Perhaps much like everyone else, I have found the last couple of weeks in Oxford to be an unholy combination of absolute bliss and divine procrastination. As soon as I saw that first ray of sun, my mind conveniently forgot about all the imminent essays, translations, and embarrassing number of extensions in favour of one thing: summer. And as I found myself lying face up on the grass, my mind began to do what it does best: travelling to places where COVID guidelines won’t allow me to go. There is something special about the sunshine; it has a power that allows you to be transported wherever you want, if only you wish it hard enough. For me, that place is none other than the small village in western Slovakia where my grandma lives: Horné Zelenice.
My grandma’s house has always been like a second home to me. It has and always will be the one place where I feel like I am well and truly home, no matter how bad things were going for me here. Summers there were magical, and looking back on it now, every summer seemed like the kind of thing you read about in books when you’re a child, which you hope to experience one day. There’s a great big wooden gate which you need to pass through to enter the property, and swallows’ nests tucked away in the nooks of the beams which support the attic, and the soft cooing of wood pigeons that wake you up in the morning. At the far end of the yard, there’s a tall plum tree which my grandma and her sisters used to climb when they were children, with the chicken coop hidden beneath in its shade. Many, many years ago, when my grandparents still kept poultry, you’d have to pass the chickens and ducks and geese before even arriving at the garden. Knowing the temperament of the resident cockerel (who was quite frankly a bit entitled and possessive), you’d have to make a run for it, judiciously avoiding the frantic flapping, before he embraced his inner bull and charged at you.
Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote about a garden that to this day still captures my imagination, but my grandparents’ garden will forever capture my heart. Every summer, the crops there were different, and yet somehow, each one holds a specific memory. There’s the greenhouse which grew peppers, where I’d brave the suffocating heat in an attempt to catch butterflies. Then the fields of flowers, marigolds, lavender, and dandelions, which I would pick and twist into a crown to wear as I ran up and down between the small grape vineyards, chasing our dog. Apples and pears grew from the trees, while tomatoes, carrots, turnips and potatoes were regularly brought in on a wheelbarrow, which I rode in when I was six or seven, pushed by my grandmother. As the church bell struck six, I would shout out to neighbours across fences, pretending to be a vegetable vendor, offering our pumpkins or sunflowers at the best prices in this end of the country. One time, while my grandfather was picking bean pods, I ran into the patch of cornfield which filled the rest of the garden and stayed hidden in that maze of maize for so long that he had to enlist the help of my mother and grandmother to find me.
But perhaps best of all would be when my mother and I, along with family friends, would cycle beyond the bounds of the village to the river which flowed nearby, the Váh, which itself fed into the Danube. If I close my eyes, I can still see the pebble beach, the crags of rocks at the bend in the brook where the current was strongest, the little fish wriggling away downstream, village dogs bounding in and paddling to retrieve a mangled tennis ball. I can still hear the rush of wind in the trees or the laughter of children as they saw who could throw a rock furthest. I can still feel the pebbles and the rocks beneath my feet as I wade in, or the coolness of the water enveloping me like a hug, or the reflected rays of sun warming me. The feeling I had whilst swimming in that clear river is unrivalled. The calmness of watching my friends and relatives swim and splash as I read a book on the pebble beach pervaded every fibre of my being.
So, even if I’m surrounded by similar greenery or the same cooing of wood pigeons as I walk past the Cherwell, or see my friends diving into the water at Port Meadows or Hinskey Park Lake, there is nothing that can beat the tranquillity of my grandma’s garden or that small pebble beach river that filled my childhood and adolescence with so much comfort. Even though people have passed, and nature has dwindled and changed, my travels to Horné Zelenice fill me not so much with nostalgia as with an elegiac sense of happiness and love as I lie here on my college quad. And this same love will always draw me back to that quiet little Slovakian village which is so dear to me and that I will forever call my home.