The Slovak newspaper Pravda last week asked, “Alcohol is winning in the country. How to change that?” Together with other Central/Eastern European countries Slovakia leads European statistics in alcoholism and related diseases, with rates increasing since the 2008 crisis. People aged 15 and over drink 13 liters of pure alcohol per year (of which 46% is spirits, 30% beer, and 18% wine), placing Slovakia at #8 in the world (incidentally, tied with the Czech Republic), according to the World Health Organization. A sociologist quoted in the article said the causes behind the phenomenon include widespread availability in stores, low prices springing from low taxes, the fact that alcohol serves as a substitute for more expensive drugs or medications, and traditions encouraging drinking on every occasion.
If you travel in Slovakia, you’ll encounter cheap booze and a very hospitable culture of drinking. So how can you stay sober in Slovakia?
A drinking culture with a mountains problem
Some background first. A companion article to the aforementioned one is titled, “People who don’t drink are considered aliens” (extra-terrestrials). A psychologist quoted in this piece opined that the causes of alcohol drinking and alcoholism in the country are deeply rooted in history and the evolution of lifestyles, including the tradition of illegal distillation of spirits in villages, longer working hours, and economic pressures and financial stress. “A Slovak who doesn’t drink is considered an alien, disrupting a societal stereotype,” she said.
In 1981 a famous comic duo Lasica & Satinský had a skit about drinking in Slovakia, a mountainous country with strong, persistent rural cultural roots. Part of the skit was the song, “In Our Village,” which opens with these lyrics: “In our village everybody drinks / except for George. / Everyone is wondering / what’s wrong with him. / He’s just like us, / healthy, strong, and stingy, / so why does he / distance himself from us like this?” The problem with George, who, it turns out, simply doesn’t like the taste of alcohol, gets resolved when the angry villagers stick a pitchfork in his behind.
This is satire, of course, but it underscores the cultural aspect of drinking in Slovakia. When I was a boy, from about elementary-school age, my father would let me and my sister sip the foam off his beer at the pub near our family’s weekend cabin. I knew I was becoming a man in the eyes of my family when chocolate eggs and cash I’d get on Easter for dousing womenfolk with perfume and water were replaced with shots of spirits.
In high school, I’d sometimes sneak out during afternoon free periods to buy beer at a nearby grocery store, which my friends and I would drink right outside (some of my classmates would go further and pound a few beers at a brewery down the street); during a brewery excursion each student drank a full glass of unpasteurized beer under the supervision and a toasting hand of our chemistry teacher.
In college, well, we all know what happens in college.
Here in Portland, Oregon, where I live, expatriate/exile/emigrant Slovaks and Czechs meet monthly at a brew pub.
The stereotypes about Central/Eastern Europeans’ consumption of alcohol are rooted in reality.
Tips for staying sober in Slovakia
When I first got the idea for this post I thought, “Impossible.” Booze is cheap, even after 10 years in the European Union; drinking is a national sport; and “No” isn’t commonly taken for an answer. What I came up with are the following tips:
- Don’t go anywhere. You won’t be tempted to drink if you stay away from places that serve alcohol. This pretty much rules out cities and villages (it is said that every village has a church and a pub). Even mountains can be tricky: there are few pleasures Slovakia offers that beat a cold brew at a chalet at the end of a long hike. Stay in your hotel (avoid dorms or hostels—watering troughs all around the world) or go to only galleries, museums, and churches (except during mass).
- Visit in shoulder season. In summer you’ll be thirsty for beer. In winter, which can get pretty darn cold in places (negative 20 degrees Celsius), you’ll want to warm up with spirits. Avoid traveling to Slovakia during these periods. Also the wine harvest season and Easter. Spring or fall rains will also help you stay indoors. But then, who wants to tour around in the rain?
- Make no friends and visit no families. Peer pressure is the worst factor in drinking, in my experience. If you meet Slovaks, chances they will make it a goal to get you drunk, especially if you make a mistake of mentioning you don’t drink much. In addition, the custom in Slovakia is to consider every no just a step toward yes; Slovaks will keep offering, if only to demonstrate their hospitality and so that you won’t say you were left thirsty or hungry, until they annihilate your defenses and you say yes just to stop them from asking. Avoid interacting with the locals at all cost.
Slovaks on not drinking
In all seriousness, you can stay sober in Slovakia the same way you can stay sober anywhere else: by not drinking too much. If you don’t want to drink at all, just say no. This is a conclusion my fellow Slovak travelers and bloggers drew when I asked, in the Facebook group Digital Nomads of Slovakia, for their tips to use in this post (interestingly enough, there are many non-drinkers among the traveling Slovaks, many of whom left the country to get away from the culture, the same way many Americans do).
- Ivana Grešlíková: “To avoid alcohol anywhere in the world is easy—just don’t drink it. The first step is to politely decline. Then it depends on why you wish not to drink and stick with it. Every hesitation only encourages the person offering to continue doing so. I like to say, in jest, that “I’ve drunk my share in my life time,” which tends to work. I also tell people that quitting alcohol and smoking allowed us to save for our travels. Finally, it helps to ask the host about his or her life, especially stories related to alcohol, which not only distracts them but also demonstrates that rather than judging them you’d prefer to toast with juice.”
- Ľubo Jurík: “It depends on the traveler. If you visit Slovakia for its nature and to hike, it’s easy to avoid alcohol. If you come as a digital nomad and stay a while to live in a city and learn about the Slovak culture, it’ll be difficult. It’s almost impossible particularly in winter time because most people get together in pubs or bars. In such cases it’s up to the individual traveler to not drink.”
- Andrej Staš: “I solved a large part of the problem by ordering only non-alcoholic beer. I don’t think the situation in Slovakia is so bad anyway.”
- Alexandra Kováčová: “If you don’t want to drink, focus on food. Or mountains and fields and beautiful Slovak girls, who increasingly dislike drunk men. So my advice for those who want to woo an intelligent Slovak girl is to not drink.”
Have you traveled to Slovakia and experienced the culture of alcohol drinking first-hand?