Each year in December I head to Bratislava's main square with the same mission: to find Christmas presents for friends and family back home in the US. The key criteria are affordability and 'Slovak-ness'. Basically I'm looking to kidnap a bit of the character and charm of this little central-European nook for the least possible money.
In my first year here I bought fist-sized clay figures with google eyes, elongated noses and the holiday greetings "Veselé Vianoce" (Merry Christmas), "Šťastný nový rok" (Happy New Year) and "Bohatého Ježiška" (May Santa be good to you). Although the price was right - about Sk40 ($.80) per figure - these turned out to be bad gifts because (a) they were not native crafts but tourist junk and (b) judging by my friends' forced smiles I had overestimated the appeal of holiday greetings in a language you can neither understand nor pronounce.
A drawing of the Bratislava old town - which today costs between Sk200 and Sk400 ($4 to $8) - proved a good choice for my mother, although it now seems too touristy to me. It still hangs in our living room in upstate New York.
I did better the following year with three bottles of Slovak moonshine: two of home made slivovica (plum brandy) and one of jablkovica (apple brandy). The only way to procure Slovak moonshine is to know Slovaks who make it, and then to get on their good side. It's safe to say these were my most successful presents ever, considering their capacity to please (immense), their Slovak-ness (absolute) and their price (free).
I also did well with an elaborate multi-angel Christmas tree ornament made of corn husks (šúpolie) for grandma (Sk100). Slovak šúpolie craftsmen also make dolls, nativity scenes and bookmarks. All of it is cheap and light for travel, and I've never seen anything like it anywhere else.
Of course you can't give everyone cutesy-craftsy Christmas tree ornaments. You can't even give everyone moonshine. What you can give everyone with feet is a meter-long shoe horn (obuvák), which I've bought three of this year. Slovakia is not a country with an abundance of consumer choices, yet its budding free market covers every conceivable chiropodical need. What could be better than not having to bend down ever again to put on shoes? If I weren't so cheap I would throw in a pair of fluffy red Slovak slippers (papuče) with each obuvák.
This year mom gets a wreath made of painted walnut shells (Sk200). You can buy them at several Bratislava florists and at a sidewalk stand on SNP Square.
Perhaps the best source of Slovak Christmas presents are ÚĽUV's, state-run shops that sell handmade Slovak crafts. Bratislava has three ÚĽUV's, on Obchodná 64, SNP 10 and Michalská 4. Each sell fetching ceramic kitchenware (Sk100-Sk200), carved wooden bowls, statuettes and walking sticks (Sk600, Sk200-Sk500 and Sk1,500, respectively), traditional embroidered garb (Sk2,500-Sk5,000) and loads of other craftsy stuff.
Not all of it is ornamental: the Michalská ÚĽUV has a handsome fireplace set with a brush, poker, hooked poker and shovel (Sk6,000). I presume it was forged in the shop of a Slovak blacksmith, which incidentally is a dying breed hereabouts.
On a recent visit to Bratislava, my mother entered an ÚĽUV, and although we had planned an afternoon of shopping, she left an hour later with all her tourist and holiday needs satisfied. I think she spent $30 (Sk1,450) on gifts for about 15 people, most of it on 18-inch dolls with pigtails and flower pattern dresses (Sk235/$5). Most large Slovak cities have an ÚĽUV.
Although unable to secure moonshine this year, being unaccountably on fewer people's good sides, I am flying home with a bottle of sweet Tokaj desert wine. Most people regard Tokaj as a Hungarian commodity, even though around 20% of the Tokaj zone demarcated under the Austro-Hungarian empire falls inside Slovakia. The numbers on Tokaj bottles represent the number of barrels of a special raisin added in the process of making the wine. A three-barrel bottle (Sk200) is the lowest grade and least expensive. A six-barrel bottle (Sk600 and up) is the highest grade and most expensive.
Tokaj is not made every year because the harvest has to be just perfect, but is on sale year round at larger grocery stores. Medovina is a seasonal honey drink sold during the Christmas season. Medovina booths on Bratislava's main square will give you a warm sample.
A few more gift ideas: perforated wooden halušky spoons, lace table clothes, hand-held noisemakers and bee-wax candles. If by chance this year you're bringing your gift recipient to Slovakia instead the other way around, consider preparing the quintessential Slovak holiday dish: bathtub carp. This culinary feat is achieved by buying a live carp from one of the enormous fish tanks that bob up throughout the country days before Christmas. Run home and deposit the still-living carp in your bath tub filled with cold water. On Christmas Eve drain the water, club the carp to death, clean it and bake it for supper. Serves one family, and after the experience few foreigners would complain of not having received a sufficiently original present.
Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of life in Slovakia.
The next Foreign Affairs will appear on stands January 14, Vol. 8, No. 1.
17. Dec 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds