Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Na zdravie! Drinking As the Slovaks Do

Using my limp arms to anchor myself to the toilet bowl while the bathroom spun violently around me, a thick stream of vomit gushed from my mouth in a forceful yet strangely satisfying way, as I wondered how I got to this point so quickly.

It seems that many Slovaks I've met have an innate tolerance for consuming large quantities of alcohol. It's not uncommon to find oneself in situations where people are downing potent shots of various types of booze accompanied by pints of tasty Slovak (or Czech) beer. (The beer, of course, is the chaser). The shots are typically anything from slivovice (plum brandy), hruskovica (pear), jablkovica (apple), borovicka (juniper berries), Becherovka (Czech, containing 13 different herbs), or plain old vodka. I've always been a bit of a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, so this is a particularly lethal combination for me.

I've been told by one of Terezia's Slovak friends that this combination of beer and shots "is not normal," but based on my own experience so far, it's extremely common. Apart from having been subjected to it myself on numerous occasions with people who acted like it was as normal as breathing air, I've observed others here partaking in this lethal combo as well, in pubs and elsewhere. For example, during the holidays, on an over-booked train to Podrecany (which was headed all the way to Kosice), a group of 30-somethings standing, seatless, out in the corridor, were festively chasing copious shots of Becherovka with beer guzzled from plastic liter bottles. Okay, I realize this was the holidays, but if people are indulging in this lethal combo out in public on a train, it can't be all that unusual, no?

Shots are a crucial element with any social occasion, large or intimate. If shot glasses aren't being refilled and shoved into everyone's hands every 10 minutes, with people merrily toasting (na zdravie!), something is very wrong. I have yet to be invited into someone's house and not been offered a shot of something.

I got into trouble last year when we visited several of Terezia's dad's sisters over the course of the afternoon, and at each sister's home, we were offered several rounds of various types of the booze mentioned above. After visiting the last sister, Terezia's dad insisted that we stop by the house he grew up in, which at some point had been turned into a pub. I'd become pretty loopy by then, and the pint of beer I had with him as he gave us a "tour" of his old house, put me right over the edge. On the car ride home, I could barely move my limbs and had to pee like a baroque fountain.

Slovak (and Czech) beer (pivo) has a tendency to be light, smooth, yet very full flavored. Whenever we've gone out to eat, whether it's lunch or dinner, the majority of people around us usually seem to be drinking beer. In fact, it's sometimes perceived as weird if you don't order a beer with your meal! On one occasion in Prague, I didn't feel like having beer with my lunch and really just wanted a glass of water. The waiter actually thought something was wrong with me and asked if I was sick or hungover, and offered to bring me some sauerkraut juice (which is apparently a miracle hangover cure around these parts).

It's quite common in Slovakia and Czech Republic for people to make their own booze, typically slivovice or hruskovica, or some combination of the two. Terezia's dad's favorite time of year is the Fall, when he collects all of the fruit that falls from their plum and pear trees, which is used to make the moonshine. His stuff is quite potent. Last year's batch was pretty strong, but this year's didn't come out quite right, and is so harsh and twitch-enducing that it's all I can do to keep my eyes from tearing up whenever I imbibe it. Sadly, the smell is oddly reminiscent of windshield washer fluid with antifreeze. You can also light it on fire with relative ease. Hopefully next year's batch will turn out better (I think he needs to find a better distiller). But Terezia's dad is so cute with his slivovice - he loves to sneak us into the basement where he's got his stuff in these beautiful, old bottles, and he discreetly gives us shots when Terezia's mom is outside or running an errand.

It's also not uncommon for people here to make their own wine. Unfortunately, the homemade red wine that I've tried, made by Terezia's, brother, father, and uncle, is cloyingly sweet. It tastes exactly like that super sweet grape juice that five-year-olds in America drink out of those little juice boxes, except with alcohol. Of course I don't want to offend Terezia's family, so I'll drink it if it's offered, but to be honest, it's really not my cup of tea.

I helped pick the grapes for this year's batch, which were these massive, perfectly round, dark purple, finger-staining sugar bombs. Basically, I think they were of the concord variety, and I'd never tasted grapes as sweet as these. "Aren't grapes used for wine production not supposed to taste like grape-flavored candy when eaten?" I wondered aloud. But I don't make wine, I only drink it - so what do I know?

Surely they have to know this tastes quite different and infinitely sweeter than commercially manufactured wine, right? And Slovakia makes some truly worthy and wonderful (and award-winning) wines. But, some Slovaks really like their wine sweet. In fact, it's not uncommon for people to actually mix their wine with Coke. They'll pour it into any decent wine to make it sweeter. Is this why many Slovaks make (and seem to enjoy drinking) such sugary sweet wine? I have no idea, and I can't seem to get a straight answer out of anyone! Most people just shrug their shoulders and act like there's nothing odd or peculiar about it. (Also, see my post about my first encounter with burciak).

So, is Slovakia turning me into a raging alcoholic? Hardly. There are few alcoholic beverages that I actually truly ever crave, and they are not things that are easily found here. (Now, if we were living in Belgium, the land of St. Bernardus Abt 12, I might be in trouble). You could view the occasional drinking I do here to be more of a kind of fieldwork.


  1. Thanks for posting -- This certainly strikes a chord!

  2. Thanks for posting -- This certainly strikes a chord!

    1. Yeah, in fact, is was that particular comic of yours that reminded me that I needed to tackle this subject. You touch on quite a few things that I can certainly relate to.