A seven-year-old boy jumps around his mother and points a sticky finger at a toy-stand. "Mum, buy me a football," he whines.
"Mum, check out those leather jackets," exclaims a teenage girl, pulling at her mother's sleeve. The harried mother is also accompanied by a granny in her mid-sixties, who raises her eyebrows in amazement when the family passes a stand touting cheap kitchen ware. "Look at the pots, these are the ones I was telling you about, remember?" the granny says to her daughter.
The lady in the middle of it all is soon abandoned by her husband, a balding, furtive man in a suit. "Mary, just go on ahead with the kids, I'll meet up with you at the ferris wheel," he says, edging towards a knot of grinning, red-faced buddies who are standing under a sign saying "Burčiak."
It is the first September weekend in Prievidza, a hard-bitten former coalmining town in north Slovakia. Tens of thousands of people come out every year to attend the traditional Miners' Day Fair, in recognition of the hard labour that many townsfolk knew until only very recently. The event was massively celebrated in Slovakia's communist past.
Walking through the crowds, a few men in the typical miner's black and green uniforms with golden buttons can still be seen. But most of the fun seekers, crammed into a narrow alleyway of shop stands, come not to honour their fellow workers but to buy cheap Asian clothing, fake leather shoes, overpriced toys and flimsy domestic gadgets.
For many, the fair is also a chance to go out and gorge on grilled chicken legs or broiled German sausages with horseradish dressing, to munch on cotton-candy or corn on the cob. But for some, Miner's Day coincides happily with the late summer grape harvest, and with the arrival of a muddy sweet eight day-old wine called burčiak (see article this page).
Barrels of burčiak are brought to Prievidza each day, and are emptied every night. The Slovak drinking code, claim the men who crowd the makeshift stands, forces one to drink until either the bottle is empty or the drinker is unable to continue. The rigor of this code may explain all the bodies lying in the grass embracing half empty bottles.
When the night comes, the air gets chillier. The burčiak has been either sold or spilled, the lights are down and the air is rent with the howls of penitent sinners. Plastic cups and paper plates dance in the wind.
"I came to do some shopping and meet my friends at the fair," a 19 year-old boy explains the next day. He smiles and sips from a cup of unidentified liquid. "That's crap, man," exclaims his companion, "people only come here for the burčiak!"