole and then shut down my studies for a few weeks, catch up on everything, and slip into the next semester. My goal wasn't to accomplish everything, just to do the minimum necessary. I'd do the rest another time, that's for sure. But I woke up in the hospital the day after May Day with alcohol poisoning and a concussion. I was incredibly sick, I had two huge bumps on my head, my knees were scraped bloody and I didn't remember anything from the day before. I was in bed for the week and it was clear that all my plans were ruined.

Although it's a hilarious story today, at the time it was a moment I was ashamed of myself. And it was one of the moments that I consider crucial for myself. It was the slap I needed. My priorities changed, and I've never been so thin again. I didn't stop drinking altogether, but I cut back enough to surprise those around me every time I ordered a beer.