Trees appear right before Christmas; but the mail might not

Okay, so K-Mart's Christmas special can't match Bloomingdale's or Harrods. And the old carols familiar to many ex-pats aren't ringing through the streets. But, as in many other predominantly Christian countries, you can deck the halls with boughs of holly... and shop for a Christmas tree in Slovakia. Don't expect to find shops selling specially grown, perfectly shaped trees. Most of the trees for sale have either been harvested from state forests, or cut from private property. They'll appear right before Christmas at local markets and Christmas fairs. In Bratislava look towards the end of December at stands outside Tržnica, the indoor market at Trnavské mýto, between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Or, if Dúbravka is more convenient, check the two Christmas markets there, on Saratovská ul. and Ulica M. Schneidra Trnavského, in the week before the 24th. In Košice, the Christmas Bazaar on Hlavna ul. should have trees.

Okay, so K-Mart's Christmas special can't match Bloomingdale's or Harrods. And the old carols familiar to many ex-pats aren't ringing through the streets. But, as in many other predominantly Christian countries, you can deck the halls with boughs of holly... and shop for a Christmas tree in Slovakia. Don't expect to find shops selling specially grown, perfectly shaped trees. Most of the trees for sale have either been harvested from state forests, or cut from private property.

They'll appear right before Christmas at local markets and Christmas fairs. In Bratislava look towards the end of December at stands outside Tržnica, the indoor market at Trnavské mýto, between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Or, if Dúbravka is more convenient, check the two Christmas markets there, on Saratovská ul. and Ulica M. Schneidra Trnavského, in the week before the 24th. In Košice, the Christmas Bazaar on Hlavna ul. should have trees.

Fresh trees usually run between 100 and 300 Sk, depending, of course, on size. Many Slovaks opt instead for an artificial tree; at K-Mart in Bratislava, a medium (90 cm) tree costs 480 Sk. Larger artificial trees range from 990 Sk for a 140 cm "Canadian pine" to a towering 210 cm mock Scotch fir for 1,790 Sk.

But for the scent and feel of real greenery in an easy to handle package, look for the Christmas wreaths that are already popping up at market stands. The handmade wreaths, decorated with ribbons and baubles, usually cost about 200 Sk - and they're easier to carry home on the bus.

Eight tiny reindeer might be easier

Now's the time to start sending presents if you want the folks back home to put them under the Christmas tree. Think light - gifts under two kilograms do not need to go through customs, and can be sent through any post office. Just fill out the tiny green form at the counter, indicate that the package is a gift (darček) and describe what's inside. If the contents are not listed (and the postal system reserves the right to open packages) the package could be delayed or even confiscated abroad.

A one kilogram package will take about 10 days to get to New York, and cost 268 Sk. Second class costs just 98 Sk, but can take six weeks. The same package will cost 316 Sk first class, or 387 Sk second class to get to London; 679 and 240, respectively, to make it to Sydney.

Packages over two kilograms (as well as anything that's not a gift) must be sent through customs; the Bratislava office is on Gunduličova ul. They will want to look at the contents of your package, so bring wrapping materials.

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