Imagine drinking water only: alcohol and Greenland

One of the few bars in Nuuk. Photo: Joshua Kucera

One of the few bars in Nuuk. Photo: Joshua Kucera

‘You’re trying to tell me that I can’t buy alcohol anywhere at all today, just because it’s Sunday?’

That’s what I overheard at the local grocery store the other day. Clearly an unimpressed tourist. It’s not just Sunday. You also can’t buy beer after 1pm on a Saturday, or after 6pm on a weekday. Even for a light drinker like myself, it’s a bit funny that I have to remember to buy alcohol before lunchtime on Saturday.

Nightlife and drinking in Nuuk
These strict laws were created for a reason, and if you walk into a bar in Nuuk, you can come to your own conclusions as to why. Any day of the week, the regular clientele in many pubs look older than sixty. There are no ‘hip’ bars, though some are cool in their own way. Think folk-song karaoke (Takuss). Cowboy-themed ranch bars (Kristinemut). Close dancing. Old people kissing other old people. Some energetic live music. Lots of random drunken encounters. Sometimes as early as 4pm.

“Uninhibited” is the theme; it’s fun if you embrace it, but sometimes a sorry sight too.

Many people hate it, but there is truth to the stereotype that alcohol abuse is a huge social problem in Greenland. It plagues many families as the lubricant to domestic violence, suicide and sexual abuse, and is also one reason money goes so quickly down the drain when people get paid at the end of the month. Perhaps in lash back, I heard that quite a few young people choose not to drink alcohol at all. Understandable, if it’s the source of stupidity.

Once upon a time, there was only water.
It’s hard to imagine a life without Coke or juice or beer, but for many years, water was the only drink available in Greenland. Drawn from spring water or cut from chunks of ice, brought home and then melted.

Clearly, the founding Viking settlers in Greenland couldn’t imagine living without alcohol either: there’s a working theory that when Eric the Red came with his crew in 1000 A.D, they tried to grow barley and corn, the source of mead and malt.

When Greenland was later colonised and claimed as part of the Kingdom of Denmark, three new beverages were introduced: coffee, tea and alcohol. First, alcohol was only available to the Danes, but slowly became available to high-ranking Greenlanders in the form of rations and permits. It was harder for the commoners to obtain the drink, and they had to do tasks to gain access. The rest of the Greenlanders could brew their own beer called ‘immiaq’, but eventually in 1954 everyone was able to buy as much as they could afford.

Alcohol’s a problem everywhere in the Arctic
Alcohol is a big problem today in many Arctic communities, not just in Greenland. While the Greenlandic government have put restrictions on opening hours for purchasing alcohol, put high taxes on it and are promoting educational programs, a different approach has been tried in Canada. They have ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ communities, where the people in the settlements themselves decide whether they should self-prohibit the sale or possession of alcohol. Some studies like Daryl Wood’s show that there’s less violence in the dry communities, while other stories speak of binge drinkers coming from dry places to get hammered in wet settlements. These problems need to be discussed, acknowledged and ultimately tackled so that people can self-monitor and control their own consumption of alcohol. I have no answers.

For now, it’s Friday afternoon and I’m off to the pub in a few hours…and I for one am glad that Greenland today offers the mostly imported choice of beer, coke, juice, and not water!

7 thoughts on “Imagine drinking water only: alcohol and Greenland

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  4. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. 🙂

    While I do think alcohol is the source of social issues for alcoholics I think the problem is a lot broader. For many alcohol is merely the catalyst that tips the icebergs.
    We’ve inherited some bad habits alcohol habits from scandinavia (like being a non-drinker is something that you actually will be questioned on, “But.. WHY don’t you drink?”; which I think exposes some of the underlying mentality surrounding alcohol). Coupled with a tough life in harsh environment (both externally and internally) as well as culture changing catching up with the western world and the inuit body (that really can’t handle alcohol) we’ve got a bad cocktail.
    We could remove alcohol from all that and we’d live more peaceful but the social issues would still be there. Yet, without alcohol, some of those issues could perhaps start getting processed once they are no longer entangled with the alcohol.

    • Thanks for your comment. I did not mean that it was the source of problems, but as you say, definitely an enhancer of the problems that already exist.

      From what I read of the dry communities in Canada, it reduced some problems in some areas but rather pushed the problem drinkers to other places. So definitely a complex issue which im sure you havr much more insight into than i do. Good to hear your thoughts on this!

      • Re-reading my comment I realize it lacks some of my contexual thoughts. 🙂

        Most locals doesn’t make the distiction that alcohol issues isn’t exclusively alcoholism which makes it tougher to deal with our problems regarding alcohol.

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