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Culture Shock: Plenty of cultural veritas in Slovak víno

A tray of refreshments, borne by a matronly secretary, arrived as we were wrapping up an interview with the mayor of a southern Slovak town in 1997. Expecting coffee or juice, we were mildly surprised to find shot glasses brimming with hard alcohol placed gently in front of us.
"It gets rid of the germs," said the mayor's deputy, making downward sweeping motions with one hand as he passed a glass to his boss with the other. "Na zdravie."
Cheers indeed. Toasts to health (and a speedy farewell to germs) ring from Revúca to Rajec, from Ša3a to Snina, and despite the initial surprise many westerners may feel at being offered a drink at 10 a.m. (particularly if they grew up in societies burdened by temperance movements such as Canada and the US), there is something downright jolly about having one's workday interrupted by recesses of boozy camaraderie.


As much a part of the scene as parked cars and potted plants, Slovak pub-goers enjoy the last rays of summer at this outdoor beer garden.
photo: Ján Svreek

A tray of refreshments, borne by a matronly secretary, arrived as we were wrapping up an interview with the mayor of a southern Slovak town in 1997. Expecting coffee or juice, we were mildly surprised to find shot glasses brimming with hard alcohol placed gently in front of us.

"It gets rid of the germs," said the mayor's deputy, making downward sweeping motions with one hand as he passed a glass to his boss with the other. "Na zdravie."

Cheers indeed. Toasts to health (and a speedy farewell to germs) ring from Revúca to Rajec, from Ša3a to Snina, and despite the initial surprise many westerners may feel at being offered a drink at 10 a.m. (particularly if they grew up in societies burdened by temperance movements such as Canada and the US), there is something downright jolly about having one's workday interrupted by recesses of boozy camaraderie.

There's something fun also in the ability of Slovaks to find something to celebrate wherever they are and whatever the time of day. One doesn't have to wait until dusk, or for a holiday or the weekend; the first snowfall will do, or the failure of a teacher to show up for class, a numerical alignment in the calendar (the seventh day of the seventh month) or even the fact that it's plain old Wednesday, which never gets celebrated and probably feels left out.

And there are few peoples around the world who can be as entertaining, hospitable and charming as the Slovaks when they drink. Each member of a pub party may throw 100 crowns into the middle of the table, with the funds being replaced when they run out and no one objecting that they had only five beers to their neighbour's seven. People of all ages sing folk songs, and seem to know all the words - in the West, this would probably only happen if we sang commercial jingles. Rituals such as keeping eye contact during toasts are carefully observed, which somehow prevents beer parties from sliding into piggish orgies where base hungers are owned up to and regularly gratified.

Of course, alcohol here as everywhere is the source of much social tragedy and disruption, and while there's little point in dwelling on this fact, it sometimes becomes difficult to ignore. State holidays in particular seem to defeat some people's attempts to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion, almost as if the daily routine of working days followed by weekends has been thrown into hopeless disarray and nothing will help but a lengthy consultation with the bottle. One grows tired, though, of trying to avoid these human wrecks as they tack across city streets, blown off course by some inner gale, or of trying to protect one's children from sights that leave even adults disturbed.


Do they have toilet paper? Of course not. While service and the quality of draft beer have both improved markedly over the last decade, public washrooms have been left to fend for themselves.
photo: Ján Svreek

But again, these are things you may see at a Canadian hockey game, outside Yates wine lodge in Blackpool or in the streets of Helsinki in midwinter, and they say less about Slovaks than about the price every society pays in its pursuit of a good time.

What is uniquely Slovak is the gallery of pub characters you may encounter, particularly in small villages. After finishing a run with several friends in the Malá Fatra mountains in the north of the country last year, we stopped off for refreshment at a village šenk. It was about noon on a Sunday, but apart from the wheezing bartender and a surly little sausage dog, not a single soul in that pub was conscious. The five patrons had succumbed in various attitudes in front of their glasses of hooch, and one of my friends identified the role each was playing: We had the dentist (head back, arms slack, mouth agape), the thinker (face buried in hands, elbows propped on table), the watchmaker (face down on one wrist, other arm slack), the surfer (both arms slack and hanging down one side of the body, while the torso leaned at an impossible angle in the other direction) and the gunfighter (head pillowed on shoulder, arm outstretched and palm up on the table, as if its owner had been shot dead in the process of drawing a weapon). The only character we didn't see was the mechanic, but he may have been there too, stretched out beneath a table in the shadows.

Another fascinating aspect of the pub experience in Slovakia is visiting the rest rooms. Bratislava has to a large extent spoiled this cultural encounter, with many bars having renovated their WCs, but village pubs still stoutly resist the trend towards cleanliness, functioning appliances and free paper towels. Maybe things go entirely differently with women's facilities in this country, but the men's room still seems to be a no man's land for pub owners and a fend-for-yourself experience for guests, where the best advice is to do and touch as little as you can, and not to expect either toilet paper or light to work by.

Occasionally, an enterprising village pub will go against the flow, such as U Kuba in western Slovakia's Senec, which in 1992 installed three shiny white urinals in the men's washroom as a step up from conducting one's business against the tiled wallspace reserved for the purpose. My friend and I, recent arrivals in the country, smiled in approval when we saw that row of appliances, but were dismayed several moments later to discover that the urinals had not been fitted to the plumbing, and that what went in was in fact disappearing in a noisy cascade down our pant legs.

Such contretemps aside, visiting the pub and becoming assimilated into Slovakia's alcohol culture is generally one of the first and easiest routes to understanding the hidden rhythms of this country's life. It often results less in a cultural shock than in the realisation that life lived this way has much to recommend it, as long as you avoid going out on holidays and don't end up as a tavern mechanic yourself.

Culture Shock is a monthly feature in which foreigners and Slovaks express opinions and impressions regarding their respective cultures. The aim is to promote understanding and tolerance of each other, as well as to poke innocent fun at the more amusing aspects of our lives together.

As we approach the two year anniversary of this column, The Slovak Spectator would like to ask members of the expat community, as well as the growing number of Slovaks who read this paper, to contribute suggestions, letters and even columns of their own. After all, we're all in this together.

Please send your contributions to slspect@internet.sk addressed to Chris Togneri, News and Culture Editor.

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