Ludmila Sujanova was born in Košice in eastern Slovakia in 1972. Her mother, Zlata, worked for a steel company and her father, Vilém, was a manager of manufacturing equipment at a food production company. She has one younger sister. Some of Ludmila’s earliest and strongest memories center around food – she recalls living above a market and standing in line for certain goods like milk and fruit. She also has fond memories of gardening at her family’s chata [summer cottage] outside of Košice where they grew much of their own food. Ludmila says that she was interested in dressmaking from a young age and, after eighth grade, enrolled in a high school in Svidník that focused on fashion design where she lived in a dorm. After graduating in 1991, Ludmila worked at a ski resort for a few months before landing a job as a salesperson in a shop that sold sewing goods and accessories. She worked there for over two years and says that the private business did well in those years following the fall of communism. She also took English lessons at this time and was hoping to travel to the West – something that she had been looking forward to since the Velvet Revolution.
In 1994, one of Ludmila’s friends helped her to get a job as an au pair outside London. After one year in Britain, Ludmila applied to an agency that staffed foreign students at camps in the United States. She was placed at a camp in Connecticut and, in May 1995, flew to New York City. Following her stint at camp, Ludmila moved to Brooklyn where she first worked in a restaurant. After a few jobs as an au pair in Connecticut and New Jersey, she returned to New York and worked as a seamstress in a fashion studio in the garment district of Manhattan. Ludmila then moved to Florida where she took classes at a local community college and worked for a country club. She returned to Slovakia for a visit in 2000. In 2003, Ludmila moved to the Washington, D.C. area where she continued to take classes in interior design and began working at the Container Store. Today, she works in sales and visual merchandising for the company. Ludmila received her American citizenship in 2006, an event which she says was ‘a very big deal.’ That same year, she began a social meet-up group to connect with her fellow Slovaks; she says that through this group she has created her ‘own little family…in D.C.’ Ludmila lives in Germantown, Maryland.
“I was young. I was probably ten or even less, and times sometimes were really tough. And I remember there were days, for example, there was a real shortage of milk and then when milk arrived, the kids would run in front of the block and they would yell ‘Mom, milk arrived!’ and everybody kind of looked and then everybody just grabbed the reusable shopping bag and all went down and stood in line for milk. It was the same thing for oil, like cooking oil, or butter, I remember, or there was the winter season before Christmas and it was any tropical fruit like bananas and oranges or, my goodness, if there was a pineapple, it was like ‘Wow!’ So as a child, I pretty much used to stand in line for food, which I really dislike. If there’s anything going on, like a picnic, and there’s food involved, I really refuse to stand in line for food.”
“Yes, we did have a chata, or summer home, or záhrada [garden] and we pretty much spend almost the entire summer there. There was always something to do. My dad was very much an avid gardener and we grew everything. I didn’t know such a thing as to go to a store and purchase potatoes or carrots or even things like jam or ketchup or anything. My mom pretty much made everything from scratch at home and in our apartment building, downstairs, there was a place where everybody had a teeny storage space. We called it a pivničný priestor or pivnica, and everybody just had this little nook with a door and you open it and it looked like a pantry. It was a pantry of everything like a large bag of potatoes, sauerkraut that was made in this huge barrel, jams, and syrups, and preserved fruit. I mean, it was just like living goodness down there. I very much clearly remember Sundays mom would make traditionally rezne, or schnitzels, with potatoes and then would say ‘Oh we are out of pickled cucumbers,’ or she said ‘What do you want? Do you want cucumbers or peaches in syrup?’ And when we were out of it at home, we had to take the elevator all the way downstairs. Sometimes we were really lazy and we’d just say ‘I’ll just stick with pickles,’ because I was just too lazy to go down and get it.”
“My dad was the person who had a lot of friends. He was very outgoing and he knew a lot of people. I remember one day he came home with this huge suitcase and it was quite late in the evening and he said ‘Ok, are you up for it?’ and I said ‘Dad, what are you talking about?’ and he opened this suitcase and it was filled with these LPs of all these Western artists. So I remember holding the Madonna LP in my hand, Material Girl. I would read it and I had no idea what it meant, but I was just so excited. I said ‘Dad, where did you get this?’ He said ‘Don’t ask any questions. We have until morning to go through all these LPs and to record them on cassettes. So whatever you want, just go for it, girl.’ I was up with my dad listening to all these LPs and I remember Falco; I remember Nana, Bananarama, Rick Astley, Aha – all these bands from the ‘80s. Later on I learned that dad had to schmooze up this local DJ to be able to bring these LPs home, and it was literally just for several hours we had them and then he had to return it.”
“I remember my very first trip when I was ten. My sister and my grandmother, we traveled to Bulgaria. We were very excited because we were finally going to see the Black Sea. So traveling, it was quite a journey. It took us pretty much two and a half days on the bus, and I remember clearly crossing the borders. It was terrifying. It was standing in a long line, being afraid that they might send you back for whatever reason. There were policemen or soldiers with guns. There were dogs. There was nowhere to go; there were no restrooms at all, so you had to really hold or just go out there wherever. It was usually just a field, like open fields. Yeah, it was kind of terrifying for us as kids. We didn’t know what’s going to happen, and we could just see all the adults, the way they reacted to it, and that was terrifying because, as a child, you depend on the adult being able to help you.
“The Romanian border was probably the worst. There were a lot of small Gypsy children that would come and be knocking on the bus and they would be asking for anything, money or candy. There were so many of them and they would be looking so poor. Sometimes they were not even dressed; dirty little kids. So that was kind of hard to see. But then when we arrived in Bulgaria, we were like ‘Wow!’ It was just like a different world, being able to see the Black Sea and eating different foods and people speaking different languages. That was really nice.”
“I was looking forward to seeing something different and pretty much when they were saying that we are opening borders, all I could think of was ‘Wow, we can actually just go somewhere else than Bulgaria?’ So that was my first thought in my head: travel. Travel and see the world. I don’t know if the seed of coming to America was planted back then, but it might have. I really just wanted to know where the beautiful napkin with Strawberry Shortcake came from. It was something that I think a lot of people my age wanted to do. They wanted to go out West – not necessarily to the United States – but just experience and learn.”
“There were definitely a lot of things happening in Košice. For example, the Východoslovenské železiarne [Eastern Slovakia Iron Works], where my mom worked for many years, all of the sudden they have a new owner. U.S. Steel, from Pennsylvania is coming and taking over. So that was huge. This is a company that has years of history in the metallurgical industry. The import/export business has always been there – and heavy. We’re talking, this company employed thousands and thousands of people, so that was the very, very strong talk.
“My mom stayed in her current job but then changed positions, and with the U.S. Steel coming as part of the new wave, there were a lot of changes that even for my mom were hard to digest. Because people lived this life day by day for so many years and not everybody is very good with change, and this was very strong. This was very strong. I remember my mom, so many times she would come home really exhausted and she was like ‘You know what these Americans have come up with again?!’ I can’t remember quite exactly what, but she was in charge of – U.S. Steel had internal dry cleaning/laundry because there were a lot of workers who had uniforms and those were the people that the service was for, but then my mom also had clients like local hotels or motels and accommodations for the workers, and so there were a lot of changes in the technology of how the business was run. [It was] much more strict. Not too many coffee breaks; not too much smoking cigarettes and a lot of people didn’t like that. So the capitalism was definitely, slowly but surely, getting in, and a lot of people lost jobs because they were not flexible enough, I would say.”
“This social group was created purely out of my own curiosity and maybe a little homesickness. I kind of wanted to create a sense of community of Slovaks in this area, to learn who is out there, who may be interested to get together and talk about our upbringing and culture, eat the food and just have a simply good time. And slowly but surely, since 2006 when I started this group, the meet-up has over 230 members. Not everybody is active, which is fine with me, but we do a lot of different things and I have met so many wonderful, wonderful friends through this meet-up. Great friendships; we help each other if we can. So it is almost like my own little family that I have here in D.C.”