Over the past six and a half years of living in Slovakia, I have picked up a fair bit of experience about life in this country. Experience that may be useful for others who are considering moving to Slovakia or who just arrived here and still need to get accustomed to the Slovak way of living. Therefore, I started a series of practical blogs focused on life in Slovakia. The one you have in front of you now is the first to kick it all off!
All countries have them and so does Slovakia - weird, funny, interesting habits. If you deal with Slovaks a lot, you’d better get the hang of these, because one way or the other they will at some point pop up in your life in Slovakia. Here you have a few curious Slovak habits to get you started!
Look each other in the eye when you clink glasses but never cross arms
Since going out with friends is one of Slovakia’s favourite pastimes, this habit is a good one to know - you look each other in the eye when you raise your glass and clink. Oh and when you are in a group, all clinking at the same time, make sure you never cross paths with each other’s arms, no matter how confusing the clinking quickly becomes when everyone tries to avoid each others arms. Some people also bang the bottom of the glass on the table before drinking (this is generally a beer-thing…). Whether there is a deeper meaning behind this habit is not entirely clear to me. It may be that by looking each other straight in the eyes you show a sense of trust and intimacy you’d expect to receive from friends and family. Regardless, it is good to know next time you go out with your Slovak company!
Take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home
This was an odd one for me when I first came here. In the Netherlands you generally keep your shoes on, wherever you go. So, when I was asked to take off my shoes the first time I entered someone else’s home, I was a bit confused. Literally everyone does it and, if not, they excuse themselves for not doing it. Even the plumber coming to check your toilet will take his shoes off or at least respectfully ask if he could keep them on. You can imagine how your hallway will look like when you organize a party! I guess it is done out of respect to the person who cleaned the house, to make sure you don’t dirty the floor, so I do understand the reason. However, especially in summer you do need to wonder whether you’d rather have a dirty floor or a bunch of smelly feet in your house. If you are worried for cold feet in the winter, though, you need not be afraid - every Slovak household (including ours) will have slippers (papučky) aplenty in all shapes and sizes!
Don’t forget Name Days. Ever.
Now, this is an important one. Name Days in Slovakia are a big thing. Bigger than birthdays? Almost! Slovakia is a deeply Catholic country. With Catholicism comes Saint days. With Saint days, come Name days. Each person’s name has a dedicated day in the calendar. On that day, you are celebrated, receive small gifts and sweets, hugs and kisses, probably a few messages on your Facebook Wall. Florists usually have an announcement board in their shops with the name celebrated that particular day, so you know who to buy flowers to. I have even seen apartment buildings announcing the name of the day on LED boards above the mailboxes. It is important not to forget the name day, especially of your loved one. I once forgot my wife’s name day (Michaela, 29 September)….it has never happened again since.
Most Slovak paper calendars will have the most common names printed on each day, so you forget if you happen to have one on your desk or hanging in your kitchen. The tradition of Name Days started with the Saint days, where each day was dedicated to a certain saint. Mary is celebrated on 12 September, Peter on 29 June, Brigita on 8 October, Ondrej on 30 November. However, nowadays obviously not every Slovak is named after a saint. The tradition, however, does dictate that every Slovak should have a Name Day. So, throughout the years, decades and centuries, other non-saintly names were added to the calendar. Nowadays, if you receive a name which is not yet on the calendar, you’ll get assigned a date. No one is left behind in the tradition of Name Days!
In case you wonder what my Name Day is - well, Boudewijn is not a particularly common name in Slovakia, as you can imagine. Luckily for me, I have a second name in my passport, Frederik, which is celebrated on 25 February. As I said…no one is left behind.
Make sure you have a speech prepared if you congratulate someone for his birthday or Name Day
In most countries I know, congratulating generally includes shaking a hand, perhaps some kisses and saying the words “congratulations”. Not so much in Slovakia - here, congratulating someones requires a bit of preparation. You are kind of expected to go into a full-blown speech about how much you wish the birthday boy or girl all the love and success and happiness and children and money and sunshine and old age and awesome neighbours and food and health and…well, you get the gist. Shaking a hand and say “all the best to you, my friend” simply won’t do. I never got the hang of this, so I stick to what I am good at…shaking a hand and say “all the best to you, my friend”….
You can imagine though how long it takes to congratulate a colleague in a team of thirty people.
Tea is the answer to every health problem
I like tea as much as the next person but Slovaks take this humble broth to a whole different level. I have never seen so many people drink tea since my time living in Scotland! Even on occasions you least expect it - when you are a night out in a bar with friends, chances are one of them will order tea with lemon…but not only is tea the choice of drink if you don’t want alcohol on a night out, tea is also Slovakia’s answer to every health problem. Here there are herbal teas for every ailment imaginable. I have been told some doctors even prescribe herbal tea to get better. Not only that, the standard answer from colleagues, friends and family on your constant sneezing will most likely be “take some black tea with lemon and honey. You’ll feel better”. And you know what? I am a coffee lover in every fiber of my body but even I find myself hugging a cup of tea when I feel to be getting sick. I don’t know if it even works, to be honest. Lemon and honey suppose to have curative properties but perhaps it is just the comfort of the heat that actually makes you feel better. And to be fair, the alternative village medicine for whatever ails you is a shot of homemade hard alcohol (“because it burns away all problems”), so if that is not your forte, you’d better stick to tea.
So there you go! A few habits to get you started on a successful life in Slovakia. Of course, the list of habits continues (for example with wishing someone good health, luck, love and money with the first, second, third and fourth sneeze, and never pouring yourself an alcoholic drink but let someone else do it for you), but all in due time. Living in a different country is already complex as it is, so take it step by step!