Drinking culture in Europe versus Australia: All ages are welcome in Spain's bars

It takes a while to realise what's different. The bar looks pretty much the same as any other, with the beer taps, the wine bottles, the guys back there slinging drinks. The room is crowded, the same way bars usually are at this time of night, the murmur of voices occasionally rising when someone gets a bit excited.

It's the same as Australia. Except, it's not.

The difference? The clientele. This little bar in San Sebastian, in the north of Spain, isn't designed purely for young people. It's not a venue that's intended for or patronised by older people, either. It's just a bar, where everyone goes.

The crowd in here represents a vast range of ages and generations, from couples and groups of friends in their 20s to families in their 30s and 40s with young kids, groups of women in their 50s, couples in their 60s and 70s – even a group of beret-clad blokes who would have to be pushing 80.

All are co-existing in this little bar, some spilling out onto the street, all of them drinking wine or beer or cider, eating small plates of great food, enjoying themselves, living the life.

How often does this happen in Australia? How often do you find yourself in a pub or bar with a genuine cross-section of society, with people of multiple generations socialising together? Not that often. Maybe in country pubs, when they're the only game in town. Maybe at an RSL every now and then.

But by and large Australian drinking culture is set up to be done separately. And it's not just individual bars that appeal to a certain age group either, that appeal to young people or old people or those in between – entire sections of our cities seem to be carved out for particular generations to do their boozing.

The young people go to get drunk in this certain area. They stay out late, get into fights, go a bit silly. Catch a cab home. Older drinkers with a bit more money, meanwhile, go to pricey wine bars in trendy suburbs. The next generation might be found in a pub in the suburbs – or maybe you won't see them at all.

That's a shame. It's harmful, too. Our drinking culture could use a little diversity. Our whole society could, in fact.


Here's what I see in Spain, and in most of southern Europe: I see a culture where people of different ages socialise together as a regular, normal thing. I see people drinking and eating in the neighbourhoods they live in, rather than travelling to "destination" suburbs to do their boozing. I see a culture that takes place outside of houses and apartments, where bars and restaurants function like lounges and dining rooms, where people gather most nights to drink and eat and mix.

I don't see perfection, of course. I see clearly very drunk people sometimes being served even more alcohol. I see bartenders shrug their shoulders with a "waddaya gunna do" resignation when those drunks fall over or yell at people.

By and large though, I see a peaceful coexistence of multiple generations, and it makes me realise that we don't have this in Australia. And it's a shame.

When was the last time you went out for the night and ended up chatting to a stranger from a different generation? If you're a Millennial, when did you last find yourself talking to a middle-aged couple? If you're a retiree, when did you last go out for a drink and end up chatting to a young family?

I don't see that happening much in Australia. If it did, I think our drinking culture would be different. It would be better.

There's less emphasis on getting smashed and being a hero in front of your mates when you have a few older people around to act as a steadying hand. There's a more respectful environment when you have people from every generation together, and less of a sense of ownership over a certain bar, or a certain area, when you all mix across the city.

This isn't just related to alcohol, either. It's society as a whole. To me it seems that older people in Australian cities, retirees, those of advancing age, disappear from public view, from public life. They're not seen in social environments anymore.

That doesn't happen so much in southern Europe. You've seen, if you've travelled there, the groups of old men sitting in piazzas drinking coffee and waving their arms. You've seen older couples drinking in bars. You've strolled the promenades of whichever city you happen to be in and seen people of all ages sharing the experience.

That's such a good thing, not just because I would very much like to be drinking in bars and eating in restaurants when I'm in my 70s or 80s, but because older people should be part of public life, we should all be mixing together, socialising together, for everyone's benefit.

Until we do, I might have to start spending time in country pubs.

Do you envy the multi-generational drinking culture of southern Europe? Does Australia's culture need to change? How do we do that?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater 

See also: I went to one of Spain's best restaurants and barely got to eat anything

See also: The Australian culinary phenomenon that's taking over the world

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