There was something about the football game table. You know, the kind where you have little wooden footballers on sticks. Not that it was old and shoddy, but that it had ashtrays. Yes, plural. Not one, but four built-in ashtrays; one in each corner.
This is hardly anything that would make most people raise their eyebrows the way I did. But, having lived for many years in Sweden, I’m still used to the mix of athletics and smoking or drinking being a complete taboo. And when I say complete, I mean complete, man.
The picture was compounded by the fact that the battered but smoker-friendly football game table was – and still is – wasting away in a corner of the private pub that my eldest son’s football club has just by the side of the football pitch. There, the parents can happily sit and comfortably booze away, while their five- and six-year-olds struggle along in the October cold, rain and dark outside.
Such a mix of sports, very young children, alcohol and smoking will usually make most Swedes faint, and would have been completely inthinkable there. In fact, even having brewers sponsoring a football team – which is the standard procedure here – would have Swedes rioting outside, and serving alcohol on private premises where little children learn football would probably result in calls to the local police. To draw a comparison for any of you American readers, this would have been the equivalent of having a private adult film shop next to the soccer pitch.
Same thing when we are invited to the yearly parental meeting at the school which both our six-year-old and our four-year-old attend. The parents are usually served a welcome drink – we get a choice of wine, champagne, or juice – and can have a happy sip or two before touring our kiddies’ rooms and listening to their teachers.
Belgians think nothing of it. Swedes would have launched a full investigation. On Governmental level.
In fact, I was supposed to attend an event at a Swedish school tomorrow (I won’t, for other reasons, but that’s another story) which is completely and utterly aimed at anyone old enough to be of university age. Not a minor in sight, I can assure you. But on the invitation, the school had still found it necessary to print – in large, bold, capital letters:
“SMOKING IS FORBIDDEN WITHIN THE SCHOOL AREA!”
And this wasn’t even in Sweden, but in London.
Every country has its taboos, and every taboo has its reasons. The Swedish taboo surrounding alcohol comes from the fact that it is the country where you have to empty any bottle you take the topo off. I mean, when I read about my felow Britons complaining about the noise around pubs late at night, I just sigh and think “you ain’t seen nothing yet, pals”. Living close to the centre of a large town in Sweden, as we did before coming here in 2004, meant Ragnarök every Friday and Saturday evening. Noise ad nauseam, vomiting in the bushes, people urinating anywhere and everywhere, and hardly a sober person in sight. In a country where booze is only sold in restaurants and special state-owned shops, that is. Here, where it’s all sold freely at the supermarket, and we have five pubs within five minutes’ walking distance from where we live (it used to be six until just recently), you virtually never see anyone visibly intoxicated.
If anything, the Belgians take a more pragmatic stance.
“It’s our biggest source of income”, a friend and parent of another kid in the same football team told me when I raised the issue of the soccer pub.
“The main team plays in such a low division that there’s only about 100 spectators at the matches, but afterwards, everyone gathers together for a drink”, he said with a chuckle.