My Slovenian family lives in a small village half an hour outside of Ljubljana, called Cerknica. Genetically speaking, they aren’t close relatives, but sentimentally they very much are. It’s quite a story…I make no claims for historical accuracy, but here’s what I’ve been able to patch together from the stories of my mother, grandmother and aunts.
My great-great-grandfather had, among his many children, at least three daughters by two different women. My great-grandmother Maria, called Mitsa, was the older one, and headstrong. She didn’t get on with her stepmother and had been causing a scandal by entertaining the advances of a Croatian—good heavens! At least that’s the story. In 1914, when she can’t have been older than I was, she left, walking down a path that has entered our family mythology and that of hundreds of Slovenian families across the US and Canada—it’s worth mentioning that in the difficult decade before the war one-third of the region’s population took a similar path, hoping there would be jobs somewhere on that new continent.
Mitsa walked up out of the valley, stopping one last time to look back down over the red roofs of the village and the lake which disappears twice a year (but that’s another legend). Her sisters Lojska and Anna, still little girls, watched her go. She stopped to pray at the roadside Jesus which still exists, surrounded by fresh flowers and candles in his tiny fresco-covered chapel, having survived the later Communist advance better than most Jesuses in the area.
She stood by the railroad tracks and caught the train to Rakek, from where she caught another train to the port of Trieste, which used to be “ours” but now is part of Italy. From Trieste along with hundreds of others she took a steamship to New York.
Can you imagine how this girl felt standing on the boat as it pulled away from Trieste, not knowing if she’d see her family or her valley or this port again? Was she sad? Excited? Relieved?
Can you imagine what this village girl, to whom the old Austro-Hungarian provincial capital of Ljubljana (it was Laibach then) would have seemed enormous, thought at the sight of New York?
Mitsa took a train south, ending up in a town called Thomas, West Virginia. She married a fellow Slovenian, a miner named Joe. They had 12 children, four daughters and eight sons. The oldest, a girl named Anna, died in an accident when she was five. The second oldest, my Aunt Freda, lived to be over eighty and was the only one of Mitsa’s children who could speak Slovenian. Of the others, my uncle Ed, who came later, could understand it. Mary Ann(my grandmother), Bob, Harry, Herman, William, Jake, Raymond, Rebecca and Phil were perfect little Yanks; it was English only among them in the small, crowded house. The oldest ones went to school during the Depression and came of age during the buildup to the war. Several of the boys went to war, and my grandmother and Aunt Freda were combat nurses.
Of Mitsa’s children, nine survived to adulthood and five had children of their own. It goes without saying that the grandchildren, including my mother Mary Michel, spoke no Slovenian. For them, Mitsa was remote, an elegant, standoffish elderly woman who didn’t say much, likely embarrassed by her thick Slovenian accent.
What, after all this time, had happened to the “little girls” Lojska and Anna? They lived through the first war, went to school during the short-lived Yugoslav monarchy, and rode out the second war, although the town cemetery grew crowded with stones bearing the haunting inscription “pogr.” (pogrom, massacre). Anna and Lojska married and had children of their own, raising them in Communist Yugoslavia. Lojska married a village stonecarver and had two sons, who became village stonecarvers themselves. The younger one, Anton (called Tone or Tonček), married Nada, a charismatic, dark-haired trade union secretary who was later to become a member of the first Parliament of post-Communist Slovenia. But we’re getting just slightly ahead of ourselves.
Against her own expectations, Mitsa did come back to Cerknica, at some point in the late seventies, with several of her own children. A minor spat broke out at the airport over who had the right to take them home. Anton and his family won. Mitsa at this point was very old and somewhat confused, speaking Slovenian to her children and English to Anton, who spoke nothing but Slovenian (and still doesn’t). But in whatever language, she made no secret that she was pleased to be home.
Mitsa died in West Virginia in the early eighties. Several of her children—especially my grandmother, Bob and Harry—came back to Slovenia more than once, and Anton, his brother and their families returned the favour, even coming to sing and pray at Uncle Ed’s bedside shortly before his death. Lojska died in the mid-nineties, and Anna died only three years ago or so, having lived to be ninety-eight.
Anton’s and Nada’s own children, Uros and Tjasa, saw the Ten-Day War for Slovenian independence and the fall of Communism as schoolchildren. Nada became a Member of Parliament. Independence and Nada’s election were a great source of pride for my grandmother. A few times when I was small Uros and Tjasa and their cousin Masha came to visit, although our interest in each other was vague, because they were 21, 19 and 18 and I was eight. I remember Masha’s half dozen ear piercings, Nada’s electric blue nail polish and Tone not saying much at all. I thought he was just shy.
My mother decided to take me to Slovenia when I was 18, going on 19. I had little else to do that summer so I had sent away for a Slovenian language-learning kit—it was part of my heritage, after all. Night after night I listened and repeated with the discs—Is this your purse? Oh yes, that is my purse, thank you very much! Are you Mr. Clark? Nice to meet you sir! I would like two tickets to Bled. Is there a student discount?
When we got to Cerknica from Ljubljana, Tone was standing in the driveway. With childish boldness, I bounded up to this guy I barely recognized. “Me veseli!” I said. Nice to meet you sir!
Well. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but I would have to say that sometimes, it’s through his ear. My cousin’s face lit up. “You…you…you speak…” And over my frantic protests, he gave me a bear hug. From then on, there was no speaking English for me in that house. In that moment, my second cousin and his wife became my stric in teta, my aunt and uncle. Tjasa and I got on very well too, as the difference between 19 and 29 is really not quite as big as the difference between 8 and 18. With every roadside shrine, statue and apparently enchanted mountain I visited, with every story I heard–of the magic lake, of Martin Krpan the bandit-hero, of Mitsa who went to America but before that sat eating goulash in this very kitchen– and with every word I learned, I felt like I was reconnecting with something I had always been supposed to be a part of.
I’ve come back at every opportunity. Three years ago I was on a course and spent six weeks in Ljubljana. I knew if I spent eight months in Europe without coming to visit, I would be in deep trouble.
Which brings us back, after a long detour in the realms of history and legend, to three weeks ago at Ljubljana Airport.
The two other times I had come to Slovenia, it had been July, so in my mind the Balkans were stuck in a kind of perpetual summer. No such luck. The ground was covered in wet, dirty snow. TJ picked me up at the airport, having taken the afternoon off from her Boring Office Job, and we went to meet teta Nada, who still works in Parliament as a policy adviser for a centre-right party.
She also runs the Majorette and Baton Twirling Federation of Slovenia and does volunteer work for a Catholic organization that helps kids in Madagascar, pulls a lot of late nights and somehow manages to stay in a good mood most of the time. That woman is an Energizer Bunny. And I admire her.
Nada gave me a guided tour of the Parliament, of its chambers and the murals and photo walls that told the whole complicated story of Slovenian history, from medieval times to the various monarchies, from the rise of the Communist Partisans during and after the war to the Ten-Day war of secession and the Declaration of Independence in 1991. I read a book as she puttered around in her office and talked to me about her work.
“We have to do something about the new Family Code,” she was saying. “Such-and-such a party wants to put in that the homosexuals can get married and adopt children and we can’t have that.”
I held my tongue.
When Tjasa got off work, we took a long walk in the narrow streets of Old Ljubljana and bought wonderful, creamy chocolate cake at a bakery to take back to the village. Tjasa didn’t join us because…she wanted to take some cake back to her boyfriend! Is this my perpetually single cousin talking?
“Wait a minute, you have a boyfriend? And you’re living together? I have been gone a long time!”
“You’ll meet him before you go. He works in an ice cream factory, and we have two cats.”
Nada and I drove back to the village, and when we got out the sky was covered with stars. I don’t know why the stars always seem brighter in Cerknica than anywhere else. Is it the lack of artificial light? The cleaner air? Either way, the sky sparkles there. They still talk about my grandmother who, on her last visit, asked to be allowed to spend the whole night outside on a mattress, staring at the stars.
My uncle hugged me for a long time and tousled my hair. He still looked exactly the same, a small, older man with brownish-grey hair and eyes that laughed. He had spent part of the day preparing the room that I’d lived in when I spent my weekends there. It was in an annex of the house intended for renters, just across from the room where Uros used to sleep when he lived there. Uros and his new wife, a really sweet girl a few years older than me called Magda, have since moved a mile down the road, which caused a lot of parental hand-wringing. “Why did he have to move away?”
It was hard for my brain to switch into Slovenian, which I hadn’t spoken in three years. At first there was a lot of “Kaj? Kaj?” (what? What?) and “Prosim?” (Excuse me?) and poor Nada had to do a lot of translating in Tjasa’s absence. Slowly but surely I dusted off words in my brain and came to remember that govoriti meant “to speak”, rekati to say and poveti to tell. That zdaj meant “now” and včéraj meant “yesterday, ” while “zàdaj” meant “over there” and “večér” was “evening.” For some reason nouns stuck less in my brain, but these were easily resolved. “Where is my, um, um…” I would say, miming covering my body in something thick.
“Winter coat? Maybe back there in your room.” My uncle would say, in Slovenian. And I would understand, although when my uncle spoke to me in Slovenian he spoke so slowly and childishly that other people laughed.
The next day I slept late, ate some apricot carnival donuts, had an approximate conversation with my uncle and learned that Alma was coming. Super. Alma and I consider each other cousins, although as far as we know we aren’t relatives at all; Alma’s parents are the next-door neighbours, and have been for years. Alma is like my uncle’s second daughter. The first time I was here, we got on great. And the second time. So we were both hoping for a third time; fortunately, her vacation came at the same time as mine.
When I first met her, she was a softspoken high school girl, but now she’s at university in Ljubljana, a year away from becoming a kindergarten teacher like her mom, my “cousin” Marja. It’s the same like with Pierre and Louis at the Sorbonne, the same with Pierre in Burundi who had his 29th birthday last week…WHOA! How did that happen? Wait a minute, I too am not getting any younger…
We exchanged news for a long time. Alma is single, but that could change. She told me about university life in her crowded dorm, looking into going to study in the USA, and trips to Barcelona and Madrid. That’s what really made her eyes light up. She’s a hispanophile and speaks great Spanish, as well as English which is the language that we use.
We split up for lunch, and when we saw each other again, I had news for her. My uncle, while poking the wooden spoon around the skillet (he loves to cook) had turned to me and said, “Like you vegetables…er…do you like vegetables?”
Do you like vegetables ? The guy who refused to speak English, who used his English language learning CD set as bookends and tried to foist it on anyone who might accept it, who pretended not to understand English even though he did, had just spoken to me with a full, correctly formed interrogative sentence. Half my students can’t do that. Hell had frozen over. My English teacher’s brain rejoiced.
And damn it, I couldn’t remember cestitam, the Slovenian word for congratulations. All I could say was “Yes, wow, you speak English!”
“I no English,” he said. “Stara glava.” Old brain. I laughed.
“Old brains can learn English,” I said in baby Slovenian.
“I go USA with Bob, learn English.”
Bob is my grandmother’s brother and my uncle’s friend. He’s one of Mitsa’s sons who, although entirely of Slovenian heritage, can’t string two words together in Slovenian. I believe all he knows are “Kaj?” and “Jebi se”, “screw you.” But the two of them still manage to communicate, through signs, translators and random words.
“You and Bob will cross the USA from New York to California,” I said. “You’ll learn English, and in the car you’ll teach Bob Slovenian!”
Tone liked that.
When Alma came over, we immediately put our heads together and drafted a film plot. A red-blooded, thick-headed Slovenian and his red-blooded, thick-headed American relation cross the USA in a jalopy, while trying to establish a common language. We incorporated some well-established bits of family legend, like Tone getting the wrong airport in New York and trying to walk from Kennedy to LaGuardia, and Tone and Bob agreeing to meet each other in Midtown Manhattan under…a one-way sign.
It will be the funniest film in the history of Slovenian cinema. Working title? Old Brains.
We went to visit Alma’s grandparents, used Marja’s atlas to plot the next stages of my trip (Marja, Alma and Tjasa all asked, “Why are you going to Albania?!”) and then got wonderfully hooked on a long American comedy that was playing on one of the movie channels. It was Spanglish. Alma translated the Spanish bits for me; we laughed at the funny parts and held our breath at the dramatic parts. Although I don’t hesitate to go see movies in French, it was nice not to have to make any effort for once.
The next day I went into Ljubljana with two missions: pet the dragon, and buy some boots.
Old Ljubljana is so pretty—especially on a soft summer night when the terrace cafés along the Ljubljanica river are all lit up. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case this time; it was a cold winter afternoon and I was recovering from a panic attack brought on by accidentally stuffing my passport in some impossible-to-find-when-you’re-looking-for-it hidden pocket, and then thinking I had somehow managed to lose the damn thing in teta Nada’s office. Still, the light was wonderful, and I was kicking myself for not being able to take pictures (Did I mention I left my camera charger in France?). I went into the bubblegum-pink cathedral in Prešeren square (largely restored after the wars with diaspora money) and lit a candle for my grandmother. I wandered the shops and cafés, buying postcards and another phrasebook, getting a kick out of speaking Slovenian to shopkeepers and seeing the surprised looks on their faces, looking at clothes—Ljubljana has an H&M ,something sorely lacking in Nimes– passing the square where I used to go to swing dances on soft summer nights and the bars along the river that my classmates and I used to haunt in our very rare spare moments. Nothing had changed; in a strange way I felt like I was checking to see if the heart of the place was still beating, and I found that it was.
The Ljubljanica, like the Seine and the Thames, has dozens of bridges within a few kilometres of each other. Two of them—the elegant white Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge—are architectural landmarks in their own right, designed by Slovenia’s favourite architect, Jože Plečnik. They are a good representation of the city itself—understated, graceful, Central European– and a trip to Ljubljana doesn’t count until you’ve given the giant dragon a pet. He is a green copper bat-winged gargoyle right out of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and for some strange reason I love him , that messenger from a fantasy world with his imperturbable stare. I gave him a caress on his bright green claw for luck.
Even though I hate shopping, I have one more mission left before I go back and meet teta Nada. I have to buy boots. According to her, the weather in Bosnia is freezing cold with seven-foot snowdrifts. I loathe wearing boots for reasons that will later become clear, and I think the seven-foot snowdrifts belong to the same parallel world as the boulevard to the end of the universe, but unless you’ve been pressured into buying something by a Slavic mother you don’t understand what I was going though; it was boots or bust. I finally got a pair of big, ugly brown things on sale for 48 euros which, big and ugly though they were, were waterproof and warm. Teta Nada gave them the seal of approval, adding that they were a good old Yugoslavian brand.
When evening came it was time to go see Tjaša’s new place, out in the suburbs which she shares with her boyfriend, the only boyfriend I ever remember her having. He’s a big, quiet, happy-seeming guy named Miha who reminds me in some small way of Uroš, her big brother. They have the same slow contentment in their gestures and words, the same shy friendliness. I’m happy for Tjaša. I think any man who treats kittens as tenderly as Miha treats Tjaša’s two kittens must be kind and caring enough to spend a life with. I try to follow their conversation and from time to time they switch to English for my benefit, but when I start to have trouble following, I go hang out with the cats. Their language is universal.
On the way back Nada just talks to me. I like being a listening ear for people, but I wonder why Nada does it. Is she chatty just because she’s chatty? Does she want English practice? Or is she just lonely?
She talks about her work in Parliament, her work at the twirling club, all of the interesting places she’s been with baton twirling (Sydney, Osaka…), the past times with Mitsa and Lojska and Anna, Ed and Bob and Harry, her own original dream of becoming a lawyer that took an odd turn after independence (“I’m still technically on the rolls of Ljubljana University Law School”) and her wish that her two perfectly intelligent children would go back and finish their studies (Tjaša left university after getting the Boring Office Job because she liked money better than school, fair enough in my opinion). She told me about Tjaša and Uroš as babies, and the time when little Tjaša was in hospital. It was during the last, most difficult days of communism with the country coming apart at the seams and fuel rationed, and only cars with even numbers were allowed to drive on one day, odd numbers the next. The mommy and the sick three-year-old could only visit each other every other day.
Back in the village, I get on Facebook on the spare laptop. Nada is working on her own laptop next to me; as I’m talking with two onetime collaborators in two different parts of the world, each of whom is asking me if I’m anywhere nearby, she starts bugging me to go to bed. I go up to my little room and read about Mobutu for awhile just to be contrary—how old does she think I am?
I get up early in the morning to go into work with Nada on the bus. After shaking her off politely (“- Aren’t you going to stay here? You don’t want to go wandering around Ljubljana by yourself, do you? –“Well, as a matter of fact…”) I agreed to be back at a given time and went for another long wander, through the colourful crumbling artists’ quarter which centers on Metelkova, a giant artists’ squat which was once an army barracks. I end up in one of the many bookshops, quite pleased with myself for finding a cheap Serbo-Croat/English phrasebook, when I realize I’m bloody late and have to sprint back toward Parliament. Of course, I’m forgetting we’re in Southern Europe here, so I arrive fifteen minutes before anyone I’m supposed to be meeting. Tjaša shows up and, as a surprise, takes me to a Bosnian restaurant so I can get ready for the adventures that await. The actual restaurant is pure Yugo-kitsch, with huge wooden picnic tables, Serbian signs everywhere, Communist posters and black-and-white pictures of happy workers. We have big plates of cevapi, Bosnian sausages made of ground lamb , with a rather unpleasant short oblong shape but a delicious taste, like ground beef patties but juicier and sweeter. The sausages come with raw onions, pita bread that quickly soaks up the juices, a creamy roasted red pepper sauce which has a more intense red pepper flavour than anything I’ve ever tasted, and soft Bosnian cheese which is doled out by a miniature ice cream scoop and is like putting cream in your mouth. As if that lovely meal and talking with my sweet, funny, sarcastic cousin entre copines weren’t enough, I had a Laško Pivo for the first time in forever. There are two kinds of mass-market beer in Slovenia, Union and Laško. You choose one and it’s yours for life—Slovenian families get a kick out of seeing whether their teenage son or daughter becomes a Union or Laško drinker. Laško is lighter, and I’ve always preferred it. I was able to get it without even really looking too hard at the LCBO on King Edward Avenue in Ottawa, but for awhile now King Edward Avenue has been further away than Ljubljana. So it had been awhile.
Tjasa went back to work and I headed to the train station. Made the train, read a little, slept a little and before I even looked at the time the customs inspector had come around to stamp my passport. I was now out of Slovenia and into Croatia. I felt the familiar pull of excitement tinged with dread that accompanies new and strange adventures…