I have long wanted to return to Slovakia. I knew that when (and if) I did, it would naturally be different than before; I wouldn't be with the group of students I studied with, and I would be in a pretty different place in my life.
Eight years older and (hopefully) a little bit wiser than my sophomore-year-of-college self, I returned to Slovakia in March over our spring break. Ever since meeting John four years ago, I've been telling him about my study abroad experience in Trnava, and he's been telling me about his in Salamanca, Spain. I've had the opportunity to visit Salamanca with him, and even to study there in 2012. For both of us, there has been something deeply formative and, dare I say, life-changing about our study experiences overseas. Spain and Slovakia are very different places to study and live, but the time we spent in our respective countries was an invaluable introduction to life in Europe. And both of us left those places with a seemingly insatiable desire to return to where we studied specifically, and to Europe in general.
Slovakia is probably one of those places most people don't give much thought to because, well, there's not a lot going on there in the news. Other than joining the European Union not too long ago, it's a fairly quiet nation. But for me, Slovakia is filled with memories and meaning.
Slovakia is the smokey Café Tété, warm and inviting on a cold winter night, a slice of honey Marlenka (cake) to the right and a white hot chocolate to the left. The chocolate is so thick, you need a spoon to eat it. The Slovak language floats around my ears, a music of its own, sometimes going in one ear and out the other. But I manage with words I know: biela (white), horúca čokoláda (hot chocolate), jeden (one), dobry den (good day)! Slovakia is cool mornings walking to class from our hotel, groggily awakening in the crisp morning air as caffeine enters my bloodstream. It is cheap, freshly baked bread from the potraviny (grocery store), slathered in spreadable cheese, a pre-lunch snack on the way home from class. It is scrambled eggs with garlic--lots of garlic! Meridyth exclaims--and a sliced grapefuit for lunch at our multi-purpose table in our shoe-box-sized hotel room. We sing along to Sara Groves, "Like a statue in a park of this war-torn town, and its protest of the darkness and this castle around, with its beauty, how it matters..." Yes, yes--how beauty matters, a resounding theme in my time abroad. Slovakia is a delicately hand-painted ceramic mug, stamped with Modra on the bottom, filled with tea, a wonderful companion on long afternoons reading Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's a McDonald's cheeseburger and fries when I'm homesick, but more frequently a steaming hot plate of halušky and a hearty bowl of garlic soup, topped with croutons. A sip of Kofola (once a communist substitute for Coke and Pepsi) fresh from the tap brings me back to evenings around a table with Abby, Meridyth, and Jess, planning trips and talking about literature, sharing a huge stack of homemade french toast and sharing life.
And now, Slovakia is walking the back streets of Bratislava and Trnava with John, telling stories and making our own, eating at the same restaurant two nights in a row because the food is ridiculously good and unbelievably cheap. It's walking the routes I walked eight years ago in Trnava and feeling so happy to share this place with someone I love to the moon and back.