FOREIGN AFFAIRS

How to behave: Being nice to the nice

It's generally not unwelcome to be met at the classroom door by a pod of grinning students with the news that today is your 'name day', an occasion on which you are not permitted to teach but must accompany them forthwith to the pub. Unusual, at eight in the morning, but not entirely unwelcome.
But you have to know how to acquit yourself. If it's your name day (meniny), you are expected to do the inviting and at least pay a few rounds - not, as I did on March 7, 1993, to find yourself double-fisting rum and beer without a wallet or any means of contributing.

It's generally not unwelcome to be met at the classroom door by a pod of grinning students with the news that today is your 'name day', an occasion on which you are not permitted to teach but must accompany them forthwith to the pub. Unusual, at eight in the morning, but not entirely unwelcome.

But you have to know how to acquit yourself. If it's your name day (meniny), you are expected to do the inviting and at least pay a few rounds - not, as I did on March 7, 1993, to find yourself double-fisting rum and beer without a wallet or any means of contributing. Nor should you find yourself hung over an eighth-floor balcony later that evening, watching blearily as the contents of your stomach freeze to the exterior of a neighbour's greenhouse below.

Knowledge of how to behave in Slovakia takes many expats a long time to acquire, at the expense of many burned bridges.

Much of it revolves around who pays. Generally, if you invite someone for a drink or a meal, you are expected to look after the bill. This goes in spades for your birthday (narodeniny) or your name day (the Christian name of almost every Slovak is celebrated on one day of the year; foreigners are graciously permitted to participate on the assumption that Bill is close enough to Viliam, or Paul to Pavel, to warrant celebration).

If you're inviting guests to your home on either of these occasions, you'll be expected to provide both groaning board and several kinds of drink; if to a restaurant, to treat several rounds. Even if you never invite anyone anywhere, this may give you some idea of how serious a business throwing a party is for your Slovak hosts. So far from North America, where people bring 24-packs of beer to parties and then sit on the case while they drink the contents themselves.

Then there's being invited to someone's home for the weekend. If you live in the city and you're visiting a family in a village, you will probably be taken aback by the warmth of the hospitality you encounter. On the other hand, this hospitality imposes obligations that can be rather burdensome.

It's bad form to come empty-handed to stay with a family for the weekend. Some flowers and a packet of good coffee will secure your introduction.

But from then on, you're in their hands, and in the countryside will be expected to follow local custom (people can be morbidly sensitive about this, as if in doing things differently you're playing the arrogant foreigner and disdaining Slovak habits).

Thus, if you don't want a shot of hard alcohol before each meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner), you'll have to think of a good excuse if you don't want to make waves. Something like: ďakujem, ale ja sa na to naozaj necítim, myslím, že by ma to zabilo, radšej budem šetriť sily na večer - už sa na to teším ('Thanks, but I really can't, I think it would kill me. I'll save my strength for the evening - I'm already looking forward to it'). Of course, you can always look thine host in the eye and say, poker-faced, ďakujem, ale nepijem ('thanks, but I don't drink') and see what they make of it.

It's tougher with food - you can't really claim you never eat. On the other hand, you may feel like swearing off nourishment for a few days if you are presented with a dish such as boiled cow heart - a knuckle of muscle wrapped in a thick glove of fat. What to do?

The riskiest stratagem, although one that perhaps offers the greatest advantages if successful, is to claim to be a vegetarian (prepáčte, verím tomu, že je to skvelé, ale bohužiaľ, ja som už pár rokov vegetarián, nemôžem jesť mäso - 'I'm sorry, I'm sure it's lovely, but unfortunately I've been a vegetarian for a few years now and I can't eat meat').

If, however, you've already spoiled things by eating a hunk of meat at the previous meal, you'll have to abase yourself (je mi strašne ľúto, že ste si robili starosti, ale ja to nemôžem jesť, od malička k tomuto jedlo nemám vzťah - 'I'm terribly sorry that you went to all this trouble, but since I was a child I haven't been able to eat this kind of food').

If ever hospitality does become too burdensome, particularly regarding alcohol, you're quite right to reject it, whatever the consequences. My parents once visited Slovakia and accompanied my wife and I to a small village; there we were invited in for a drink of home-made liquor by a fat resident. Our host, however, had no intention of letting us go after one drink. My mother and wife, and my newborn son, were anxious to leave, but my father and I hesitated to be firm with this overbearing alcoholic, fearing causing bad feelings.

When we finally broke away, my mother stopped me and asked why I had stayed so long when my wife was anxious and my baby crying. I answered that I hadn't wanted to seem rude or unfriendly.

"And do you think the way that fellow behaved was polite or friendly?" she responded. "Was it nice of him to force alcohol on you when he saw that your family was upset?"

There's a great deal to be said for following the customs of your host country. But there will also be times when these customs are enforced without consideration for the guest's needs. Put your foot down, and don't keep your wife and child waiting.

Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the spills and thrills of life in Slovakia.
The next Foreign Affairs column will appear on stands July 17, Vol. 7, No. 28.

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