Tales from the Frontier - No. 6

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication
- Lord Byron

I hadn’t realised how few places there are in this town to get legless. During my youth in the UK there was almost literally a pub on every street corner. Royal Naval recruits were unlikely, on their initiation, to make it a hundred yards down the Strip (Commercial Rd., Portsmouth) because there were that many hostelries. Inns like the Mucky Duck saw more than their fair share of capsizing matelots. In all major cities in Britain only an experienced drunk could stagger to the end of the main drag without falling aft over fo’c’sle if he had half a pint in every pub.

The axe fell on English boozers after drink-driving laws came in but I guess here the local German, French or Swiss beer aficionados have never had the dubious joy of doing a pub crawl. Not much of a crawl if you have to jump in your BMW and motor a kilometre or two to get to the next village kneipe.

They have few establishments in this border town dedicated purely to drink. Most of the food places sell beer but a pub crawl where you’re expected to scoff a plate of chips with every pint is a different kind of challenge. An Irish pub used to stand on one corner but it had so few customers it was finally bought out and converted to an Argentinische Steak House. The Swiss cram in by the canton load for fresh meat because even a McD’s burger cost twice as much in Alpenland. They mostly sip couth wine and not yobbo beer whilst munching their rump or T-bone.

Not that there aren’t a few winos sleeping rough. You can tell them by their clothes. I’m not sure if they put on their shabby drinking clobber to go out tanking up, or they naturally take on the look of the undead clambering from a non-too-recently buried coffin. And they all look surprisingly similar, as if they all might be family members or come from the same graveyard. One thing is sure, but for a few exceptions, they do not demonstrate Byron’s words as to the ‘best of life’. Mind you, having to down glasses of Pils instead of pints of decent real ale would make any beer-lover look like they’d been left out for the bin men. Not that beer is the tipple of choice. From my observation the drink is usually the fiery colourless spirit often referred to as Korn, a kind of schnapps with bells on. Its price reflects how many minutes it was in the barrel before they tipped it in a bottle. The bottles containing this White Lightning are always glass because plastic containers would dissolve like a ginger snap dunked overlong in hot coffee.

Not that intoxication necessarily means over-imbibing in alcoholic beverages. The OED defines the state, besides that of inebriation, as, ‘the action or power of highly exciting the mind; elation beyond the bounds of sobriety.’

The English are familiar with the idea of the excitability of the French and emotional Johnny foreigner, but the Germans and Swiss are associated with a sense of order and dour nit-picking. It is common knowledge that the Germans have no sense of humour (although they did invent the cuckoo clock) and the Swiss idea of fun is creating a chocolate bar the shape of Toblerone. ‘Elation beyond the bounds of sobriety’ therefore would seem an unlikely state of mind for the majority of border dwellers in these parts. That is until the Winter Olympics take place.

You don’t have to trek far in the depths of winter to find a ski slope. I can see the snow-bedecked Alps from the twelfth tee of my local golf course. Elation for the Swiss consists of hearing the hiss of biting ski-edges, the click of knee hitting slalom pole, the blurring vision of descending snow flurries, and beating the bejabbers out of a huge cow bell. An added advantage is that sponsors can flog a lot of expensive precision timers to organisers. The idea of money always excites them.

Sport that requires an outrageous outlay of money for equipment, club membership, or participation, has always excited the Swiss – skiing, tennis, Formula One, roulette, but for the Germans it’s all about the result. What pushes German buttons is winning – what, how or who doesn’t really matter. Anyone who has stood on the jam-packed Berlin ‘fan mile’ knows the feeling, and few win more than the Germans at the Winter Olympics. So, if you want to see the OED’s definition of intoxication in action here, it’s not crawling through a row of back-street boozers, it’s on snow-covered slopes, frozen half-pipes, and makeshift ice-rinks as youngsters battle to emulate their cold weather medal winners.

On the other hand, the writer, being ‘reasonable’ prefers his intoxication in a warm, dry bar. After a few jars, it does seem to be the ‘best of life’ during a winter on the border.