THE EASTER holiday in Slovakia is the refuge of some of the most contested traditions the country still practices. Bands of men visit the homes of women they know, strike them with willow switches and douse them in cold water, and then expect to be served liquor and cold meats before they traipse off to another encounter.
If you're male and fond of drinking, Easter Monday is a high time indeed. But if you're female, especially young and unattached, you tend to resent such boorish feudal customs.
This past Easter had its share of customary nastiness, with a group of young men from a village near Hlohovec throwing a 16-year-old girl in a tub and scalding her with hot water until her father came to the rescue. She remains in hospital with second degree burns.
But most of the ugly incidents recorded across the country had less to do with ancient folk customs than with a more recent social disease - alcohol abuse.
A man in Bratislava beat his wife to death with a hammer on Good Friday, and then apparently tried to commit suicide by crashing his car. In Gelnica district a trio of drunk men broke into a house shouting they wanted to kill the son of the household. When the father calmly replied that he wasn't at home, the intruders broke off the legs of a table and beat the father to death. And another police employee, 21-year-old František Paplun (again of Gelnica) became the ninth cop this year to crash while drunk, hitting a parked Škoda Fabia with 1.92 parts per thousand (ppm) of alcohol in his blood.
Interior Ministry spokesman Peter Pleva said over the holidays that Slovaks drink more at Easter than at any other time. In the decade he has worked on the force he remembers certain records, such as a Czech citizen who was stopped measuring over seven ppm alcohol in his blood and had to be revived by paramedics; the Slovak record holder, said Pleva, could only boast five ppm (four ppm is regarded by doctors as a state approaching lethal alcohol intoxication).
This year, added Pleva, a policeman holds the record for tested drunkenness while driving a car, a certain Peter O. of Bratislava who seriously injured his passenger after crashing at 3.8 ppm (the same level was measured in a 19-year-old civilian driver on the grounds of the STV state television station in Bratislava in February, who choked to death on his vomit before police could call help).
A pedestrian who was killed by another drunk-driving cop in Brezno (1.9 ppm) this winter had over 3.8 ppm alcohol in his blood when he died.
But that's nothing compared to last year, when police were called to the home of a rowdy native of Malacky in western Slovakia (4.59 ppm), who was trying to prevent his partner from abandoning him because of his problems with alcohol.
Jozef Š. of Zvolen on November 7, 2001 managed to drive 150 kilometres to Trnava region before seriously wounding two people in a crash with 4.48 ppm, equivalent to 14 shots of hard alcohol, according to police.
For many foreigners visiting Slovakia, the country's tolerance of drinking and of drunks is a humorous if eyebrow-raising foible. When I first came here in 1992 it was quite normal to attend a formal gathering of adults and find a tray of hard alcohol from which to choose, and nothing else.
But the longer you live here the more you see. Not just in the drunks you meet morning, noon and night in public places (trains, trams, streets). Not just in the vomit on the sidewalk and the pools of urine in cities if you rise before the sediment of a new day has covered them.
The real vision of what alcohol is doing to Slovaks is to be found in the divorces which courageous women push through against society's disapproval of 'faithless' wives and mothers, and its uncritical tolerance of violent drunks.
It's to be found in the most popular political party in the country, the opposition HZDS, which at a recent Bratislava congress handed out bottles of rum with the inscription "only the HZDS can secure peace in Slovakia."
Alcohol does not promote peace. I used to be woken up in a flat in Piešťany by the sound of shattering furniture and a fat neighbour screaming at his wife that she was screwing other men, and that he would kill her. I ran for a year through the hills around Žilina, past village pubs before seven in the morning to the sound of drunken singing. I have several times found myself in bar conflicts with people who should have stopped drinking yesterday, and whom fighting would not have eased either the anger that I felt or the injury they were causing to decent people wanting to have a good time. And as a reporter I've regularly had to hold my nose and tongue interviewing members of parliament who reeked of booze in working hours (you get good quotes, but feel dirty using them).
Drinking alcohol isn't bad, criminal or sinful. Getting drunk and hurting other people, whether with your car or your fists, is all three. In ignoring the damage that male alcohol abuse is doing to its women and children, Slovakia is flushing both its traditions and its future down a sewer of wasted human potential.
Editor in chief