Covid-19 restrictions will make our pubs more like bars on the continent, with table service, no live music and little banter with strangers. It will take some getting used to, writes Karen McHugh in Brussels
When I saw the new restrictions announced for pubs last month, I didn't flinch. In fact, it sounded all too familiar. I knew instantly what this situation would be like.
Because what may seem like a nightmare to us Irish is just a normal night out where I live, in Belgium. What will be the absolute paring back of our culture is essentially normal pub life in many European countries.
It now seems as if 40pc of pubs in Ireland will open on June 29 as sit-down restaurants. In essence, that's what a pub is in many parts of Europe. Now, we may be part of the EU, but we're not culturally very European. When it comes to socialising, we have very different habits from our continental friends. Will these new restrictions finally make real Europeans of us?
We've all been to pubs on the continent. We might have enjoyed a glass of wine in Paris, a Prosecco in Italy, a Glühwein at a Christmas market. It's very pleasant. Europeans are less rowdy than we are. It's more about appreciating your drink and chatting with friends. Which is lovely. It's just… you'd miss the craic. It's not about the drinking. At the end, it's all about the communication. It's the people and the interaction, the music, the storytelling, the banter between strangers that make our Irish pubs what they are.
Lest I paint myself as an unassimilated foreigner who has refused to adapt to her host country's norms - let me tell you, I've tried. When I moved here, I stuck to Belgian haunts and convinced myself I'd soon become used to this way of life. But for a person who grew up on trad music, Irish dancing and singsongs, pub life here can seem very sedate. Europe's melting pot and the capital of the EU, Brussels sometimes seems chilled out to the point of being asleep. Nights out can feel like an eternal pub quiz - trapped at your table, you might never meet anyone new. It's an introvert's paradise.
The concept of being a"regular doesn't exist. You could be going to a pub for 10 years and you're still going in as sort of a stranger
It's not just Belgium. In Germany, table service is very common, leaving little chance of a spontaneous conversation with strangers. In Sweden, people are fairly reserved and cultural norms reveal themselves in the pub.
My uncle John Wrafter has been living there since 1989 and tells me what's different about pub culture. "You meet the people you were intending to meet; there's no banter or contact with anyone else," he says. "At times, I've got talking to people sitting beside me, but it's rare. People turn towards their own group and don't want to bother people around them. Whereas in Ireland you're polite by saying hello - you acknowledge each other's presence. That's a fairly big thing even though it sounds small, because when people do that, you feel we're all here together."
The concept of being a "regular" doesn't exist. "You could be going to a pub for 10 years and you're still going in as sort of a stranger. Bar staff feel, even though I've seen this person many times, that I shouldn't be overly familiar with them. I'd be invading their privacy."
Brecht Tessier, a bartender at famous Brussels bar Bizon, explains how Belgians drink. "We're all about having just enough to drink so you feel the joy of being tipsy but not too much that you can't hold a conversation," he says.
"We have this culture where alcohol is always around - Trappist beer for the terrace, wine next to nibbles and dinner, a Scotch or brandy for dessert, and hence we are never really racing to finish everything. What I see a lot in Bizon, is that even the heaviest of drinkers clearly state: 'I'm getting drunk, I have to go home'."
As for live music, "it's not at all something we see a lot, it's not in our culture. Singing in pubs would be awesome but also incite a lot of neighbour complaints".
He says Belgians aren't overly outgoing. "We're 'bubble' people: we have our own bubble wherein we are safe and we know one another. It's not so likely that you'll go out and meet strangers and start a big chat," he says.
There are many who find Belgian pub culture very appealing, such as Ronan Healy, a Kildare man who teaches English.
"You wouldn't be talking to strangers as much as you would at home. And people are not necessarily trying to make each other laugh. In Ireland, it's all about making the other person laugh as loud as they can, that's where the noise comes from, that's when the craic gets up to 90. The Irish don't go out to sit down and enjoy their drink," he says.
"But I love going into a Belgian bar in Brussels for the quality of the product, and appreciate the hour or two tasting three or four different beers. I love the Belgian beer. It's tasty - they put spices and things into it. That's what I appreciate the most."
Healy likes the more measured pace of socialising here, which he considers just as fun, in a different way. "Beer can be very strong here, up to 13pc, so you quickly learn to appreciate the taste but you can't go mad. The Belgians adapt their drinking speed to the strength of the beer. It makes sense. It's different here, not better, not worse, just different".
All this really means is that from now on, you will have to talk to the same people you went to the pub with for the entire night, so choose carefully.
Peg Pellens is a Belgian flute player who loves her annual visit to the west of Ireland. "Irish people are very open and if you meet the people, you really meet the country and the culture. And, of course, we go for the music and the atmosphere," she says.
It's not the same here, she tells me. "When Belgians go to a pub, most of the time we just stick with the people we came with. I think we are more closed. In Ireland, everybody just starts talking to you. In Belgium we would think 'what does this person want from me?'"
As for spontaneous eruption into songs in a bar here in Belgium? "Oh no, no, no, we don't do that!" she says, laughing.
So for anyone who is missing the holiday abroad this year, this is your chance to sample the European lifestyle at home. All this really means is that from now on, you will have to talk to the same people you went to the pub with for the entire night, so choose carefully. There'll be no straying from the table to Johnny at the bar or Mary over beside the toilets.
I find it hard to imagine what a socially distanced drink will feel like in Ireland, but I sure wish I was there anyway. Have one for me, lads. And don't get too used to it. Don't forget how to have the craic. This is just a temporary departure from our sociable habits. And once we're Covid-clear, the session will be mighty.