One day I was on the phone with my mother, who lives at home in Bratislava. After chatting about light topics for an hour, we unexpectedly started discussing socialism in Slovakia, its limitations, and effects on my parents when they were teenagers. Occasionally, my parents tell me stories about illegally tuning into Radio Free Europe or how they couldn’t cross the border and visit Vienna even for a day, as we have been doing since I was born. Passionately, as we sometimes do when talking politics, we continued for another hour about travel in socialism.
A couple of days later, I phoned my mother again, inquiring about old photographs from her youth – to see how my parents’ used to vacation in Slovakia before the fall of socialism. The found photographs had led me through their own journey of magical valleys, old towns, mystical forests, or lakesides. However, they also brought me back to times I cannot possibly know, times before 1989 when the freedom of movement was extremely restricted. To travel and see the world was allowed only under very special and specific circumstances. Thus, my project serves as a “map of utopias”, examining locations tied to my parents’ youth and memories of vacationing within Slovakia and returning to places ingrained as my own childhood sites.
By writing down all the locations from the backs of the holiday photographs, my intention was to revisit or familiarise myself with these places. My journey commenced by driving through narrow and potholed roads, advancing further into the middle of the country, while the weather slowly changed, becoming colder, and humid. I had not been in this part of Slovakia, close to the national park of Muránska Planina (plateau) for a few years but the clarity of its night skies, the smell of the conifer forests, and the pure calmness of its lakes had stayed with me. I was heading to a Lost village to spend time at my grandmother’s house.
Significantly remote, with a decreasing population and surrounded by deep verdant valleys, Stratená or Lost is the name of the village, where my grandmother lives, located within the utopian landscapes of Slovak Paradise national park. Throughout the days that I had spent there, I dragged my grandmother around to visit all of my father’s and my own youth-hood sites in the vicinity of the village, as she barely ever leaves it. After spending some time in Stratená, I proceeded north-east, into the mountains of High Tatras, almost reaching the border with Poland. It was the crowds of tourists in the High Tatras and my yearning for more isolated places that made me continue the journey further down the forest roads.
“My next stop was a city, where my father was born and my grandfather buried”
I settled in small villages and towns by a national park Pieniny. Getting out of the car after a drive that dragged on for more than five hours, I was welcomed with a clean mountain air combined with a strong dinner aroma coming from the nearby wooden cottages. A number of the found images were once captured here, though this landscape was also intertwined with my own childhood remembrances. When my brother and I were much younger, we would visit these mountains during winter breaks. We would swap the concrete atmosphere of our neighborhood in Bratislava for quiet mornings surrounded by nothing but frozen nature and afternoons in the local café on the slopes. We had stayed in a very post-socialist-looking hotel a couple of times, which I remember vividly until today. Situated in a valley by the slopes, in the same hotel but twenty years later, I asked the staff to photograph a large-scale mural in the dining area.
On the morning of my departure, everything was covered in a thick fog and even the enormous mountains had vanished. My next stop was a city, where my father was born and my grandfather buried. Košice is the second-largest city in Slovakia, adjacent to the Hungarian border. I booked an Airbnb in a block of apartments on Jesenná (Autumn) street without knowing then that my great-grandmother used to live in one of the blocks. The whole trip to Košice was quite family-oriented but discovering the city made me envision my father’s youth there, especially when trekking through the center to find his childhood home.
Around late September, my mother and I decided to head to Žilina in central Slovakia, to visit an antiquated flat there that is tied to my mother’s and grandfather’s youth. The apartment that – I was told – is in a terrible shape resembled a museum, with a strong smell of the distant past in the air. Ever since my great-grandmother died there thirty years ago, my grandfather hadn’t changed, replaced, or moved anything inside. There were dried flowers, on my late great-grandmother’s bedside table, with only a few petals still holding onto the stalks. Her jewelry boxes, hair sprays, perfumes, old medicine pills were all covered in dust. The living room was full of secret drawers with aged cherry liqueur, local newspapers issued in the 1990s, my great-grandfather’s Czechoslovak socialist passport, and plenty of other treasures that I didn’t manage to investigate. The time spent there didn’t feel enough to grasp what the place represented – a return to the “old times”. Climbing on the top of a mountain peak in the late afternoon sun situated by a dilapidated pool that used to be popular when my mother was a teenager, we stood there overlooking the city of my grandfather’s youth. Seeing the flow of the longest Slovak river Váh from the top was a very pleasant end to the journey for now.
Alongside comprehending the remnants of socialism present in countless locations within Slovakia; these photographs revive youth-hoods experienced against the backdrop of two contradictory political systems – socialism and democracy. With an abundance of found imagery for me to still go through, the whole story may not be over yet.
By Michaela Nagyidaiová
Michaela Nagyidaiová is a Slovak documentary photographer based between London and Bratislava. She is interested in discovering personal stories, analyzing the connection between landscape and memory, the impact of socialism in Slovakia and Eastern Europe, as well as identity and ancestral heritage.
Visit Michaela Nagyidaiová’s website.