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Europe’s Drinking Problem

Victorino Matus, without a drop to drink.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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The announcement made news on both sides of the Atlantic: “A meeting of 21 scientists in Parma, Italy, concluded that reduced water content in the body was a symptom of dehydration and not something that drinking water could subsequently control,” the London Telegraph reported last November. As a consequence, “producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim [that water hydrates] and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict.” It took the EU three years to arrive at this decision.

Cartoon of a German man staring at a glass of ice water

mark anderson

Not that we should be so surprised. After all, the European Union regulates the shape and size of condoms. It is also fiercely vigilant when it comes to name protection: When 3,200 bottles of André “California Champagne” ended up in Belgium, customs officials had them smashed, for there is no such thing as champagne from California—only sparkling wine. When I mentioned this to an EU parliamentarian, he told me it’s no joke—not only does champagne have to come strictly from the Champagne region of France, but parmesan must be authentic Parmigiano Reggiano and Black Forest ham must come from Germany’s Black Forest. What’s next? Bologna from Bologna? (The answer is yes.)

The water ruling was roundly criticized. A conservative member of the European parliament told the Telegraph, “The euro is burning, the EU is falling apart and yet here they are: highly paid, highly pensioned officials worrying about the obvious qualities of water and trying to deny us the right to say what is patently true.”

I couldn’t agree more—but I do understand how it came to this. The bureaucrats and scientists don’t believe water is a source of hydration because they themselves do not drink water—or not a lot of it, anyway. Aside from alcohol, Europeans just don’t drink much. While Americans have been advised to consume eight glasses of water a day, I imagine the typical European drinks one. San Pellegrino is sold in 200 ml bottles, which can be finished in about two swigs. At hotels and hostels, juices come in the glasses we reserve for tequila shots. At a B&B in France, I practically emptied a pitcher of multi-vitamin juice clearly meant to supply the whole dining room (I stood by the buffet table continuously pouring and drinking). In many parts of the continent, the words “free refill” have yet to be uttered. And nowhere will you find ice. “It’s too cold,” explained a German friend of mine. “You can’t taste anything.” (I suspect it hurts his teeth, too.) How often do Americans complain their cold beverage is too cold? Ever?

In the summer of 1993, I lived with a host family in Trier, Germany. Rarely did I see them drink water—and never tap water. In the morning it was coffee. For lunch there might be Sprudel (sparkling water). And at dinner there was beer or wine, followed by coffee. My host mother (who still sends me Christmas cards) went out of her way to get me orange juice, which came in a paper carton that required scissors to open. She insisted on leaving the open container on the kitchen counter in case her husband was inclined to try it—his teeth couldn’t handle anything refrigerated. Needless to say, the juice went sour by day three.

On one occasion, I went biking with my host parents’ daughter and her husband through the Eifel-wald and up a small mountain. The Germans were racing through the forest, and I tried my best to keep up. But when I came speeding down a hill and needed to make a sharp left, I instead went straight off the side, crashing into a thicket of branches and twigs. Luckily nothing was broken, but I was fairly cut up and covered in splinters. Part of my bike (which was pink!) had crumpled. By the time the son-in-law had doubled-back to see what had happened, I was playing it off as a minor mishap. The blood running down my leg said otherwise.

More embarrassed than hurt, I insisted we go on. The son-in-law said that just up the trail was an inn where I could get patched up and quench my thirst. The last leg of that trip was all uphill, and I remember the flies buzzing about me. But at long last, we reached the top, and I collapsed into a chair.

Now if you’re guessing the Germans ordered bottles of water to rehydrate themselves and me, you’d be mistaken. Instead, the waitress came out with glasses containing a bright yellow liquid resembling Gatorade. But it was not Gatorade. Rather, it was something called a Viez-Limo: a mixture of lemonade and apple wine—and no ice.

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