“What are you doing?” Maria asked, eyeing the highly concentrated rum drink I was mindlessly preparing. What was I doing? Well, what I had been doing throughout all of high school. I was listening to the commands intertwined in Lil Jon’s rap songs, the Budweiser commercials, the belligerent chanting of my friends in the basement at the usual Friday night party. I was getting messed up. Maria snatched away the cup and poured most of it out. “We have all night,” she scolded, “so take it slow.” Now was my time to be surprised as I stared at the hundreds of other groups of students encircling their treasure hoards of bottles. Everyone was drinking, but no one was hammered. I couldn’t believe I was in Spain, Europe’s liquor store, and I still hadn’t blacked out. It wasn’t long before I learned that in Spain, having a good time doesn’t mean making an ass out of yourself.
The value contrast between the U.S. and Spain on drinking comes from differences in our upbringing. Americans are raised with the idea that alcohol is bad. At different moments in our history it was shunned, even prohibited, and continues to carry with it a social stigma. For students in high school, when they first begin drinking, it often has an exciting element of the forbidden. Students never get over this dangerous allure. In college, binge drinking is the norm. Being deprived of the freedom to experiment with alcohol leads students to revolt against authority.
The cultural differences between Madrid and Minnesota approaching the subject of alcohol forced me to spin around and take a critical glance at how alcohol was affecting the lifestyles of many. Before this experience, I have to admit I had a serious drinking problem. I have since, with the help of a friend, re-evaluated how alcohol was poisoning my interactions with other people. My definition of a productive social exchange transitioned from being dependent on what filled my cup to relying on the people I surrounded myself with. This is a lesson I hadn’t expected to learn during my year abroad but nevertheless one that I think can resonate with many other students who have suffered through a few too many tequila shots.