Peripheral questions: An Estival memoir from Slovakia

Author: W. Cyril Smith

Sunset in Slovakia.
Sunset in Liptovský Hrádok.

The sound of music faded as I walked away from the light of the dance and into the darkness of the night. Behind me stood the Východná folk festival; ahead of me loomed the unfamiliar Slovak countryside. I knew my destination, the train station, but the path forward remained dark, unsearchable. Everything was covered in shadow, and there was no one around. With each step, my sense of lonesomeness mounted.

After a winding journey through the woods, I finally found the train tracks. The flickering lamps on the station cast an eerie glow. I tried the brass knob and peered through the small window panes, but the door was locked and nobody was inside. Turning back to the cool night air, I stood outside—outside the closed station, the small village, and the U.S.

This was a peripheral place, and I began to question. What can I do? Why am I here? To whom can I turn? Why has this happened to me? This was not the first time I had asked these questions, but here at this train station in the middle of the night, I began to consider them more seriously, more personally. With each question came a memory. They were inextricably bound, and I wondered if other people’s memories held such poignant questions.

What can I do?

I wanted to do something, anything. I thought action would alleviate my discomfort. But there was nothing for me to do, so I stood outside the circle of conversation, waiting for something to happen.

It was raining in Važec, the small Slovak village where I volunteered at JEKH DROM, a resource center for Roma children and families. I held the umbrella for Samuel, my friend at JEKH DROM, and Katarina, a local school teacher, as we trudged through the streets toward the Roma settlement, where we would deliver homework to the Roma children who had been exposed to tuberculosis a few weeks before.

I was interning with JEKH DROM through the Nanovic Institute for European Studies’s Serving (in) Europe program. Though this program was in its second year, I was the first Notre Dame student to serve in Slovakia. The Catholic University in Ružomberok had connected the Nanovic Institute with JEKH DROM, whose primary mission was to assist the Roma people in Važec.

William and Eugen.
Smith and Eugen Zeleňák at Catholic University in Ružomberok.

This was my first time at the settlement, and I wondered what to expect. To my surprise, we walked away from Važec before we reached our destination: a cluster of buildings situated on the outskirts of town. Near the edge of the tree line with an expansive view of the High Tatras, the settlement stood on the verge of village and nature.

Mud puddles, broken glass, and random objects covered the main road. On either side, the habitations grew more and more makeshift—from simple houses to dilapidated structures. I followed Katarina and Samuel. They would knock on the door of a house, exchange pleasantries with the family, and deliver the homework. The small children and adults who talked with Samuel and Katarina wore worn-out clothing and shoes that mirrored the weather-worn roofs above them.

In my rain jacket, jeans, and tennis shoes, I looked as out of place as I felt. The parents receiving the homework studied me from the doorways, while the children peered at me from the remaining space between their parents’ legs and the doorframe. I had entered a space that was not my own, and I stood awkwardly waiting and wondering. As I watched, I asked myself again and again, “What can I do?” I wanted to do something, anything. I thought action would alleviate my discomfort. But there was nothing for me to do, so I stood outside the circle of conversation, waiting for something to happen.

Why am I here?

Three people sharing a meal.
Smith joins his friends Samuel Plachtinsky, who works with JEKH DROM, and his wife Nikola Plachtinská for a meal in Liptovský Hrádok.

The morning sun shone brightly in Važec. Samuel and I were walking back from the settlement to JEKH DROM for lunch. Talking in a mixture of Slovak and their Roma dialect, two fifteen-year-old boys came up to us. At first, I tried to understand what they were saying, but I soon realized based on their animated gestures and Samuel’s stoic response that I did not want to understand. What began as a friendly exchange soon devolved. I could not comprehend their words, yet I knew that many things were being said to me, about me.

With each step, my sense of helplessness grew. The boys kept remarking, pointing, and laughing. I wanted to understand, say something, and end the experience. But with little comprehension and no words to respond, I was exasperated, thinking, “Why am I here?” Finally, the boys biked away, leaving Samuel and me in silence.

I continued to ponder the morning’s events as I walked to the local kebab shop for lunch. The man behind the counter greeted me in Slovak. Based on my muddled response, he asked, “Where are you from?” When I told him I was from the U.S., he looked surprised and said, “Why are you here?” His frankness struck me. I tried to explain, but he only looked more perplexed. In his mind, it was absurd for me to spend a summer with Roma people, when I could spend it making money in the U.S.

The kebab shop owner’s incredulous response exacerbated my feelings about the morning. His questions echoed in my head. Troubled, I asked myself again, “Why am I here?” My meeting with the Roma boys had gone poorly, the kebab shop owner could not understand what I was doing, and I could not explain my situation. Is this what it meant to live on the outskirts?

To whom can I turn?

Smith, Samuel, and Nika.
Smith, Samuel, and Nikola at Šarafiový waterfall.

I knocked on the door of a small apartment building outside of Liptovský Hrádok. Members of the local Lutheran church had recently turned the building into a residence for Ukrainian refugees. I had met some of these families a few weeks before, and at the request of two Ukrainian mothers, I was back to practice English with their high-school-age sons, Andriy and Danylo.

The door opened, revealing Danylo’s calculating face. As I entered, Andriy joined us, and we exchanged greetings in a mixture of Slovak, English, and Ukrainian. I soon realized that any level of communication would be a herculean feat. Determined to try, however, I started stammering, mumbling, and gesticulating.

Though initially shy, Andriy and Danylo slowly began to join my charades. With the help of a laptop, we translated phrases, compared words, and posed questions. I asked Andriy and Danylo about their homes, and they showed me their neighborhoods on Google Maps. Question by question, I learned myriad fragmentary facts: Andriy’s favorite kind of ice cream was pistachio; Danylo’s brother was my age and fighting in the war; Andriy’s birthday was next week. The facts unfolded like the scenes of a scatterbrained theatrical production, while the other people in the house watched with amusement.

The dramatic experience and small pieces of information remained with me. As I sat alone in my apartment a few days later, I decided to bring Andriy pistachio ice cream for his birthday. I had no way to communicate with him, so I just bought the ice cream, boarded the bus, and hoped for the best.

In such an isolated and unfamiliar place, I again and again asked myself, “To whom can I turn?”

When I arrived at the house, I knocked on the door and waited for a response. Andriy, Danylo, and their moms were sitting around the dining room table. They all stood up to greet me. As I had rehearsed on the bus ride over, I wished Andriy a happy birthday in Slovak and presented him with the pistachio ice cream and a card.

Having completed my mission, I turned to leave, but in a grand show of hospitality, Danylo’s mom insisted that I stay. The theatrical production from the week before returned with even more energy. Danylo’s mom would try to say something in English and then turn to Danylo for help. I would say something in Slovak, then turn to Andriy for help. The comic cycle continued, leading to much befuddlement and laughter.

From the initial conversation to the birthday celebration, there was a dizzying degree of questioning and turning. As I tried to communicate with Danylo, Andriy, and their mothers, I questioned to whom I could turn for help. As I sat alone in my apartment, I questioned to whom I could turn for company. As I sat at the dining room table for Andriy’s birthday, I questioned to whom I could turn in moments of celebration. In such an isolated and unfamiliar place, I again and again asked myself, “To whom can I turn?”

Why has this happened to me?

Festival in Slovakia
Východná folk festival in Slovakia.

The cry of the train interrupted my ruminations. I was no longer at the settlement, the kebab shop, or the apartment near Liptovský Hrádok. I was standing at the Východná train station waiting for my ride to appear from the dark woods. Questions flooded my mind. Was this my train? What would I do if this was not my train? Why was I here anyway? To whom could I turn for help if my train never arrived? The announcement over the speaker mitigated my fears. At last, my train had arrived. Finding a seat, I looked out of the lighted carriage into the darkened night.

As I looked out the window, I wondered, “Why had this happened to me?” I did not have a clear answer to this question, or the many questions that preceded it, but I would forever associate it with my experience in this place, a place on the outer edge of what I knew.

These are fundamental questions that all people ask. It was not unique that I had asked these questions but how I had asked them. Sitting in the comfort of my home, I thought about agency, presence, and community with flippant ease and curiosity. Standing in the isolation of the Slovak woods, I thought about them with greater concern and gravitas. The place shaped how I asked these questions and how I sought to answer them.

Just like the kebab shop owner could never fully understand why an American would spend a summer in Slovakia, I could never fully understand the experiences of the villagers in Važec, the Roma people in the settlement, or the Ukrainian refugees in Liptovský Hrádok. But I could begin to ask the same questions in those far-removed and often forgotten places; I could begin to ask peripheral questions and seek similar answers. These answers were not obvious in the spaces themselves but hidden in memories.

Eugen Zeleňák and his wife Gabika welcome Smith.
Eugen Zeleňák and his wife Gabika accompany Smith to Vlkolínec.

For I remembered not only the unwelcoming train station of Východná but also the festive folk dancing, the delicious Bryndzové Halušky, and the beautiful sunset. I remembered not only the dreary day at the settlement but also the warm welcome of the Roma children with whom I baked cookies, played soccer, and learned to dance. I remembered not only the cynical questions at the kebab shop but also my many friendly conversations with him over espresso and ice cream. I remembered not only the sense of confusion in the house where the Ukrainian refugees lived but also the sense of celebration.

These memories never provided complete answers to my questions, only partial ones. But when asking them, the places and people no longer seemed so distant and isolated. There was some sense of solidarity in the questioning, remembering, and answering. There was something I could do; there was purpose in my presence; there were people to whom I could turn; and there was a reason why this had happened to me. The train slowed to a stop. I exited the carriage and walked into the night, but I no longer felt lonesome and the darkness no longer seemed eerie.

Originally published by W. Cyril Smith at on May 21, 2024.