English and American visitors to France marvelled at the quantities of alcohol consumed in public places and the lack of visible consequences. Here are some personal observations written between 1870 and the end of the century:
“The extreme instances of French sociable habits in their full development are the men, who, on getting up in the morning, go straight to a café for a glass of white wine, which means half a bottle, or sometimes a bottle. Whilst drinking this, or immediately after, they smoke one or two pipes or cigars. The conversation lasts some time, they take a little turn, or if they have anything to do before déjeuner, perhaps they may decide to do it. It is possible (we are supposing an extreme case) that absinthe may be considered needful to prepare the system for the work of digestion, which is a reason for returning to the café.
The déjeuner itself is a great gastronomical piece of business, if the man is an epicure; and during the course of it he will drink his bottle of wine. Then he will return to the café for his cup of coffee and little glass of pure cognac. After that he smokes, talks, lounges, does a little business of some kind, is surprised to find that it is already four o’clock to meet his friends at the café again to drink beer, or absinthe, or bitters. Dinner comes next, and during dinner another bottle of wine is absorbed. After that meal, our friend returns to the café, and talks, or plays billiards, cards, or dominoes till eleven, smoking most of the time and drinking Strasburg beer.
We will leave out of consideration for the present the gastronomical part of such an existence, which is not the least anxiously cared for. The reader perceives that the habits just described keep a man in a state of perpetual alcoholic stimulus. One drink has not exhausted its effect before it is succeeded by another, and this from eight or nine in the morning till eleven o’clock at night. A series of small customs have so arranged themselves as a tradition from other bonvivants who have gone before, that by simple conformity to these a man may be constantly alcoholized.
The reader is not to suppose for a moment that such a Frenchman as I am now describing, is ever drunk, in any degree perceptible to other people. He has always so perfectly the control of his reason that it even becomes doubtful whether he feels any pleasure from his drinking. Perhaps he feels no other sensations than those of the normal physical life, but the white wine, absinthe, red wine, coffee, cognac, beer, bitters, red wine again, beer again till bed-time, have become necessary to prevent him from sinking into mental dejection or physical prostration. The effect upon health, provided only that the slave of these habits does not smoke incessantly, and does not take absinthe more than once a day, is imperceptible in strong men for many years, and at the worst only seems to necessitate an annual trip to take some kind of waters.” Philip Gilbert Hamerton
“Intoxication is almost unknown in the better cafés; their patrons may sear their oesophagi with hot chartreuse, derange the nerves with absinthe, stimulate themselves hourly with their little cups of black coffee and brandy; but they never get drunk. Frenchmen are temperate, even in their intemperance. An English gin-mill and probably an American bar causes more drunkenness than a dozen French cafés.” George H. Heffner
“One may, in fact, pass a whole year in a large French city, even in Paris itself, and still not witness a single case of insobriety.” The Cunard Souvenir Guide
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