Veronika and Zuzana back in Groningen Photo by Reyer Boxem

Zuzana and Veronika’s summer

your old self

Veronika and Zuzana back in Groningen Photo by Reyer Boxem
For thousands of international students, going home in the summer is a bittersweet experience. Their time abroad has changed them so much, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconnect to the life they left behind. Student editors Zuzana L’udviková and Veronika Bajnoková both went back to Slovakia. ‘Two years away from home have made me an outsider in my family.’
By Zuzana Ľudviková and Veronika Bajnokova
5 September om 15:41 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 September 2023
om 15:29 uur.
September 5 at 15:41 PM.
Last modified on September 27, 2023
at 15:29 PM.

1. My old bedroomclick on veronika or zuzana

Zuzanas storyZuzana
Veronikas storyVeronika

My old bedroom: Zuzana

Entering my old bedroom feels like cracking open a time capsule. Nothing has moved and nothing has changed since my last visit, or the visit before that. If the furniture could speak, it would talk all about my secrets, the days I spent crying with the vigour of a teenager, and how the room became my refuge during the pandemic. I even had my graduation ceremony here, live-streamed over Zoom. 

The room doesn't feel like mine anymore, though. Maybe because I know my stay is temporary, I subconsciously adopt the role of a visitor. As if I were in a museum, I fear moving a book, a pillow, or a flower pot by even a centimetre. I am constantly confronted by so many memories only this room holds now, that I can't help but examine them closely every day, and learn how they shaped me to become the person I am now. 

My old bedroom is like a petri dish with countless samples and every time I seem to use a different method to analyse them. The more I look around, the more I learn about myself through the physical past materialised in all the little things in my old bedroom that with each visit feels less like mine.

'I am constantly confronted by memories'

My old bedroom: Veronika

Entering my old bedroom feels almost surreal. All my stuff is gone, hidden in the closet where I stored it during the window renovation that was happening as I was moving out. My shelves are empty, except for some old plushies and kitsch decorations that my mom put up. 

This is no longer my bedroom, it’s just a guest room now. They took down my pride flag and hung up my sister’s baptism certificate next to a framed baby puzzle above the bed. The emptiness of this room combined with its grotesque decoration gives me the creeps. 

I don’t bother unpacking my bags as I throw them on the floor. What’s the point when I won’t be staying long? My whole life is boxed up and hidden from sight. But I can still find comfort in my old teddy bear lying on the bed. I give it a long hug, while my heart races with anxiety.

'The emptiness of this room combined with its grotesque decoration gives me the creeps'

2. An outsider in my familyclick on zuzana or veronika

Veronikas storyVeronika
Zuzanas storyZuzana

An outsider in my family: Zuzana

Two years away from home have somehow made me an outsider in my own family. In my habits and ways of looking at the world, I've changed a lot, but to me it seems like they haven't at all. It makes our conversations tougher. 

Everything in my world is in Dutch or English, so even explaining what my degree is about or what I’ve learned or experienced can be a struggle. Conversations are usually short and superficial.

Even harder is the feeling of guilt of leaving home as an only child and not being there for my family physically, while being constantly reminded of it by others when I come back. The guilt always finds its way into the conversation in the most subtle but painful way. ‘Your mother must be very lonely without you here. How does she manage?’ 

The answer is: I don't know. Not really. When I'm away, we talk on the phone every week. All seems to be well – none of us thrive on complaining about the absence and when I return, we do our best to have a perfect time. But I know that we truly miss each other, and I do feel pressure not to disappoint my parents, not to waste their money and support. 

So I subconsciously got into the habit of telling my parents only about my achievements or fun times with friends, to cover up for the moments when I felt down or like a failure. And now it seems that in some ways, we have grown more distant than before. Nobody in my family knows that in The Netherlands, I went to therapy so that I could process emotions and anxieties which I was too afraid to mention at home. In Slovakia, there’s an enormous taboo on mental health issues. You should be ashamed of them and are quickly seen as a 'nutcase'. Only after I left Slovakia could I really open up. 

Although with my mum, there are times as well when I feel we grew closer after I left. She now sees I can live on my own, and takes me seriously more as an adult who can handle stuff. We can talk more honestly about serious things like issues in our family which trouble us both.

'I feel pressure not to disappoint my parents'

An outsider in my family: Veronika

When my sister and brother come home too, I feel like I have nowhere to hide. My sister is eight years older than me, my brother ten. The age difference gave them a sense of authority over me as we were growing up. And while they have a strong bond together, I’ve always felt like the third wheel.

As soon as we get together, I start feeling small and insignificant. My sister tells me I gained weight. My brother condescendingly assures me that one day I realise how stupid it is not to shave my armpits. Meanwhile my father can’t stop repeating the same joke about my piercings. And my uncle tells me I’ve gained weight too. After just a couple of days with my family, I hate my reflection in the mirror. 

My father tells me that he can’t believe I’m going to be twenty-three soon. He says he’ll always see me as the stubborn high-schooler I used to be. And I know it’s true, because the way he talks to me opens up old wounds from my childhood. I feel like I’ve been sent back in time and the person I became over the years doesn’t exist in this world.

It’s heartbreaking to realise you have no real connection to the people who are supposed to be closest to you. But we never talk about feelings in our family. My mom prefers to gossip about our neighbours and people from the church rather than talk about personal things.  

But still, despite our differences, every year there is a small moment when we are allowed a glimpse into each other's realities. When my brother asks me about my queer friends who often show up on my social media, I don’t know how to navigate the conversation. I worry the conversation is going to derail but to my surprise, he understands how different life in the Netherlands is compared to conservative Slovakia. 

I always thought this was something I couldn’t discuss with my family. But when he shares my disgust of religious politicians who build their careers on anti-LGBTQ+ campaigning, I actually dare to open up. When I come out to my brother as queer, he makes me feel, perhaps for the first time ever, seen and understood. 

I had to hold my tears back, because I didn’t want to show too much vulnerability. But this moment filled me with so much hope that maybe all is not lost. Maybe me and my siblings can still find our way back to each other. Maybe coming home is a good thing, after all.

'My dad says he’ll always see me as the stubborn high-schooler I used to be'

3. To drink or not to drinkclick on veronika or zuzana

Zuzanas storyZuzana
Veronikas storyVeronika

To drink or not to drink: Zuzana

In the sixteenth century, Slovaks were the first ones in Europe to learn the art of distilling alcohol from the Ottomans. Maybe that’s why we're wired to look at alcohol as part of the culture and family traditions, which every year earns us a spot in the top ten countries with the highest alcohol consumption in the world. 

Making your own alcohol is like a sacred ritual, and every family has its own anecdotes about uncles getting drunk and falling asleep in a vegetable patch. It’s inseparable from celebrations, birthdays, holidays, even wakes and christenings.  

And so when I go over to my friend, it’s no surprise when her dad brings out a big five-litre demijohn bottle full of griotka, a home-made dark burgundy liqueur made with vodka, rum and cherries - which were still swimming in the liquid. I don’t feel like drinking it, because I don’t even know how strong it is. But how could I refuse? 

In Slovakia, the only way I can say no is if I'm driving that day. Otherwise, 'not drinking' is perceived as weird and rude. By not participating, you're usually told you're killing the mood. But that also means that in every Slovak family, there's at least one person who struggles with alcoholism. Admitting you have a problem is often a taboo, though, because you'd bring shame onto your family and everyone in the village or town would gossip about you.

'Making your own alcohol is like a sacred ritual'

To drink or not to drink: Veronika

My father takes pride in making his own alcohol. When I was a kid, it was my job to collect overripe currants for wine and fallen apples for moonshine. A bottle of homemade moonshine makes a perfect wedding gift in Slovakia. It’s also the worst alcohol you’ve ever tasted.

I don’t like drinking with my family though, because we get into arguments. Last summer my brother puked when he took a large sip of what he thought was water in a plastic bottle (it was not) and a huge fight broke out on the street at two in the morning. 

But not drinking is a problem where I come from. If you don’t drink, there must be something wrong with you. And if you decline someone's moonshine when offered, you might come off as rude. My family simply doesn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to drink with them to celebrate, as they only see me once a year. 

It gets tiring trying to explain that me not wanting a drink is not the problem. And I run out of excuses as my brother calls me boring. Before I even realise, it’s two in the morning again and I’m morosely staring at the bottom of the glass.

'A bottle of homemade moonshine makes a perfect wedding gift in Slovakia'

4. Holding on to my old friendsclick on veronika or zuzana

Veronikas storyVeronika
Zuzanas storyZuzana

Holding on to my old friends: Zuzana

While university gave me amazing new friendships, the old ones from home suffered or even gradually evaporated. 

A lasting friendship must be nurtured. But to see my high school classmates or childhood friends, I have to wait until Christmas or even summer. Their exam periods never match mine and they are always buried in study material when I’m not. And then – even more important – there’s the physical distance and life abroad that have changed me. 

I try to catch up on all those lost days when I see them. But while we were apart, all of us changed. We all learned things and had experiences that the other can’t relate to. And sometimes that means I just have to accept the fact that an old friendship is coming to an end because we are simply on different paths in our lives. 

Not every friendship can survive such a big distance for a longer period of time, so studying abroad is a test, too, that reveals which friendships can actually last for life.

'Not every friendship can survive such a big distance for a longer period of time'

Holding on to my old friends: Veronika

I thought my high school friends were for life. But it’s hard staying in touch with people who live in a different country. The first summer I travelled home, I wanted to see everyone, but since then I’ve had to decide who I want to keep in my life.

It’s not just the scheduling, but the fact that everyone lives different lives now, too. I feel like I’m losing touch with even my closest friends. One friend is working three jobs and still struggles to pay her bills. Another one is busy at her university even during holidays.

Others settle and start families in Slovakia, they have full time jobs, fiancés, and even kids, while I still rave about my student life in Groningen. But I simply cannot imagine living a content life there. 

And every year we have fewer things in common and it gets more difficult to find things to talk about. It’s no one’s fault, but it does make me sad.

'I cannot imagine living a content life in Slovakia'

5. The things I’ll always have a soft spot forclick on veronika or zuzana

Zuzanas storyZuzana
Veronikas storyVeronika

The things I’ll always have a soft spot for: Zuzana

There’s so many big systemic and societal problems in Slovakia that it hurts my heart. Years-long political corruption, an outdated education system, xenophobia, institutional racism, violence against LGBTQ+ or other minorities, remnants of the USSR communist system that have been weakening Slovakia's economy and the quality of life there for decades. 

However, I can never fully decide how my birth country truly makes me feel. Despite all the criticisms I have towards Slovakia, it's the small, unexpected moments that create a soft spot for it in my heart.

Sometimes it’s the smell of the Sunday schnitzel filling the whole neighbourhood, reminding me of the childhood visits at my grandparents' place. Other times it’s a funny word in the local dialect, mumbled on public transport. Long and bumpy train rides through Slovakia's deep forests, hills and valleys incite a dreamlike state of calmness. Homegrown vegetables in a red plastic bowl, gifted by a friendly Slovak grandma from the old house next door, taste like heaven.

'Homegrown vegetables, gifted by a friendly Slovak grandma from the old house next door, taste like heaven'

The things I’ll always have a soft spot for: Veronika

Our village of five hundred people is hidden in the forests of central Slovakia. Here, I’m awakened every morning by the sounds of a crowing rooster and hundreds of bleating sheep. Some of them are ours and the rest are from the farm next door. 

Life is different here. From the window in my room, I can hear my father sharpening his scythe in the garden. For breakfast, I go outside and harvest fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce to go with the sourdough bread I missed so much the whole year. 

I love the fresh veggies, but I also  remember how I hated helping out in the garden. I’d spent my summer afternoons weeding, raking, cursing, and sweating through my clothes. I never got used to the smell of the manure, and the bleating sheep start to get annoying very quickly. The worst two days of the year were when we’d plant tomatoes and when we’d harvest them. In the morning, the whole family would come together ready for work and in the evening, everyone would leave tired and pissed off.  

This summer is no different, especially when my father decides we have to harvest the potatoes before the boars that came to feast in our garden three nights in a row will have eaten them all. Last thing I wanted to do was to spend my summer vacation in the garden getting the farmer’s tan. I rage inside and feel like throwing a tantrum, but know I can't. Shouldn’t.

And there is nowhere to go with those feelings. I used to find refuge in the forests when I felt miserable. I’d take a stroll around the hills or go mushroom foraging on Sundays. But where I once was a part of all this nature, even here I feel like I’m losing touch.

My grandma tells me stories about our rooster fighting off a fox after it killed two chickens and that there’s an osprey going after our geese. A rumour is going around that there’s a brown bear living in the hills of our village. I suddenly remember stories in the news about bears attacking people near their homes these days.

Now, I’m too scared just to hike the closest hill right behind our house. I wanted to visit the lake where I learned to swim and ice skate, the forest where I tried to build a treehouse with a classmate, or the pond in the shape of a heart where we used to make a bonfire on summer nights. Instead, I’m stuck at home. These forests used to be my home, but I don’t feel welcome anymore.

'The bleating sheep start to get annoying very quickly'

6. Slovakia versus The Netherlandsclick on zuzana or veronika

Veronikas storyVeronika
Zuzanas storyZuzana

Slovakia versus The Netherlands: Zuzana

Ever since the first summer I returned from The Netherlands, I’ve been playing this game in my mind, called ‘In The Netherlands, it's better because…’. I’m always comparing the two countries.

It's hard to ignore the holes (metaphorical, but also the physical ones on our bumpy roads) around me that another country has fixed ages ago. And so it's almost impossible to stop the comparison game. Even harder is fighting the urge to talk about it all the time, especially in front of my parents or the elderly; I don’t want to offend them or appear ungrateful. 

However, it sometimes makes me jump to conclusions or causes me to make hurtful assumptions about my own friends, neighbours, or people on the street. I try to notice these new ways of thinking and turn them down. Instead of the critique, I also try to come up with solutions that involve me

I think of how I can improve the place where I am right now, using the energy I gained in The Netherlands, where I feel happier and more like myself. If people on the street give me a surly look, I smile back. Instead of complaining how bad it is here, I try to read books and articles about what actually caused it. 

It makes me feel more in control of the emotions and frustrations I’m legitimately allowed to feel. After all, I’ve seen more of the world. I discovered that the version of reality I’ve known from before can change for the better.

Still, I cannot change Slovakia in one or two summers and I can hardly do it on my own. But I can teach myself to look for nice things and sources of personal happiness. Instead of judging, I try to understand more. But just when I find another piece of the puzzle and finally start getting used to home – even growing to like it - my stay is almost over. 

Now it's time to pack the suitcase and leave again. 

'It's hard to ignore the holes (metaphorical and literal) around me'

Slovakia versus The Netherlands: Veronika

I brought home some clothes I needed resized or repaired. My grandma does it for me every summer on her antique sewing machine. She tried to teach me how to work it, but I never got the rhythm right. In moments like these, I miss home. I miss the simple and slow way of living. I miss having a garden, playing with farm animals. I even miss the danger of the wilderness. 

But the nostalgia wears off before my two weeks in Slovakia are up. When I moved out three years ago, I was having nightmares about still living there. In those  dreams, I feel belittled and I always fight with my family.  

I saw tears in my mom’s eyes when she realised I won’t come back to live in Slovakia after I’m done with university. She always wanted to keep me close to home. But I can’t live this village life anymore. 

I had another nightmare after I left Slovakia this year. I swore in the dream that I wouldn’t come back next summer. But I know I will. I’d feel guilty if I didn’t. And I still have some hope that things can get better between us.

'In moments like these, I miss home'