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CHRISTMAS FOCUS - CHRISTMAS TIME & HOLIDAY SHOPPING - SLOVAK MATTERS

Care for a cup of bacon fat?

WINTER depresses me. The cold, the delinquent sunshine, and the worn routine of daily life conspire to bore me to death. Aside from the need for consumption, it is this boredom that drags the holiday season on for so long. A tradition of some five years now, the Christmas market in Bratislava's Old Town is a crowded answer to the winter doldrums.
The Christmas market is a favourite of busy university students, I am told. They may have other preoccupations, but once a meeting on the main square is proposed, most readily show up and enjoy themselves until totally frozen (úplne zmrznutí), then move on to a pub.

WINTER depresses me. The cold, the delinquent sunshine, and the worn routine of daily life conspire to bore me to death. Aside from the need for consumption, it is this boredom that drags the holiday season on for so long. A tradition of some five years now, the Christmas market in Bratislava's Old Town is a crowded answer to the winter doldrums.

The Christmas market is a favourite of busy university students, I am told. They may have other preoccupations, but once a meeting on the main square is proposed, most readily show up and enjoy themselves until totally frozen (úplne zmrznutí), then move on to a pub.

My friends and colleagues pick the market as a favourite as well - whenever I casually propose meeting up with someone, their suggestion is inadvertently the Christmas market.

Walking across Bratislava's Main Square is a social event (spoločenská udalosť). The lights and music slow your step and the smells of cooking food cause you to pause and eye the vendors' stands. Take another step and you smack into someone you know, which is the perfect excuse to have something hot to drink and plan to meet again. Today I heard a woman part with her friends with the words "Tak sa ozvi a potom sa džojnem" - "so give me a ring and I'll join you". With anglicisms like "džojnúť" for "join" popping up, Slovak gets easier every day.

The cold contributes something essential to the market. It drives you to drink more varené víno (mulled wine) than you expected to. The cold likewise makes you actually enjoy being pressed inside the crowd, which is a mass of people puffed into pillows in their fluffy jackets. On Saturday night the market reaches festival proportions, making it difficult to press past the throng of people packed like sardines (natlačení ako sardinky) as it is.

Somehow people manage, though, and wobble to and from the stands for food like giant, winter-weary cattle. They eat with gusto. In extreme cases the Slovaks say that the eater gorges himself until balls form behind his ears - napcháva sa až sa mu robia guče za ušami. It is my suspicion that this swelling adds to the bulkiness of the crowd, making it even harder to squeeze through.

What makes the crowd downright dangerous is that each fluffy member, numbed by the cold and layers of clothing, balances a cup of hot liquid or even a flimsy paper plate with a giant gob of mustard and a dripping sausage. If a spill occurs, keep holiday cheer in mind and try to forgive the offender rather than call him a hovädo (oaf).

Any number of drinks can be spilled at the market. The standard is varené víno, which comes in white (biele) and red (červené), the latter being the more stain-prone of the two. Then there is sweet honey mead (medovina), which also comes hot. Mix rum, juice, and sometimes fruit with your varené víno and you have punč (punch). Do away with the varené víno altogether and try hriatô, a drink that combines slivovica (plum brandy) or rum, caramel, and bacon fat.

What is behind the urge to crush together into the sticky, bumbling mass of the Christmas market? During the summer we have plenty of fun activities to keep us occupied, but come winter we often keep to our homes, and find ourselves stuck catching carp (chytať kapra), that is, doing the same boring things for days on end. After all this fishing, people come down with submarine sickness (ponorková choroba), or cabin fever. The Christmas market is the perfect cure.

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