Living in Slovakia (1993)
Just after dusk on the first of September, 1993, my wife and I were deposited in front of a crude elevator in the bare lobby of a pre-fabbed, ten-story, concrete apartment building in Nitra, Slovakia. Four flights up, we entered our apartment: big enough for two, yes, but sparsely furnished with a rust-colored, polyester sectional, a TV, a bed and bedding such as we had never seen, a half-pint refrigerator, a sixties-style kitchenette, a fifties phone, and, in the bathroom, a thigh-high rectangular box. Open the lid--a washing machine! (Directions in Slovak.)
In the morning light, the view from our concrete balcony showed us a dozen nearly identical buildings. And on our way down to the College of Education, looking over our shoulders, we saw hundreds of such buildings, in which one third of Nitra's ninety thousand people lived, all perched on this ridge ten minutes by bus from downtown. To us it appeared as something Bronx-like--a low-income, crumbling maze of apartment blocks, potentially dangerous. This was our new neighborhood.
As we came to discover, however, our neighborhood, though definitely deteriorating and, depending on the weather, muddy or dusty, wasn't at all dangerous: most lights were out by ten o'clock, the majority of thirty thousand early-rising Slovaks quietly sleeping. Nor was it low-income, relatively-speaking: almost all strata of Slovak society were represented, doctors, army colonels and university professors included. And the apartment was, after the initial shock, quite satisfactory: a few added amenities and decorative touches soon made it feel like domov.
As with all Slovak apartments, our balcony was primarily reserved for hanging laundry. The washing machine and phone were much-appreciated luxuries, for one could not take it for granted that all households had both; many had one or the other, but some had neither. One interesting and unexpected habit connected with Slovak homes: inhabitants and guests alike remove shoes at the door and wear slippers or socks once inside. This keeps the mud and dirt off the carpets and, perhaps, psychologically preserves the home from the more "soiled" aspects of society beyond the walls.
"A lot of pork" is the answer to the much-asked question, "What did you eat?" Pork and chicken are staples, as are potatoes, rice, cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic and cheese. Nobody starves in Slovakia or waits in long lines for food--as the mythology might have one believe--but almost all families supplement what food they buy with produce and home-canned fruits and vegetables from a garden in the yard, one in an enclosed section for dozens of families over the hill, or from one at granny's or auntie's house in the family village not too far from town. In the winter time, outside the capital, Bratislava, the produce available is generally limited to the long-storing root vegetables listed above: there is only one growing season in Slovakia and the Slovak economy can not yet afford to import produce from warmer climates, as neighboring Austria can, for example.
In general, eating in a Slovak home will get you a tastier and less fatty meal than eating out. Most restaurants are very similar to each other and all serve a somewhat-limited selection of rather similar dishes. A few more-expensive ones will leave you satisfied, but at no time did we leave a Slovak restaurant raving about the meal. However, this is a mute point for Slovak families since dining out is a luxury for most.
...and Where to Find It
One of the greatest challenges of living--especially shopping--in this formerly communist society is dealing with the still-kicking heritage of the communist modus operandi . Customer service is not a forte of a communist economy or administrative system, and, while certainly looking to the future, Slovak clerks and bureaucrats still have at least one foot firmly rooted in the past. In general, most clerks were neither gruff nor solicitous: they performed their duties with a minimum of personal interaction and effort. However, curt and even nasty clerks were too-frequently met. Without the free-market forces of customer choice and the fear of being fired, public "servants" for years treated their "clients" with as much attention or condescension as their mood dictated, and such habits die hard. The Slovaks themselves are more immune to this behavior--but only because they have long resigned themselves to it.
There are department stores (with a familiar selection of merchandise--but clothing in particular inferior in quality), although in most towns only one--a monopoly, so some of the highest prices prevail here; supermarket-type food stores; "convenience" stores, including compact little kiosks that sell staples when other stores are closed (which occurs more frequently than we western consumers prefer); and "boutiques", most of which are privately-owned. Customer service, quality and, hence prices, are generally at the highest levels in these latter shops.
The daily town market, where one finds some fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats--and also jeans and boots, and cassettes and electronics--is the most interesting and picturesque place to shop. Also, since people who sell at the trznica (market) are in business for themselves, there is more incentive to actually attract customers. One is forced to practice Slovak there, especially the numbers, and patronizing this open-air mall is a good way of feeling most like a native.
Yes, the Slovaks are drinkers by and large. Adult "recreation" often involves alcohol consumption. (And alcoholism, particularly among men, is a problem for many families, and for the economy, too, as at least some of the drinking which sometimes takes place on the job or at lunch would certainly seem to affect productivity.)
Slivovica is a high-proof, plum-based beverage (though this seems too kind a word), sometimes homemade. On occasion, all those present will be urged to down a shot as a welcoming toast. The Slovaks also make some beer almost as good as their Czech neighbors, but even their mediocre beers are very tasty indeed.
But it is not of their beer or slivovica that Slovaks are most proud: it's the wine. There is an extensive wine industry centered in Nitra, but many families make their own yearly supply from grapes grown in their yards or from the other garden sources previously mentioned. The homemade wine is often better than store-bought, though even the latter is quite drinkable at the price of thirty to forty "crowns" (a bit more than a dollar) per liter. When visiting a Slovak home with enough basement or other storage space, it is quite likely that father or grandfather will proudly ask you to come and see his wine cellar, and he will tell you how much he makes and how good it is as you watch him siphon out the first of the many liters you will all soon happily consume.
Calling on friends, drinking, and sampling snacks (nuts and fruits and meats and cheeses and pickles and veggies--whatever's on hand) is a common form of socializing. Going to church--most Slovaks are Catholics--buying flowers and visiting relatives is a frequent Sunday pastime. So too is buying zmrzlina (ice cream, an affordable treat) and strolling downtown. Even in our relatively large town (by Slovak standards), only a few chromy discos and after-hours bars are the normal late-night options. Many Slovak families spend weekends out in the country, where they may own a chata (cottage) of varying sizes, styles, and sophistication.
It is not common practice for Slovak students to socialize with their teachers; however, this might be more of a function of the teachers wanting or feeling obliged to set themselves apart rather than a lack of interest from the students (since many students responded eagerly and appreciatively to the relative approachability of the American or Canadian lecturers, for example). Also, since most students were commuters, they had very tight schedules jammed with many "lessons" and some with hours of daily traveling time.
Nonetheless, we were able to share some time-off in the bufet , and a group of us would occasionally leave a spring-fever-infected class a bit early and go for an ice cream cone. One or two students were closer and would come along with a few faculty members for a Friday beer or a coffee and smoky chat in the tiny department library (where the faculty smokers congregated). And those asked were generally pleased or even flattered to help with Slovak lessons or translating for necessities like haircuts. So the teaching and learning and the giving and receiving were always reciprocal--as was meant to be.
All rights reserved. Ron Clark 1994
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