Rasťo, 30, is an amateur mountaineer and a member of Slovakia's diplomatic corps. After a four-hour run last year through the country's Mala Fatra mountains, he sniffed out a tiny pub in a sleepy highland village. "Get a load of this," he laughed, his eyes alight with mischievous humour: "The beer here is only nine crowns a pint!"
Rasťo's delight is understandable. In a country where consumer prices have risen almost 20% in the last year, it is remarkable that Slovak beer - arguably one of the best in the world - is still available in some pubs for less than 25 cents. It's even more remarkable that breweries have allowed their product to remain so cheap - the average profit margin on a pint in this country is 2 cents, compared to 90 cents in Australia.
But the price of beer might be no more than a consumer basket anomaly were it not for the crucial role that it plays in the social life of the country. Its urban pretensions notwithstanding, Slovakia is still more a collection of villages than anything else, one where long-standing agrarian traditions - hospitality and quaint Old World manners - govern most social encounters. In this country, keeping beer cheap means keeping these traditions alive, and preventing the social fabric from unravelling completely under the pressures of free market capitalism.
If this seems to be lending too much significance to a homely drink like beer, consider the following:
Slovaks pride themselves on three qualities above almost anything else - their ability to endure tough times, their readiness to offer all they have to guests and friends, and their determination that customs and good manners survive though the cupboard be bare. Few would argue that ordinary Slovaks are not now enduring difficult days: Prices have risen sharply and unemployment remains around 20%, while last year real wages fell for the first time since 1992. If one ventures beyond fat-cat Bratislava, one quickly notices how much tougher life has become for people in the last several years, with new jobs drying up and unemployed family men scratching around for what earnings they can find.
In this bitter economic environment, beer assumes even greater significance. On the one hand it offers solace, and one can see that whatever other budgetary cutbacks people are being forced to make, trips to the pub are not among them. An hour of labour at the average industrial wage may no longer suffice to buy a packet of coffee, but it still gets you five pints, drink which helps people (largely men) forget their worries and feel human at the end of the day.
On the other hand, beer remains the one thing that people (largely men) can offer each other without being embarrassed for funds. Generosity assumes even greater importance during difficult times, largely because what is given is that much more precious. But inviting people into your home and feeding them is no longer an option for some families, and for those who feel that generosity is part of their manhood, beer remains a drink you can buy your friends in the pub without feeling too much of a pinch. "I pay my round" is an important statement of self-sufficiency for people who may be embarrassed to be collecting unemployment insurance, or ashamed they can't offer their families the same standard of living as before.
And finally, the rituals involved in beer drinking - the eye contact, the glass clinking and the benediction that precedes each glass - represent an important refuge for endangered Old World concepts like courtesy and good form. Were beer to shoot up in price and the pubs to empty out, how many social encounters would remain where men behave in a relatively civilised way to one another (at least for the first few pints)? At a time when aggression rules the streets, the shops and the soccer pitches of the country, meeting a few friends for beer remains an occasion ruled by more benevolent emotions.
Yes, we all know that alcohol is abused on a grand scale in Slovakia, and that making vodka cheap is not likely to promote social stability. But beer is a different matter, and by making sure it remains affordable even by the poorest of the country's citizens - retired people, students, the unemployed - the government may be doing more to help people through their economic misery than it is through all of its welfare handouts put together.
5. Jun 2000 at 0:00