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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • The Dacha Regime (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, September 25, 1997).

  • Blazing Telefonini (Tom Mueller, Italy, September 8, 1997).

  • French Games (John Robinson, Madagascar, August 27, 1997).

  • Heaven in a Ballotin (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, August 13, 1997).

  • The Tentative Tourist (C. Michael Curtis, Spain, July 30, 1997).

  • The Sausages of Wrath (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, July 16, 1997).

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

    Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

  • berdikhd picture

    October 8, 1997

    Everything about my narrow hotel room in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is exceedingly brown and coarse: the carpet, the table, the chair, the bed, the blanket. Yet just outside my window sleek German cars zip past a young couple strolling in American sneakers, and up the road neon signs beckon toward a casino. Oddly enough, the contrast provides me with a delicate sense of adventure, as if I'm lodged in a room forgotten by history, a vestige of Cold War antagonisms in the midst of this bustling, Westernizing town.

    Actually, in many ways my night in this room is all about history. In the late nineteenth century my father's ancestors left Slovenia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and emigrated to America. They settled in Pittsburgh, my hometown, and went to work in the steel mills. For decades my grandmother and her sister corresponded with their cousin, a woman named Cilka Novljan, whose family owned a tavern, the Gostilna Novljan, in a village known as Mirna Pec, not far from Ljubljana. It's in search of Cilka that I have made my way to Slovenia, although my connections are tenuous. Apart from a scattering of maiden names I have only stories and photographs to go by, exchanged among three women long ago. Certainly no one is expecting me.

    I hurry out to the tourist office to ask about transportation. Once there I check the phone book but find only a Vinko Novljan, whom I assume to be Cilka's husband. To my relief the tourist official speaks English and offers to call ahead. I pass on bits of information as needed.

    "She's alive," the official says after hanging up, "but she has had an attack and cannot speak."

    Can't speak? For a moment I consider abandoning the whole venture, but instead I purchase my ticket and an hour later I step onto a deserted train platform surrounded by green and yellow fields. It's warm here, and heavy with the smell of mud and fertilizer. A thin road creeps down the hillside to the village itself, about two miles distant.

    In a little more than half an hour I reach an old church on the outskirts of the town. Just beyond it I hear voices and see the signboard for the Gostilna Novljan. Inside the tavern six or seven customers nurse beers and eye me suspiciously. They've arranged themselves in a rough semi-circle, like a wagon train, around the bar. Their discussion stops as I work my way toward the woman behind the counter. She looks up at me, waiting.

    "Konnen Sie Englisch oder Deutsch?" I venture. She shakes her head but brightens, as if she's been waiting for just such an oddball, and then hurries off, returning with a young woman who introduces herself in English.

    "You are here to see Cilka? Your name is Chris? I am Mojca, the granddaughter."

    She motions me to a large, oak picnic table in a room behind the kitchen, and the older woman brings me a beer. Following after them is the older woman's husband -- Ljubo, "the son" -- who now runs the tavern. Mojca looks at me quizzically. "How -- ? Are we related?" she asks.

    As we talk my family tree is gradually transformed. My grandma Helen is now Elena. My great aunt Zal is suddenly Rozalja. Their mother's maiden name, Zagar, a name I've scarcely heard before, soon becomes familiar to me as a rich combination of "sugar" and "jogger."

    A little boy runs up to Mojca. This is Ambroz, her three-year-old son. He looks at me and rolls his eyes. He twists his body around his mother jealously as I pinpoint Pittsburgh on the amoeba I've drawn to represent the United States.

    Ljubo asks if I'm hungry, and I respond enthusiastically. When some soup arrives Mojca excuses herself. She has to go and feed her new baby, Erazem. Ljubo and his wife step out as well, to tend to customers; they leave me to my meal. The soup is followed by salad, a tremendous plate of pork chops, potatoes, and another beer. I eat heartily and congratulate myself on having discovered roots with restaurants.

    After I've finished Mojca returns with her husband, Dusan; he's an opthamologist, just home from work. "They have gone to get Cilka," he says. Moments later an elderly woman enters the room. She's small but very animated, with peering blue eyes. It's Cilka. I stand up and kiss her cheeks. Vinko comes in a moment later. His face is grizzled and drawn but stretches easily into a hollow grin as we pose for snapshots.

    Urgently trying to speak, Cilka rasps out questions about my family. I explain that my grandparents died several years ago. I admit that my father, though full-blooded Slovenian, has never been able to visit. Mojca retrieves several photographs, some yellowing black-and-white portraits of the Zagars, some more recent Polaroids sent by my grandmother's family, and others of people I can't identify. Cilka rifles through them, drawing my attention to every picture of a boy or young man. I can't find myself in any of them, but I smile.

    Ljubo sets two glasses of red wine before the old couple.

    "Prost," Vinko offers, and then, in broken German, he tells me that on my next visit I must "bring father -- for eating, and drinking, and sleeping, and ..." I don't understand his next words, but Dusan translates: deer hunting, with shotguns.

    I ask everyone what it was like before 1991, the year Slovenia won its independence from communist Yugoslavia. The Novljans all start talking at once, conferring, arguing. I get several different answers.

    "We are different people," Dusan says finally, "We are not like them."

    Vinko tells me about all the farmland Tito stole from him. I nod, but he wants to elaborate. He rattles off descriptions of his former acreage, his long-lost cows, his vanished potatoes. He uses sweeping gesticulations to emphasize just how enormous it all once was.

    "Yes, Grandpa. You were BIG farmer," says Mojca.

    We talk and joke for another hour or two before I have to say good-bye. Dusan has offered me a driving tour of the region, and daylight is growing scarce.

    At dusk, Dusan drops me off at the train station, along with some dinner from the nearby Pizzeria Novljan, owned by Ljubo's brother. Waiting there, I think about being fed by distant relatives. It's comforting, like the passing of stories and pictures from one generation to another. While I eat I stare out at the dim, pine-forested mountains and listen for my train.

    Chris Berdik is a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly and a freelance writer.

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