We were feeling celebratory. We were on vacation, and we liked the place. Unfortunately, it was nearly midnight -- on a Sunday. And we wanted Champagne.
For a Canadian, this usually means: game over. We were tiring of the bars, and the clubs were cheesy and vaguely threatening. We just wanted to grab a bottle and retire to our balcony.
We were also in one the largest metropolises in the Muslim world.
Montreal or Toronto we would have been totally fucked. But not in Istanbul. In Istanbul, where the conservative Erdogan government has been cracking down on all things alcohol-related for a decade (sample statement from the Prime Minister himself: "they want all of our youth to become alcoholics!"), there were, on a short stretch of Siraselviler Cadessi in Cihangir, three late-night stores of the surly-man-behind-a-grate variety available to take my lira in exchange for a bit of bubbly. And this wasn't strange or anomalous.
Canadian-style liquor store setups are exceedingly rare. There are almost no countries that require you to purchase spirits in the manner that we are accustomed to. In legalistic, rule-heavy Switzerland, I have -- personally -- rolled up to a Geneva late-nighter with an all-too-fat wad of francs (damn Swiss) and emerged with a little something-something.
In sleepy Basel, union-run Paris, staid Vienna, and still-kind-of-Catholic Dublin, things proceed with a similar (from a Canadian perspective) abandon. In Communist China, it's a free-for-all. Meanwhile, in Ontario, employees of the vaguely Yugoslav (except every ex-Yugoslav country is cooler about this) LCBO are preparing for their first-ever strike, which will see Canada's largest city reduced to the status of that place Kevin Bacon's mom moved to in Footloose.
Did we lose a war?
Last week, British Columbia Conservative leader John Cummins promised voters that, if his party is elected, beer and wine (sorry, mixologists) will be available in corner and grocery stores from Victoria to Fernie. Yesterday, the Saskatchewan government released a long list of slightly relaxed regulations that will -- among a great many other things -- "allow customers on tour buses and boats to self-serve alcohol," thus increasing the appeal of a double-decker bus tour of Regina by approximately infinity per cent. Even in Toronto the Good, as VICE Canada's LCBO-hating Managing Editor Patrick McGuire outlined back in December, Conservative Party leader Tim Hudak has made noises indicating that the reign of the sex-shop-in-Victorian-England-like "Beer Stores" might, if his party is elected, come to a merciful end.
So it's not like there isn't anybody fighting the good fight.
Unfortunately, as I have previously outlined, Canadians can be a prickly, defensive people. Even though we are, in my experience, a boisterous, party-loving bunch, arguments for liberalizing our liquor laws must overcome one very significant hurdle: they require us to admit that we were wrong.
This is not an easy thing for Canadians. In exploring this topic in various booze-friendly roundtables across our kind-of-great nation, I have encountered a few significant counter-arguments, all of which are intended to make the would-be revolutionary feel somewhat less-than-festive; provincial, even. Out of the loop.
Of these counter-arguments, the most interesting is the epicurean one. According to this line of thought, whose hedonistic veil hides a savagely puritanical visage, Canadians need the LCBO system (as well as its non-Ontario analogues) because Canadians enjoy quality spirits. Canadians, according to this argument, are not the type of disorderly, depressing lowlifes who nip out to sketchy late-nighters for an overpriced bottle of Jim Beam. Instead, we are connoisseurs--a people whose sophisticated requirements can only be met by the immense buying power (and vast selection) that a grandly-scaled Provincial liquor monopoly can provide.
"I don't know," such people hesitantly utter while looking away from you, "I guess I've never been in that situation. I just sort of try to keep the place well-stocked, and besides--I'm not sure if a corner store would really sell the sort of 900-year-old, monk-distilled, dungeon-aged whisky that I like to drink."
In Montreal, where slightly looser legislation allows for beer and wine to be sold in corner stores, this argument has a trashier (because: Montreal) analogue. In this formulation, your booze-after-11pm-on-Sunday-night requirements do not represent a failure of tastes or morals, but rather one of knowledge: Montrealers always know a guy.
"Oh yeah, dude -- I know it sucks. But do you seriously not know Dépanneur Super Plus Bronzage? It's, like, this tiny place under a sidewalk grate and behind an abandoned sugar factory in Griffintown. Ask for J-F (pronounced "gee-eff") -- he'll totally hook you up. Anything you want. I can't believe you've never heard of this!".
Clearly, we are kidding ourselves.
In my experience, insecurity -- whether personal or cultural -- is a difficult hurdle to overcome, but it can be done. You just have to make an appeal to ambition. For Canada's great cities, whose residents are totally-sure-but-still-kind-of-not-sure that they live in the sort of fantastic, cosmopolitan, beacon-to-the-world type of places that people from all nations flock to, I present a traveller's dilemma:
It's late evening, and it's been a long day. Starting in Zurich or London or Buenos Aires or Bangkok or even Cairo, you've been put the wringer of endless ticket lines, implacable baggage regulations and babies developing ear disorders at 35,000 feet. But it's over. You've landed. And as you walk through downtown Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver (or Ottawa or Calgary or Halifax etc.), all you can think is that it might be time for a little nip. Just a small one. Back at the hotel. For the nerves.
You walk around in a daze, looking for the sort of minor convenience that is common where you are from, but find, in its place, a mystifying profusion of Red Bull and Snapple. No relief. You try to ask a local for help -- Canadians are friendly, right? But all you receive are confusing directions to distant locations that "might be open." You pass darkened displays of wines from all over the world, and tug on locked doors. Literally dispirited, you give up, heading back to your room while thinking:
"What is wrong with these people?"
Almost nobody does it like we do, Canada. We're an outlier. We're a weirdo.
Isn't it time we loosened up?
By Michael Mckenna