I was having a nice pint of beer in a bar back in Munich when one of my German mates had "the most brilliant idea ever". This mate has asked me to keep his name anonymous so for the length of this anecdote we will call him Hans. Hans' girlfriend was from the former Czechoslovakian city of Bratislava, in today's Slovakia, and said girlfriend -who we will call Katarina- had invited Hans to meet her parents for a traditional Slovak holiday that takes place on March and/or April: the whipping and bathing.
"You mentioned the most brilliant idea ever, stay on point you highly intoxicated Mexican person!" Sorry, my bad, back to the story. Hans' idea consisted on inviting me to come with as it would help him feel less nervous when meeting his Slovak-in-laws. I tried to escape by saying I wasn't formally invited, that it wasn't a good idea for me to just show up. But Hans, being the German genius that he is, was one step ahead of me and had already cleared my invitation with Katarina via text, even before he told me about his "brilliant idea". Sneaky lad.
Two days later we took a combination of trains and buses and arrived at Bratislava hlavná stanica. I was prepared for what a Slovak dinner party could be, since they share so much with the Slavs, and they in turn share so much with us Mexicans (my opinion, relax). But little did I know what the "bathing and whipping traditions" were about, I was so unprepared for what I was about to live and see.
This is Slovakia not Slovenia
Before I tell you more about how I lost my dignity in Slovakia let me give you some important information about this gorgeous country, the first thing you need to know is: this is not Slovenia! Seriously, people confuse these countries so much the postal services of each meet once a year to exchange wrongly addressed mail. I'm serious, I'm not making
Slovakia is part of the euro zone and as such needs a Schengen visa to visit, if you hold a Mexican passport such as myself you are entitled to stay 180 days at most. One of the cheapest countries in the EU, you can easily visit with 30 EUR per day (food and broad included), half a liter of beer will cost you around 0.9 EUR and tipping here is around a 10% for waiters and bartenders. Reminder, always hand the tips directly.
Back to the Story
After we arrived at Bratislava's main train station (Bratislava hlavná stanica) Katarina picked us up and drove us a good 30-40 minutes from the old town to her home. I didn't pay much attention to where exactly we were as I was more concerned with the fact that Katarina was wearing some sort of traditional folkloric outfit whilst Hans and I were wearing jeans and T-shirts.
We arrived at her home, a house with a big garden in the front and in the back. From there you could see a forest that seemed to stretch for miles with no end. Katarina introduced us to her parents: Jan and Helena (not their real names obviously), both were wearing similar outfits to what Katarina had and seemed to be busy preparing food and drink in the garden at the back of the house, we were at a total loss of words as it seemed there were more people than what Hans and I expected, we weren't really prepared for a full on party.
Jan came up to us and asked Hans to follow him, leaving me alone in the middle of their living room, Katarina started giggling and told me to not worry. I remembered something my mother taught me: "If you can't be charming then be useful", I asked Helena if I could help her with anything food related as I have experience as a chef. Jakcpot! She smiled and took me with her to the kitchen where I received a crash course in Slovak cuisine, language, and manners.
Helena poured me a little glass of Slivovitz, Slovak plum liqueur, and started by teaching me basic Slovak manners. Always greet with a handshake and direct eye contact, only close friends use first names when speaking and remember to be always on time. I am almost sure she added that last part when I told her I was Mexican and I can't blame her, we are not known for being punctual, sadly.
Then we moved on to basic Slovak. "If you ever want to get a woman here you need to know how to speak to her" wise words indeed Helena, and here are the words she taught me:
Good day -dobrý deň
Hello - ahoj
Please - prosím
Thank you - Ďakujem
You are beautiful - ti krásna
Next was the delicious food we made. Well she made, I helped carry it out.
Bryndza - delicious and salty cheese made out of sheep milk
Gulášová polievka - a soup of meat and vegetables seasoned with paprika. Helena added other spices too.
Bryndzové pirohy - dumplings filled with salty bryndza mixed with mashed potatoes. Almost like pirogi.
Kapustnica - drained and chopped sauerkraut is cooked in water with chopped pork, pieces of kielbasa and a bit of salt until the meat is almost tender.
By the time we finished making the bryndzové pirohy I have had at least four glasses of silvovitz, Helena just kept on filling up my glass. Something to remember, in Slovakia your host will keep on refilling your glass as long as you keep on finishing it. No one told me this, and it made everything so much more fun!
The Easter Whipping of Women... and one Mexican
It was already noon when all Katarina's family gathered outside with their traditional outfits, musical instruments, booze bottles and what seemed to be many empty buckets. At this point Hans joined me outside, he was now wearing a white shirt like that being worn by his father-in-law Jan. The eating and drinking began, at this point a man handed me a black hat and a black vest and mimic me to put it on, which I did at once.
We ate and drank for what seemed hours, more silvovitz, beer, and some Borovička (Jupiter berries liqueur). Then the women stood up and started dancing whilst some men clapped and others played music. I had no idea what to do but I felt confident due to Helena's teachings and the unholy amounts of alcohol on my body, so I stood up too and started clapping and dancing to the tunes.
Suddenly the men grabbed some women by their arms and started throwing water at them from the before mentioned buckets! They were screaming and trying to escape whilst laughing and dancing at the same time. I was both surprised and amused, more so when Jan handed Hans and me a couple of buckets to join the fun! Some men were holding what appeared to be whips or sticks and were whipping the girls lightly, Helena told me that it is believed that the whipping "will keep them gorgeous".
Now this Slovak custom spreads all over the territory, from villages to cities, it is performed on the last day of Easter. The bathing and whipping is traditionally done only to women, this neither Hans nor I knew, so when we received our buckets of water we quickly threw them at each other, and then we threw our beers, and then our shots, it was basically a water fight between two toddlers. Katarina tried to stop us but it was already too late, her parents were laughing their asses off and all her family members joined in throwing water at the German and the Mexican.
At this point I was soaked, my lovely black vest had stains of beer and booze and my hat was so wet it was heavy to wear. Helena came close to me to explain the tradition and I felt the deepest shame. For a second there I thought I had insulted a national holiday custom, honestly some less tolerant people would have agreed with me, but Helena, Jan and Katarina were laughing and singing through all of this, Hans kept on saying "sorry" to his in-laws as they laughed and said "it was all OK"
Katarina's lady cousins were dying laughing at me and I thought: in for a penny in for a pound "So I guess I already got bathed, am I gonna get whipped or should I do it myself?!" I said as I took a sip of booze directly from the bottle. Jan looked at Helena who smiled and turned at everyone in the table "must we ladies?" she said as the lads gave each of them a stick. What a whipping that was lads, what a whipping. No amount of Slovak alcohol would've saved me from myself, and I am glad it didn't.
After a bathing and whipping the traditional reward is a decorated egg called a kraslica, but Jan thought that after what I had been through a bottle of vodka would be nicer, wise man he is.
Si krasne Slovensko, Ďakujem
The next morning I woke up in the living room wearing someone else's pants, my clothes were outside getting dried and Helena was inside the kitchen preparing breakfast and sandwiches. Hans, Katarina and I were supposed to leave that morning. That did not happen. As I sat down in the kitchen table as Helena handed me some coffee made in a Turkish coffee maker Jan came inside with a big naughty smile in his face, "Slept well?" he asked me, I sipped my coffee looked at him directly in the eye as Helena taught me and said "like a newborn baby sir". Jan laughed, sat in front of me and had a coffee.
I chatted with them about how Mexican parties in Easter are similar to theirs, some places in our country also do the bathing rituals and getting together as a family is a must in those dates. As we had breakfast and waited for Katarina and Hans to come down I realized how lucky I was to have come. For a moment there I could've had escaped one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and all because I was unsure about what Slovakia had to offer.
In truth Slovakia is a country I still need to fully discover and I can't wait to have a chance to go back. I think Slovakia has nothing to offer me, it is I who has to offer Slovakia the same it's people offered me: a warm heart, beautiful culture, outstanding food and drink, and amazing traditions. Hans' idea was not brilliant, bringing one of your mates to meet your in-laws isn't smart, but my God was it a great plan! You are beautiful Slovakia, Thank you.