THE FIRST FEW times I met my Salvadoran brother-in-law in his country, we had long conversations in Spanish. My grammar was atrocious, but our conversations were real. Then, when he moved to the US with my sister and nephew, we stopped speaking Spanish.
“Mateo,” he said, “I know you speak good Spanish. Why do you never speak it?”
“Because,” I said, “I can only speak Spanish when I’m drunk.”
When I moved to Buenos Aires, a few people said to me, “The best way to learn a language is on your back.” But even at 21, I’d never become comfortable with talking to girls, let alone in a language I’d far from mastered. So, I needed wine and beer to work up the nerves. Nearly every night, two of my friends and I would sit at a bar in Recoleta and shoot the shit, eventually working up the courage to talk to the girls who walked in.
And that’s how I learned Spanish. By the end of the four months, I was far from fluent, though I was conversant — but only when I had a buzz going.
There’s more to my drunken bilingualism than a simple lowering of inhibitions. Scientists call this phenomena “state-dependent memory.” The basic gist is that people tend to remember things better when they’re in the same state of consciousness they were in when they first learned them. So, if something happens to you while you’re high, you’ll be more likely to remember it when you’re high. If you learn a language while drunk, you’ll be better at speaking it when you’re drunk.
Alcohol and travel
At 31, I cringe slightly to think of how many foreign cities I stumbled around drunk in my 20s. I live on the Jersey Shore, and I know how irritating drunken tourists are. But in looking back on the past 10 years, my decade of international travel, I cannot help but realize just how much of the world opened up to me because of alcohol.
2003, Barcelona, Spain. We’re sitting at a table outside a restaurant just down the street from the Sagrada Familia. My parent’s friends are also in Barcelona. They turn to us kids and say, “If we duck into that bar, will you be fine?” We say sure, and as a treat, they order my sisters and me a pitcher of sangria. I am 16. I have not had a sip of alcohol yet in my life. I take a sip. It is delicious. I take another sip. The sun sets and it is warm and I feel alive in a beautiful place.
2004, Englewood, Florida. We’re at my favorite uncle’s wedding. Everyone’s drinking, and my mother passes me a shot of Jagermeister, in what I am now certain was an attempt to turn me away from hard liquor entirely. My uncle slips me drinks for the rest of the night — as he becomes more plastered and belligerent, I myself find that I’m suddenly comfortable dancing and telling risqué jokes. My sisters and cousins and I leave the wedding, drive around the island in a golf cart, and I end the night lying on the beach while the stars spin. I am 18, and there will be no hangover tomorrow.
2007, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My friends and I, after a day of visiting the sites of human rights abuses — the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng Prison — stop by a local expat bar for drinks. We meet a couple of dashing, middle-aged British businessmen. They fall for the pretty blonde in our group and take us to a few nightclubs. As I sit in the corner, sipping on a sugary drink, I realize that the Southeast Asian expat life, so long imagined as a romantic tropical Shangri-la, has a side that I won’t be able to live with.
2008, Aguascalientes, Peru. After four days of mountain climbing, after four days of shattering my knees on Andean stones, after four days of gasping for oxygen at 14,000 feet, I sip on a pisco sour and realize that alcohol, like food, tastes infinitely better if it’s earned. I also know that I will rarely earn it.
2011, Bruges, Belgium. I took a train here pretty much exclusively because I loved the movie In Bruges. I get there, and stroll around the town, walking through the Christmas Market in the town square. It’s beautiful, but I can’t bring myself to talk to anyone. I’m as lonely as I’ve ever been in my life. I go into a bar and sip a Belgian beer. I realize I hate Belgian beers. I leave it on the counter and go back to the hostel. I don’t speak to anyone in Belgium.
2012, London, UK. I’m at my school’s Atheists, Secularists, and Humanist society meeting. We’re at the White Horse Pub where all the grad students hang out. The girl I met a week ago at a Super Bowl Party walks over to the barrel where I’m sipping my complimentary pint, and her face lights up when she sees me.
“Hey!” I say, “I didn’t know you were an atheist.”
“Oh, I’m not,” she says. “I’m Catholic. I’m just here for the free booze.”
I’m in love.
2012, Point Pleasant, New Jersey. The night before, I was on a Skype call with the girl from the pub. I was still in London, she was back home in New Jersey. She mildly suggested I come to her family’s Fourth of July Party. I looked up the prices online and they were insanely cheap.
As I walk in the door, I meet her family. Her friends hand me shots of tequila. I try to play it cool, even though I do not do well with tequila. 4 hours later, I am sunburnt and shirtless, passed out on the couch next to a 4-month-old child. My girlfriend’s dad tiptoes in, giggles, and takes a picture of me. He emails it to her a month later, with the caption, “Who in the world?”
2014, Paris, France. We’re on a Seine Riverboat Tours. I’ve been to Paris a dozen times, and I always try to do too much. So now we’re just eating and drinking our way around the city. My girlfriend (for now — I’m having my grandmother’s diamond set in ring band) hands me a tallboy of some crappy European beer, and we listen while our tour guide, a French woman named Sophie, points out all of the attractions on the Right and Left Banks, and inexplicably tells us their weights in elephants. We giggle, and for months will ask each other how much certain landmarks weigh in elephants.
2015, Englewood, Florida. My dad calls me. The uncle who got married 11 years earlier has drunk himself to the brink of death. The doctors tell him he can never have another sip. My uncle has decided, instead of trading in his vices for a few extra decades of life, to have one last great party down in Florida, and has invited all of us. “I do not expect you to come,” my dad says. I don’t.
Dry and Stationary
My wife is taking 9 months off of drinking, and out of solidarity, I’m drinking less. We also can’t travel much. It’s too expensive, and we need to save up for the baby. “I have taken more out of alcohol,” Winston Churchill once said, “Than alcohol has taken out of me.” That is questionable. The great man was loaded damn near his entire adult life. But for me, at the beginning of my 30s, it rings true: I can’t deny what alcohol has brought me. I have made friends, I have seen the world, and I have fallen in love, and booze was there with me through all of it.
I learned more than Spanish while two sheets to the wind — I learned how to be an adult. And entering social situations without the aid of booze is like having the training wheels taken off for the first time. I feel wobbly and self-aware. My maturity is state-dependent. That will not do. If I can’t be my best self sober, then I can’t really be my best self.
I do not want to become a sodden mess. I do not want my best memories to be blurred. And even as I step back from booze, I know, in the back of my head, that part of the reason I don’t want to become an alcoholic is because I enjoy alcohol too much, and I don’t want to give it up forever.
I will have to learn moderation. I will, to some extent, have to say goodbye to the most reliable travel buddy I’ve ever had.
Thank you, old friend, for all the fuzzy memories. I don’t know what our future will hold.