I was lying sprawled in the grass beside the finish line of the 1997 Danube marathon when a race official hurried over and demanded I get up. What now, I thought as an April downpour soothed my swollen legs. The official shouted something about my internal organs becoming chilled, and gestured imperatively towards the locker rooms. I roused myself and tottered over to the concrete stadium steps. No, not there either - did I want to end up sterile?
Foreigners who live in Slovakia for more than a few months are sure to have similar encounters with Slovakia's rich vein of medical mythology. Much of this common lore is related to two paramount threats to Slovak health - wind and cold.
There is, for example, the conviction that sitting in a draft can give you an eye infection, and the related caveat that driving a car with your arm stuck out the window will give you joint ill in your elbow and shoulder, or even rheumatism. This may explain why the windows on all forms of public transport - buses, trams and trains - are kept tightly shut, even on the hottest of summer days, and are guarded by phalanxes of fierce old ladies. The wind police, no less.
We also have the admonition that one can become gravely ill if one walks barefoot around the house in winter (this restriction is relaxed grudgingly in the summer). "Wherever Tommy's slippers are, he must be there too," my landlady used to quaver after tut-tutting over my menage. The feet, apparently, are a major avenue of ingress for lethal germs in Slovakia.
But if wind and cold generate some inspired medical theory, alcohol has also added a fascinating chapter. At a university student party in Žilina in 1998, the evening had arrived at the point where only red wine was available. One female student, normally an enthusiastic tippler, refused the drink. Pestered by her colleagues to indulge, she finally admitted that she was menstruating and that red wine would only aggravate her condition. Other women have since said the student's apprehensions were entirely justified, and have even added that drinking red wine and taking a hot bath are a sure way of inducing a late period. Pity the millions of worried western women who have visited clinics for the morning after pill - if only they had known how simple it was!
Even the medical establishment has not been immune to the appeal of folk remedies - my son, following his birth last year, was diapered in a bulky garment that held his legs akimbo from his body. Doctors explained that he should be kept this way until he was six months old, in order to guard against hip problems - a unique procedure that had made Slovakia a world leader in producing healthy-hipped offspring. One wonders why, if the method has proven so successful, other countries don't use it as well.
Questioning the efficacy of these miracle cures and diagnoses is one of the surest routes to a rich cultural exchange that goes something like this - "Benighted Slovaks, how can you put faith in such quackery?" "Arrogant foreigner, what the hell do you know?"
And that, of course, is the heart of the matter. Westerners may scoff at red wine as a form of contraception, but how much more risible is the notion that happiness can be bought like any other commodity? And how many of us believe that our planet has been visited by aliens, or that free market capitalism represents the apex of human achievement?
Being an arrogant foreigner, I can't help laughing each time I'm warned about the wind, the cold and the terrible fragility of my own health. But the more I look at my own beliefs, the more I'm inclined to find that race official and thank him for saving my internal organs from a terrible fate.
10. Jul 2000 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson