According to national folklore, Slovak women are the prettiest in the world. True or not, this statement has clearly been taken to the heart by the country's marriage office officials, who have stoked a bureaucratic inferno to test the mettle of any cudzinec who dares to marry a Slovak.
Here are the basic facts - if a foreigner wants to marry a Slovak on Slovak soil, it will take about three months and cost around 10,000 Slovak crowns ($250) just to arrange the necessary paperwork.
What's more, a thousand small insults to common sense and justice must be endured from embassy officials, bank clerks and post office employees, all of whom seem to be part of a conspiracy to keep Slovak nationals from tying the knot with foreigners.
Take, for example, the task of acquiring a birth certificate that will satisfy the Slovak marriage cops. You have to have a copy of the original sent from whichever country you were born in, which may take up to a month. If you were born in England, this copy then has to be returned to London and legalised by the Legalisation Office, then returned to Slovakia and super-legalised at the British Embassy in Bratislava, then given to the Consular Section of the Ministry of Foriegn Affairs to be super-super-legalised... All documents then have to be translated into Slovak by an official translator before they can finally be submitted to the marriage office.
Of course, you need more than just a birth certificate to get hitched - you need a document certifying that you are eligible to marry a Slovak citizen (ie. that you aren't a polygamist) as well as papers to prove where you live and what nationality you claim.
At every stage of the way, bureaucrats with pinched expressions seem to interpose themselves between you and your goal and invent yet another reason why the perfectly good documents you possess are insufficient.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, has a list of officials at each foreign embassy who are authorised to sign documents the Ministry must then OK. Inevitably, the documents which you obtain at great cost from your embassy are signed by a person whose name does not appear on the list of 'authorised' names, forcing you to return to the embassy and pay again, this time for the correct signature.
The barriers are not all on the Slovak side. of course. The Canadian embassy requires that all documents be paid for in Canadian dollars, a currency that cannot normally be obtained from Slovak banks except by special order. It doesn't improve anyone's temper to be told this after having marched all the way up a steep hill to the door of the Canadian Technical Mission in Bratislava.
Indeed, there is little about marriage bureaucracy to put a smile on anyone's face besides those of the officials who get to watch their foreign victims sweat. Some official seals have to be paid for in hard currency, others with the absurd 'kolok' (a revenue stamp that can be bought at the post office). Some offices are open only until noon, others only three days a week.
During the three months I spent chasing marriage papers, I met only one official with anything resembling a sense of humour. She had worked at the local registrar office ('matrika') for 39 years, and had heard every kind of complaint, she said.
After examining the thick sheaf of documents I had lugged in (my birth certificate alone had swollen to a stack of papers weighing almost a kilogram), she removed her glasses and fixed me with a baleful stare.
"It's the wrong colour," she said severely.
"What is?" I asked, my heart in my throat and my marriage dissolving before my eyes.
"Your birth certificate. It's pink. It has to be green."
I may have said something at this point, but what I remember best is a lust for blood threatening to get the best of me.
"Just kidding," she said, a smile tugging at her lips. "Just kidding. Pink is fine."
1. Mar 1999 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson