The Scoop on Slovakia

I had been living in Slovakia for six months, and in that time I had written a few letters back home describing some of my perceived cultural differences between Slovakia and the United States. I have compiled a list of some of those perceptions and am offering for others whom might be interested in some of small, detail differences between Slovakia and particularly California, where I am from. What follows are thirteen perceptions from my personal letters of Slovakia from an American, not just traveling, but living in Bratislava.

1) It’s cold. It’s so cold that yesterday while walking home my snot literally froze so that I had chunks of ice wedged into my nose. Houses are built out of bricks for insulation, but this means that the floor is extremely cold and everyone wears slippers in the house. I, a Californian, find the act of wearing shoes inside to be uncomfortable. They, Europeans, look at me as if I desire to catch the plague.

2) Table etiquette is bizarre. Napkins are to remain on the table, and the fork is to be used in the left hand and the knife in the right. I grew up using both fork and knife in the right hand and performing a samba of clattering as I switched the fork, picked up the knife, cut, put down the knife, switched the fork back, and finally ascend to my mouth. Eating “my way” was laughed upon as “very inefficient.” I have attempted to eat with the fork in my left hand, but I find that my left hand does not know where my mouth is, and therefore when I attempt to place the food in my mouth it looks as if either an earthquake or a Chevy Chase movie is taking place.

3) Everyone is good at sports. And I mean good. During my youth I had the opportunity to become quite a ping-pong player. I spent a good two years living in a basement, drinking Coors Lite, rocking Rush, and whipping ping-pong balls. I was good, and I still am a good ping-pong player. Andrea’s uncle (my girlfriend), a portly man in his early fifties, visited for Christmas and I challenged him to a ping-pong match. At the table I wasn’t playing a fat European but a young spry Chinese kid. Ping-pong balls flew past me with enough spin that they rotated a forty-five degree angle upon hitting the table. Young boys ice skate better than they walk, and the NHL is on TV more here than in America. All claim, “I am not that good of a soccer player,” but once on the field blind passes are connected and the men compete over how much they can spin the ball through the air. “Not good,” translates into “nobody pays me to play.” Small girls who walk through the streets with big earrings and high heels can be seen on the weekends in the mountains with backpacks that weight more than they do.

4) Alcohol. If God grew it, the Slovaks have turned it into alcohol. I have tried homemade alcohol made from plums (the most popular), peaches, pears, apples, cherries, the berries of pine trees, and one little fruit nobody knew how to translate. These alcohols are generally around 60% alcohol and taste like burning (although the sophisticated Slovak pallet will swirl, smell, and taste the burning liquid like a fine wine… which by the way does not exist in Slovakia, DO NOT drink the wine). These homemade alcohols are so pure that they don’t leave much of a hangover, so drinking one is easier than it sounds. In addition, Silvovisa, the plum alcohol “cures” everything: dysentery, headaches, fever, gas, a cough, a cold, a rash, herpes, cancer, and death will all be cured with just “a shot of this and go lay down.”

Beer: it is not as good or as plentiful here as in Czech but it is still the drink of choice. Beer is cheaper than both water and soda (making it the cheapest drink there is). It comes in a one liter bottle and is on average 10% alcohol. Brown beer is sweet. I picked one up expected that delicious bitterness and practically had to spit out a sugar cane. (Brown beer is the Corona of Slovakia, popular with the young girls.) Wine is consumed but generally very acidic, some people will even mix it with coke (very disgusting). Or it is served hot with cloves in it, which is very good, kind of like punch. In general you are not considered drunk unless you fall down.

5) Queen is the best band ever. Freddy Mercury resides somewhere just to the right of the Virgin Mary on mount high. On my computer I have the best of Queen and a counter that tells how many times each song has been played. The average song has been played ten times, the average song I like has been played twenty, after a weekend spent in a cabin with friends the Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now” had been played forty-nine times. On Saturday morning I have been waken by thundering and thumping bass beats of “Another One Bites the Dust,” and the screeching of my roommate’s boyfriend (making it clear that Freddy Mercury does in fact reside in heaven.)

6) Superstar, Slovak version of American Idol, is the most popular thing since the invention of beer. On Friday night people will leave the bars to go home and watch Superstar (this is most likely because in a country of 5 million everybody knows somebody who has been on TV). Pavol Habera, a “good looking” pop singer from the eighties, who is sort of a washed up Slovak version of Bono or Sting, but without the good intentions, is the face of Superstar. Although known for his ballads and love of love songs, Pavol is funny and pompous and is remembered by me for telling one guy that he sings more like a goat suffering from cholera and that the best moment of his performance was when he finally stopped hurting his ears.

7) The most disgusting thing I have eaten was a fried blood sausage. Imagine a small donut, but instead of jelly inside there is a delicious piece of blood sausage. Blood sausage tastes like what I would imagine gangrene to taste like, something like three-month-old intestines soaking in salt water. It’s really gross.

8) Mcdonald’s has an interesting place in the world. Everyone agrees that the food looks like somebody squeezed it out of tube and stuck it in a microwave, but it is still prestigious because it is new, expensive, shinny, and American. The oddest thing to me is that Mcdonald’s is eaten like a restaurant. The food is not eaten fast. Slovaks will sit, for hours, on the bright yellow chairs, underneath the big red smiling face, and slowly eat their Mcdonald’s. The logic is, “it’s expensive so sit and enjoy,” rather than the need to throw some food down my throat so I can continue on my way.

9) Chocolate. Slovaks have a chocolate factory called Figaro, which they are very proud. It lacks the world recognition of the Swiss or Belgium, but is, and having tasted all of them I agree, just about as good.

10) The average wage is said to be about 14,000 crowns a month (in Bratislava slightly higher), which is approximately $470 a month. Property, such as a condo, not a house or land, is somewhere in neighborhood of 1,000,000 ($34,000) crowns. This sounds manageable until you realize that my rent (of an average apartment in an average place) is 15,000 crowns a month and a good pair of shoes is 1,400.

11) Language…nahneskomercionalizovatelnejsieho (yes, it’s actually one word), or stvtprst (please note the lack of vowels). Slovak language is confusing, because not only do the verbs change (like in French or Spanish), but so do the nouns, according to preposition, so the noun form of “in house” is different than “from house” which is different than “at house.” So I don’t learn one noun for “house,” but four or five. Not to mention the gender specifications.

12) Slovaks get a mandatory four weeks of vacation time a year, even for entry-level employees. Not bad. Not bad at all.

13) The US Embassy resembles a castle. There is a large barbed wire fence cutting around the Old Square building and machine gun toting soldiers walking around. They wanted to build a nine foot high cement wall, but the Slovaks wouldn’t let them do that to their old town (especially after the communists tore out half of it to build the New Bridge). To go inside I went through the most rigorous security check I’ve ever gone through (I was afraid they were going to ask me to drop trou, bend over, and well…). And once inside I could only talk to people through a bullet-proof glass.

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