From a young age, Michaela Nagyidaiova wanted to leave Slovakia. At 17, she took the opportunity to study in the UK, first living in Brighton, then London. Last year the photographer returned to Bratislava, wanting to reconnect with the country she had long ago escaped. There, she started asking her family about the places ingrained in their childhood memories. Made during Covid-19 but drawing on Slovakia’s socialist past, her ongoing series By the Creek, Opposite of a Meadow reflects on the ways people seek temporary sanctuaries in their lives, and the different forms these take.
While I was homesick in London during the first lockdown, my mother, based in Bratislava, would scan and share old family photos with me, which were taken on vacations around Czechoslovakia. I had no idea any of this material existed. It was these images that inspired me to come back to Slovakia, to spend quality time and pursue my first project on home turf.
The photo archive helped me to map all the locations where my grandparents and parents travelled throughout the 1970s and 80s. Back then, it wasn’t impossible to travel abroad, but the time-consuming bureaucracy and high cost was enough to put most people off. Besides, the government was wary of families escaping to the West, which made it difficult to travel together.
Instead of focusing on borders, I wanted to explore the sanctuaries within Slovakia where my family found pockets of freedom.
One of these places is Stratená, a small quiet village situated in the depths of the Slovak Paradise national park. I named the project By the Creek, Opposite of a Meadow as a homage to this place because my grandparents’ house is located by the creek and opposite a meadow. The region has always offered a traditional Slovak holiday in the mountains, accompanied by large amounts of local food and beer. It is also where my parents first met one winter, when they were both skiing near there.
Even though the region is still extremely popular during the summer, the village of Stratená has been getting smaller year by year, mostly due to the lack of employment and schools. We would always go to the local pub and shop with my family when I was younger, but now they no longer exist.
On the other hand, some valleys I visited in eastern or central Slovakia — such as Bachledova valley, or Demänovská valley — have turned into popular tourist hotspots in recent years. But these new developments are devastating the local forest, with trees cut down to make room for new hotels, attractions, and spas.
Many of the trips I made with my brother. One of the photos included in the project shows my brother standing next to a lake, which my father used to visit as a teenager. Water is a recurring element throughout the project. Though Slovakia is a landlocked country, the typical summer holiday would always include at least a couple of days by the lake.
The project also includes a photograph of my mother standing by an old, decaying swimming pool in Žilina, central Slovakia, where my grandparents took their family almost every summer. Both of my parents dreamed of one day visiting Yugoslavia, where they heard about beautiful beaches and crystal clear water. My mother managed to travel to Yugoslavia once before the country collapsed. Though her documents were unexpectedly approved for travel, she and my grandfather couldn’t afford to stay in any of the state owned hotels and ended up camping for two weeks.
However, vacations and travel were not the only escape available. I am just as curious about the intimate, personal revolts against socialist propaganda. For instance, my father would calibrate his radio to listen to Radio Free Europe from Košice in the east of Slovakia. My mother, on the other hand, would secretly watch Austrian TV channels from her home in Bratislava.
Socialism in Czechoslovakia attempted quite radically to isolate individuals from the “outside world”, so that Western beliefs would not enter the country. Freedom was non-existent as such; everyone was meant to provide, work for the state, and plan a holiday in a sanatorium or the mountains once in a while, if needed. I first left Slovakia at the age of 17 to study in Brighton, UK. I understand now what a privileged position this was, considering my parents could not even safely cross a border when they were my age, let alone travel to the West. The pandemic has made many of us realise that free movement should not be taken for granted. Working on this project has prompted me to question what freedom really is. How free are we actually in our contemporary society? More importantly, is freedom just another social construct?