Europe's laws versus Australia's: Why Europeans have more freedom

This is civilisation. You're hanging out by the beach, sitting on a big rock wall that overlooks the sand. You're enjoying the sunshine on your face and the salt in the air. You're spending time with friends, watching surfers, watching volleyball players, loving summer, loving life, and thinking to yourself, gee a cold beer would be good right now.

And then someone turns up with that cold beer. Some guy rolls over on a skateboard clutching three plastic cups of freshly poured lager, straight from the bar across the road, direct from the keg. He passes them out to everyone around. You sip the beer and watch the ocean and smile and think: this is civilisation.

It's also, of course, something you can't do in Australia. You can't go to any old bar and order a beer in a takeaway cup. You can't legally take it across the road to where your friends are waiting at the beach and drink it on the sand. You can't wander around with your cup and soak up the sun.

You'd have to stay at the bar, within its clearly defined boundary, sometimes behind actual ropes. You'd have to avoid drinking in any public place. You'd have to watch those waves from afar.

Not in Europe. Not in Spain, where I am at the moment, where I've watched this exact scene take place over and over in the last few months, down by Zurriola beach in San Sebastian. Groups of friends hanging out on the big rock wall at the eastern end, making the most of the summer, popping back and forth to the nearest bar and grabbing a few drinks to go.

Europeans get to have nice things – nice things like this. They get to have nice things because they don't mess it up. They get to drink in public because they don't get rowdy and make a nuisance of themselves. They get to have a freshly poured beer down by the beach because they don't annoy anyone.

They get to have nice things and we don't. It's not just nice things related to alcohol either. It's all sorts of things. And it's a phenomenon I've been thinking about more and more lately – something I first considered a few years ago, when I wrote a column entry called "Australia, the land of the idiot", and which is becoming more apparent the longer I spend in Europe and the more I watch the way life and society here works.

Yes, Europeans get to drink in public places. They get to grab their wine glass and go and stand in the middle of the town square to chat to friends. They get to take their beer and consume it in the park or at the beach. They get to drink out of a proper glass when they do this, too, because they're trusted to act like adults and not break that glass or try to steal it.

In a lot of bars they don't have to pay for those drinks upfront, either. In the north of Spain, customers aren't expected to pay anything until they're leaving the bar. Essentially, you automatically open up a tab as soon as you walk in, though no one ever thinks to check ID. When it's time to leave you just tell the bartender what you've had and then pay what's due.

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It's nice to be trusted like this, to feel that the bartender assumes you're an honest, upstanding citizen who will pay his or her bill on departure. That doesn't happen in Australia. You get the feeling it couldn't happen in Australia. Too many people would take the piss, they'd get drunk and forget to pay, or claim they had less than they did, or just do a runner.

We can't have nice things in Australia.

We can't ride bikes without helmets because drivers aren't respectful and you'll probably get run down. We can't watch sport without the fun police around making sure no one does something crazy like start a Mexican wave (or barrack too loud), because people will get upset.

We can't double-park our cars when we just need to duck in somewhere and quickly grab something, because other drivers will get road rage and people won't double-park properly and there will be chaos. We can't drive fast because there are too many accidents and too many of us dying.

We can't get naked at the beach because we're all too puritanical and horrified. We can't smoke a lazy joint in a public place because people will freak out and call the cops and have you arrested. We can't take our dogs along to cafes because everyone is afraid of germs and we don't want people taking advantage and turning up with huge packs of mangy mongrels.

But you can do all of these things in many parts of Europe. Drink a glass of wine in the town square. Ride a bike without a helmet. Watch sport hassle-free. Double-park when you really need to. Drive fast if it's safe. Take your clothes off at the beach. Smoke some pot. Take your pooch out for a coffee.

Nothing bad happens because of any of this. Europe isn't chaos. It's not lawless. It's not violent. It's mature enough to handle the responsibility, and life goes on.

This is civilisation. It's sad we can't all enjoy it.

Does Australia have too many rules? Why? Do you wish it was more like Europe? Which rules would you change?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: What Australians need to learn from Europe's drinking culture

See also: Not Aussies: The countries that drink the most beer revealed

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