"I AM never coming here again." These words, without fail, end every visit from my American boyfriend. It's not that we are having problems in our relationship. Rather, his proclamation is based on the over consumption of a certain clear coloured home-brew that is regularly forced down his throat by every hospitable Slovak I know.
Our Slovak adventure began roughly two years ago when, after a few tearful goodbyes, I boarded a plane in Washington DC, preparing to spend the next two years in this small central European country. As we took off I clutched my information book tightly, glancing at the cover photo of a wizened old babka with a scarf tied around her head, standing in the midst of her potato field. Not knowing much about my future home other than the fact that it had once been part of Czechoslovakia and that the language was, based on the cassette I had been sent, utterly impossible to pronounce, I took this book at face value. I assumed I was going into some kind of traditional backwater, in which the women would be too modest to leave the house without 7/8 of their bodies covered in thick garments and my diet would consist of potatoes and little else.
It did not take long for me to see the error of my thinking. Moments after our arrival we stood in the center of a small western town, gaping at the modern buildings and streets full not of horses and wagons as I had imagined, but cars. It was a hot day, and the men in our group stared in open mouthed wonder as hordes of doll-sized, scantily clad women sauntered by. The women of the group also stared, and repeatedly asked one another, "Where could they be going dressed like that on a Tuesday morning?" Their see-through tops and skin tight micro-minis suggested to us that they were on their way to some early morning disco, but their grocery store bags indicated otherwise. I tugged at the hemline of my sensibly long and baggy shorts, standing out far more in my conservative attire that I ever would have in my sexiest Saturday night outfit.
I soon moved in with a Slovak family, who took it upon themselves to educate me about local food and customs. My host father, commonly referred to as Doktor, was a true connoisseur and was never far from his homemade supply of slivovica. At the end of every hike, climb or even stroll, he would pull out his ever-ready flask, pass it to me, and demand that I take a swig with a simple but direct, "No!" It wasn't long before tact left me and I began refusing to cooperate. No matter how small the shot, the plum brandy left me feeling woozy as I choked and winced and searched frantically for something, anything, to get the taste out of my mouth. After numerous standoffs, I finally discovered my ticket out.
"Jon will drink it," I announced. I knew that Jon, my 6 foot 3 American boyfriend, was just the kind of guy Doktor would love to get drunk, and so I offered him up as a sacrifice, not truly believing I would be taken at my word. I jokingly told Doktor that when Jon arrived in a couple months he would drink all the slivovica I had turned down. That, for the time being, seemed to settle the matter.
When the visit finally came, Jon was greeted by my host mother in front of the chata in traditional kraj, holding a tray of bread, salt, and slivovica. Jon coughed a little as the liquid hit his throat and turned to me to whisper, "God! That stuff is awful!" I nodded sympathetically, not mentioning the little pact I had made with Doktor, which by now surely amounted to over a liter and a half.
Before dinner Doktor asked, "Would you like wine or slivovica with dinner?" "Wine please," Jon replied. "Fine," said Doktor. "Tomorrow, wine. Tonight, slivovica." And so it began. That night alone the two of them polished off at least half a bottle, followed by shots at regular intervals beginning at 9 a.m. Jon, never a lightweight, was passed out by 3 o'clock.
This routine has been repeated with every subsequent visit. And with each of these visits, Jon has learned more about how to survive in Slovakia. He now knows that no food should be consumed for at least 24 hours before any visit to a Slovak household where, due to his size, he will be made to consume five times his normal daily food intake. Most of all, he has learned to smile politely after each unasked for yet ever present shot, thanking his host and saying, "Mmm. Smooth." But then, the moment we are alone, he swears to me that he is never coming here again. It's nothing personal, he assures me, it is just that he cannot take anymore of that "diesel fuel filtered through white bread." I tell him that I understand, knowing full well that in a couple of weeks or months, he will have forgotten his reeling head and churning gut and will be back, cringing as Doktor once again cheerfully announces that, "Tonight, slivovica."
This essay won second place in the ex-pat resident category in a recent English language essay competition. The contest, under the rubric 'Meeting of the Cultures', was run by The Slovak Spectator and the Sme daily paper.