“Not even wine?”
No, not even wine, I would respond. This question was the one most often posed by people whom I’d just met when I would decline a glass of champagne during the aperitifs and then say no to whatever wine was offered at dinner, telling my hosts or others who asked me that I didn’t drink. Or that I no longer drank: “Je ne bois plus.”
It’s a normal question, though, in France, given its history of wine and cuisine. A new acquaintance during a recent dinner at my friend Richard’s followed up that “not even wine?” question by saying, “It must be difficult for you to live in a land of fine cuisine and not be able to drink.”
But I haven’t had a drink in almost 20 years, so I’ve gotten used to cuisine, fine or otherwise, without the accompanying red or white. And it’s not difficult for me. Or no longer so. In fact, I don’t even notice, or not so much, what other people drink.
Actually, I sometimes joke that I usually take the red, that is, Badoit Rouge, a brand of sparkling water that I especially like, since it’s fizzier than most. And back when I did drink, I never actually drank for quality but for quantity.
My friend Ed White, who stopped drinking back in the early 1980s when he first started living in France, used to tell insistent waiters here that he simply wasn’t drinking that night, for whatever reason, so they’d stop bothering him about ordering something alcoholic. For my part I usually tell waiters “J’en reste à l’eau,” or I’ll stick to the water.
It isn’t all that hard, really, at least for me. But I’m lucky that way. I’ve heard some visitors say in various AA meetings in Paris how frightened they’ve been on arriving here in the land of wine and vineyards on seeing others drink and enjoy their food while they themselves can only look on with envy or regret. But that’s their perspective. They probably feel the same way at home.
I’ve been lucky enough to have the “obsession lifted,” as they say. And I don’t ridicule anyone else’s fear of falling under the spell of alcohol, even as I myself don’t struggle to remain clear-eyed and sober. That’s my perspective.
And I don’t mind telling people that I stopped drinking because I had a problem with drinking too much. I also tell them, after their follow-up question – there are almost always follow-up questions – that neither do I intend to start again, even after almost two decades without drinking. No, I don’t miss it – an answer to the final question that’s usually added after I’ve answered the first two.
I’ve been asked by some people back in the States if I worry what people will think of me here in wine-loving Paris by not drinking. But I didn’t care what people thought of me back when I spent so many years in a state of almost-constant inebriation, so I care less now if in France they find me just as I am, that is, relatively clearheaded. Or almost so, given that I’m being me in another language, so I grant myself a bit of poetic license in how I’m interpreted or how I understand what others feel about me. I usually err on the side of acceptance.
The thing is, all of the French friends I’ve made in Paris are reasonable drinkers – a glass or two and that’s that. In the olden days this would have shocked me, I who never left a glass unfinished, unless it had been knocked over, as inevitably happened during certain endless nights. I’m just glad that my friends comport themselves in a manner that jibes with whatever passes for normal in my world these days. In any event, I wouldn’t want to meet, and I certainly wouldn’t befriend, anyone who drank as I did back in the day.
When I arrived in Paris, I started attending AA meetings here, as a way of centering myself in a foreign place. Not that I had any urge to relapse. It was more a matter of remaining humble, and knowing that I myself had had the help of others when I stopped drinking. As my French got better, I also began to frequent French-language meetings in addition to the English-speaking ones that I’d first come to know in Paris.
These meetings had different atmospheres, but were all essentially the same – like the expressing of similar emotions in another language. I wanted to hear additional stories, though, and perhaps meet other people – the recovery community here is pretty small – and I always looked at anything in French as an opportunity to learn, regardless of the subject.
Many Anglophones here in Paris who are in recovery don’t go to French-speaking AA meetings for the simple reason that their French isn’t good enough. Or perhaps they don’t feel comfortable exposing that painful part of themselves in a language not their own, regardless of where they hit bottom and eventually sobered up. Some Anglophones told me they didn’t like the welcome at the French meetings, finding them cold or even off-putting. Or even too French, whatever that means from their perspective.
I couldn’t tell. They all seemed similar to me, all friendly enough. Each meeting is a place where people gather to release a part of themselves that if not shared in a group might lead to them falling back into that bottomless well of addiction. In that sense, every meeting was equally welcoming to me.
I managed to get to my first French AA meeting about six weeks after my arrival in Paris. Everyone at the meeting was expected to share a few words – the person who led it went around the room to ensure he hadn’t omitted anyone – which struck fear into me as a newcomer to the language. But I wasn’t in Paris to remain unconnected and isolated. So I stammered out a few sentences, and that seemed to have been enough.
After the meeting, one of the women there began to chat with me in a kind way and asked a few questions about my new life in Paris. She also posed a follow-up question, this one related to non-drinking. She wanted to know how I found this French meeting versus the English-language ones that I was more familiar with. Because, she said, “We’re much friendlier here than they are in the English-language meetings.”
It’s always a matter of perspective.