Slovakia in my Memories: Tracing My Roots
Staying at home on the south coast of England during the multiple lockdowns, I started reflecting on what that meant to me and where it was. My thoughts extended onto roots and I traced them back to Slovakia, where I grew up, in my memories, some of them long tucked away. Slovakia – a small country and a young one too, only three years older than myself. It used to be one with the Czech Republic and a part of the Soviet Union.
My parents’ generation grew up in the communist regime, but what we as their kids knew was only the echo of recent history. Seen in the architecture, felt in the mentality, experienced in the culture. “Rabbit hutches,” my friend would sometimes call the concrete blocks of flats. And the flat outlines would be the same, everyone’s bedroom and kitchen in the same place. The industrial greyness of a town built on the pulsing veins of factories on each side interlaces with the green of the valley it lies in. A river runs through and hills are on the horizon.
On hot summer days when we were kids, my Dad would take us to cycle on the roads in between villages and afterwards we would stop at one of the meandering river’s nooks. In another one, I and a couple of friends spent our high school summers tanning, reading and smoking flavoured cigarettes. It has been years and still when I come back to Slovakia for the summer, the same sweet ritual is followed when the river lures in the heat. The circumstances change but the river stays.
My love of water grew over the years through different experiences but it has roots in my Dad’s love for it, which he shared with me and my sister. Back in his high school years, he was a member of a swimming team; he would tell us about how he cycled back across town from the pool on cold winter nights and his wet hair would freeze into icicles in the wind.
We laughed because by that time he was already bald and joked that it wasn’t until we were born that he started losing hair.
Throughout the years we would go to the pool every Sunday and when I swim in the sea on the south coast of England these days, it is the same feeling of comfort, a refuge from the thoughts beyond the moment.
My Dad’s attitude to life has always been somehow fluid. He is firm in his principles and finds a way to adapt to every situation, taking the best from it. The simple wisdom of his words on the phone is very reassuring and uplifting these days. Through our conversations, I realise how much of my positive outlook on life comes from him and I am grateful for it.
How I look at life has also been influenced by another passion of mine, reading. Mine and my mum’s, one of the few things we have in common. Books pile up on my nightstand, I buy them faster than I read them. Just like water, books have brought me comfort and created a refuge, but also a way to explore different perspectives and alternative worlds. I have been an avid reader since I learned how to and I remember wanting to understand what the letters say as a kid. It is a core part of how I experience and understand the world and it is a stamp of my mum. I remember the image of her curled up on the sofa on Saturday afternoons with a book in her hand, frowning slightly with concentration.
This is where I felt like I could relate to her in what has been a very complicated relationship. It seems to have become more entangled over the years and even though I learned to accept some things, the relationship dynamic can still make me feel unseen and misunderstood. There have been things about her behaviour that made me think “I don’t want to be like that” and that is why I struggled with the parts of myself that had her imprint on them. I couldn’t make sense of how someone so different to me can also be interwoven in my personality, have such an impact on my experience.
The clash of our personalities and the lack of boundaries in the relationship with my mum have been a major part of why I left Slovakia as soon as I finished high school. What’s out of sight will be out of mind, I thought. But that only worked for some time and eventually I realised I couldn’t run away from what was a part of me. I would carry it with me no matter where I went. With my mum, the distance let the dust settle on the once fresh painful memories and cleared the lens I was looking through. The distance took away the tension of everyday interaction and allowed me to reinstate the boundaries that were once completely blurred.
I’m in Brighton and conversations happen on the phone these days. The miles that serve as a buffer with my Mum, seem almost as if they weren’t there when I talk to my Dad. Our cores are of the same kind, only layered with different life experiences, and the well of the understanding between us only seems to deepen with every phone call.
Mum a reader and Dad an impromptu storyteller, they both planted in me a love for language and stories. They showed me a way to enrich my life with words and imagination, like they have done growing up in a rigid regime of communism. And even though I’m free to roam and soar like they weren’t, I’m glad they taught me to have my feet on the ground.