Igor popped his head out from his office, “Pat, you have a phone call.” The 20th anniversary party for the Music Forum was hitting full swing. It didn’t occur to us that no one knew we were at the music shop in the far back corner of old town Bratislava. Pat returned with a sheepish grin. ”The guys are doing shots in Igor’s office”, he explained. Shots?!… Isn’t that a thing of college parties, sleeping past noon, and swimming in the university fountain?… an act more associated with an Animal House youth than our boring, middle-aged life?
Slovakia is a tale of two countries. Bratislava is vibrant and youthful - an emerging European capital. Slovaks relocate here for jobs. They are generally well-educated and more able to speak English. The tourists and the English stag party lads associate Slovakia with cheap, plentiful and good beer. However, more often than not, the big breweries are Czech – not Slovak. The traditions of Slovakia are not rooted in beer.
The Bratislavans tend to enjoy the bounty of the small Carpathian hills sprouting from the city and running north. These hills create a perfect grape growing climate. Wine is the celebrated drink for those in and around the capital city. Each fall, the wine cellars near Bratislava open at festival time. The neighboring towns overflow with the celebration of the grape harvest and forthcoming wine.
But as you head into the countryside, to the communities to the north and east, brandy becomes the drink of choice. The most common type is plum – though apricot or apple can be found. The variety is set by the trees in the backyards or in the fields outside the village. In this land of “waste not, want not”, brandy is the consumable produced from the fruit which lies rotting under the trees.
Every 10 or so villages may house a distillery which turns the overly ripe fruit into brandy. This isn’t a Jameson type distillery pumping out bottles to a global thirst but rather the mom and pop variety supporting local consumption. The villagers drop off barrels of fruit as the harvest draws to a close only to return a few months later to collect their bottled brandy. This brandy will welcome friends into homes and ward off the biting eastern cold. Sadly it also is the brandy which some will use to forget the harsh lives more common in the eastern most reaches of the country where unemployment is painfully high. The work options for Slovaks in the east are limited.
As an American living in Bratislava, Pat has been offered a shot of brandy in the morning when visiting friends, after working out as an alternative to the fruit smoothy, and while waiting for the mechanic to fix a friend’s car (in which case, the mechanic both offered, and consumed, the drink). Last week, shots were poured as Igor served friends while a winter storm raged outside. It was a rare and special day.
Initially, we thought this tippling odd - especially during the politically incorrect hours before noon. Now, we accept it for what it is - an offering of friendship, a welcome to the Americans. These aren’t the mindless shots of youth or the mind dulling consumption of the under employed. I could glibly claim our lives have come full circle, but they haven’t. In fact, we can’t see that life from here.