When I was 13, my family visited Quebec, and I had my first proper glass of wine at dinner. We were sitting down to an extravagant lobster dinner in a huge square in Montreal when, without asking, the waiter set down wine glasses for my parents, me, and my 10-year-old sister. My parents poured us each a small glass, and we enjoyed our decadent, grown-up meal.
A few years after Montreal, we visited our foreign exchange student at his home in Germany. It was the end of the spring term and all the students were expected to show up for a work day to spruce up the school for the following year. We wore borrowed sweatpants and sneakers and spent the day cleaning up trash, wiping down the furniture and painting the hallways. At the end of the day, the school building looked clean, fresh and ready to welcome new students. As a thank you, the teachers hosted a party on the rooftop. There was water and soda for the younger students, but everyone 13 years and older was welcome to drink beer.
Beer. Served by teachers. To students. On the roof of the school. Can you imagine?
The scenario still seems so wild to me. But in that moment, in that setting, in that culture, it worked. No one got drunk. Everyone enjoyed themselves responsibly.
I thought of this recently while sitting at a cafe drinking wine with my 16-year-old niece. We were in Montreal for a music festival and she was served alcohol everywhere we went. I was impressed that she was able to sit and drink like an adult without ever getting out of control or making herself sick. She sat at the grown-up table, in every sense.
It was as though she was extra responsible because she knew she was already trusted.
I thought of my first glass of wine, in that same city. I felt so grown-up. I’m pretty sure when they poured it for me, I put my napkin on my lap. I sat a little straighter. I was a little more polite. I wanted so badly to be a grown-up, and here someone was giving me training wheels and letting me take it for a spin.
I hope my niece will learn to love alcohol as an experience, the same way I hope she learns to love jazz, bleu cheese-stuffed olives and travel. Because these are the things that make life so much richer and more fun. These are the reasons that three generations of my family ended up in a big square in Montreal drinking wine, enjoying each other’s company and dancing the night away in the pouring rain.
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