Na Slovensku po slovensky

Fact: The women here are stunning. Tall, leggy, self-assured, they dress seductively and walk confidently in high heels through cobblestone streets and snow. Whether secretaries or executives, they dress more revealingly for the office than most American women would dress for a night out dancing. And the cheekbones!

The legs that Slovak women stand on.
photo: ČTK - Jan Koller

Fact: The women here are stunning. Tall, leggy, self-assured, they dress seductively and walk confidently in high heels through cobblestone streets and snow. Whether secretaries or executives, they dress more revealingly for the office than most American women would dress for a night out dancing. And the cheekbones! That Slavic bone structure! It is all very depressing for a corn-fed middle-aged housewife from the American Midwest.

I polled my fellow expat mothers at an impromptu Mom's Night Out recently. "So," I asked. "What's it like living in the middle of all . . . this?" I gestured at the other tables in the restaurant. "Not easy," came the reply from a perfectly attractive expat mom. Heads around our table nodded in agreement.

There is no question that many foreign men find the Slovak women ideal. I haven't made a scientific study, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many expat men arrive in Bratislava with a wife and family, only to divorce and marry a Slovak beauty before their tour here is complete.

I can't speak for all expat women here. But I can say that we Americans tend to be casual in our dress. We're informal people. We leave the house in sweatpants, gym clothes, tennis shoes, because these are comfortable and practical. "Beauty is only skin deep," we tell ourselves. "Don't judge a book by its cover," we protest. "If others can't appreciate me for what's inside . . . well, hell with them!" we insist.

The doctor leads by example.
photo: Courtesy of Jana Šrámková

And we're fat. I'm sorry, but it's true. Our wealth and lifestyle (big cars, plenty of parking, drive-through banks, restaurants, pharmacies) make us sedentary and fat. It isn't easy to walk in the US. Distances are too vast. Groceries are sold in jumbo sizes. We have room at home to store things, and we don't go to the market every day.

True confession: When I arrived in Bratislava with a six-month old baby, I weighed more than 70 kilogrammes, and I'm not very tall.

So buying clothes in Slovakia was a depressing and humiliating experience. Clothes in size 42 or 44 aren't in abundance.

As one expat friend told me, "The clothing was cut for these tall, slender figures. I couldn't fit into the largest Slovak sizes. I asked other expats, 'Where do fat women by clothes here?' A chorus of voices answered, 'Vienna!' I thought it was ridiculous to have to travel to another country to buy clothing."

So what's an expat girl on the edge of a mid-life crisis to do?

Below are some tips gathered through personal experience and from talking to other foreign women living in Bratislava.

Getting fit

There are many gyms in Bratislava. Having a workout buddy is extremely helpful, but if you don't have a friend, you can always buy one in the form of a personal trainer.

One expat friend enrolled in what I can only describe as a figure studio after seeing a Slovak friend transform.

I was sceptical since she said she only worked out twice a week. Perhaps the fact that she did her workout in what looked like a little heated greenhouse was the key? Whatever the case, it was extremely effective. She looked marvellous. "The Slovaks know how to make women beautiful," she reported.

Personally, I wasn't comfortable enough speaking Slovak to navigate the figure studio on my own. So when the kids went back to school in September, I found a personal trainer.

A co-ed Slovak gym tends to be home to lots of muscle-bound weightlifters and gorgeous 20-something women with flat stomachs. Robert, my trainer, is a former body builder himself, but you wouldn't know it unless he told you. He's fit, modest and around my age. I found that motivating.

"What can I help you with?" he asked at our first meeting.

"No more flabby upper arms," I start my wish list. "Muscle tone. Definition. Lift," I say hopefully.

A few weeks later I am carrying a book around the gym with me to read later while I'm riding the exercise bike. The body builders say something to Robert, and he laughs. "Your book looks like the Yellow Pages," he explains. "They think you're training to tear it in half."

So how am I doing? "Now you have biceps like Václav Havel's liver," he tells me. That's a good thing, right? I won't be tearing any phone books in half, but at least my children are impressed.

Beauty is only skin deep?

Many dream of obtaining beauty like this, as well as wonder if it hides anything inside...
photo: ČTK - Samuel Kubáni

I weigh 10 kilos less than when I arrived in Bratislava. But as the fat melted away, I discovered that it was serving a vital purpose: I may have more cheekbones now, but I also have more wrinkles.

So I eventually decide to consult a cosmetic dermatologist. I meet Dr Jana Šrámeková through mutual friends, but I carry her card in my purse for months before I get up the nerve to finally make an appointment.

Dr Jana is a walking advertisement for her services. Here is another classic Slovak beauty with blonde hair, a terrific figure, and flawless skin. And like my trainer, she's my age.

I had a lot of questions - not just about trying to stop the clock, but mostly about what Slovak women might be doing to look so good.

She tells me that Slovak women have embraced the products and services available to them since the end of socialism. "We were all very hungry for them," she explains.

That's an understatement. At the reception desk I receive a card with my patient number: 6729.

"This office has seen 6,729 clients?" I needed to clarify this. In a town of less than 500,000 that's more than 1.5 percent! I look around the office at the other clients.

I see women of all ages, but mostly my age or younger. While I wait to talk to Dr Jana, they come, disappear into an examination room, and emerge a few minutes later.

At last it's my turn. Dr Jana mentioned something called "photo rejuvenation" when I made the appointment. So now I ask her to explain. Apparently it is the most popular procedure at her practice.

This becomes obvious, too, as it is a quick, non-invasive process where a special light is used to treat an incredible variety of complaints. I have a laundry list of things I don't like about my skin, and this process just might be the answer. "No one will know exactly what you are doing," Dr. Jana is conspiratorial. "They'll just know you are looking better." Okay. Sign me up.

The process is quick and not uncomfortable. A technician prepares my face with a gel and protects my eyes.

My eye makeup is not disturbed at all. The pulses of red light startle me, but a few minutes later I am at the reception desk making my next appointment.

"See you next month," Dr Jana tells me. "And don't forget to use sunblock." We shake hands, and she looks at mine. "Next time you come, we'll do your hands," she says.

Clothes make the woman

Looking around, I see beautiful clothes on women, but choke at the prices I see in the malls. But now I've discovered another Slovak secret: savvy Slovak women have long known that making your own clothes means affordable fashion.

Enter Jarmila Mittlemanová, a Czech fashion designer who lives in Bratislava. Growing up under socialism, Jarmila taught herself how to sew in order to have fashionable and interesting clothes.

I quickly learn that she can hide my flaws and accentuate my assets. But sometimes she has her own ideas about what my flaws and assets are. Case in point: we are looking at some fabric that we both agree will make a nice holiday party dress for me. I am imagi-ning something below the knee, with three-quarter sleeves and a not-too-plunging neckline. Jarmila has other ideas: she wraps the fabric around my neck, halter style. My arms

and shoulders are completely exposed. The look is sleek and elegant. Sporty even.

Then she says, "You're going to wear a better bra with this dress, right?"

Now, I have been hinting to Slovak friends for ages to take me pushupka shopping. Raised on a steady diet of Victoria's Secret products, I am sure there is something different, something superior, about Slovak bras. Finally, I have a local guide to help me apply that something special to my pathetic profile.

It's arranged. Jarmila's neighbour owns a small lingerie kiosk in a pasáž. It's wedged between the street and a coffee shop. I have never seen so many bras in such a small space. The shop owner is a friendly woman, wearing a fluffy pink sweater. She's comforting, like talking to your mom.

I confess I cannot remember my European metric size, but the shop owner merely tells me to take off my winter coat. She looks me up and down, and then sends me behind a curtain to try on what turns out to be the correct size. There, in front of God, the coffee shop clientele, and the office across the street, I try on pushupkas. From time to time, Jarmila and her neighbor ask, "How's it going?" and then open the curtain to assess what I'm wearing.

I think her bras are pretty, but nothing is really giving me that Slovak profile I seek. Jarmila is brutally honest: "You just don't have that much to work with." What can I say? I buy two anyhow.

Now I'm a bra junkie, stopping in shop after shop, trying to find just the right one. I try on and buy a Wonderbra since after so many lovely Italian and French products, this is a name I recognize from the US. It produces what the Victoria's Secret clerks refer to as "inward compression" (that's cleavage), but after a few hours I am painfully aware of the hooks in my back.

One day at lunch, I convince a Slovak girlfriend to venture with me into an upscale lingerie shop in the Old Town. Prices are nose-curlingly expensive, but the products are gorgeous. The shop clerks are helpful. Once again I find myself modelling bras while they and my buddy vote on best fit and prettiest style.

Lingerie this beautiful makes a girl feel special.

Vanity, or pride, is one of the seven deadly sins. But self-improvement can't be a bad thing. Or can it? Let me close with a story.

A few weeks ago, I walked into my doctor's office for the annual check up. Before I even sat down, he says, "You changed your hair."

"Yes, yes I have."

"New glasses?" he continues.

"Why yes, they are new."

"And is it my imagination, or have you been working out?"

Correct again. I confess to feeling just a bit pleased with myself. Until he says with a smirk, "Well, you know what they say."

I splutter with indignation. "I'm not having an affair! I am a happily married woman." I protest.

"Uh huh." He is sceptical. "If you say so."

So now I don't know. Is it better to have people talk about you because you look bad or because you look good? Or is it better to just fly below the radar? I guess that's a decision every woman has to make for herself.

Good look tips:
Studio Kompliment

Dr. Robert Brimich
Anti-Aging Centre

Dr Jana Šrámeková
Laserové a Dermatokozmetické Centrum
Nobelova 34, 831 02 Bratislava

Jarmila Mittelmannová Designs
By appointment: 0903 358 835

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