Family holidays aren’t for everyone, I thought, as I boarded a plane to Frankfurt last week. Somewhere in Europe, in the backseat of a nine-seater van where I’d be spending most of the next three weeks, I was going to find out if they were for me.
After touching down in Ljubljana — the capital of Slovenia and home to more than 272,000 of the nation’s more than 2 million inhabitants — we met one of my Slovenian-born stepfather’s oldest friends, Danny, who picked us up at the airport.
“I’m sorry. It is messy,” he apologized in Slovene-accented English. “We are just back from our holiday. We are a little …” He broke off, making the international mime for “crazy.”
We all laughed. In the backseat, I fell asleep to forests and craggy mountains and woke up to the winding streets of a small farming village. A few days later Danny would wear a shirt that read, in Slovene, “safe with me.”
Safe with him was exactly how I felt as I began my first disorientated hours in Europe in his car — with his quiet ease, warm mannerism and native fluency in the foreign country we now found ourselves immersed in. I did not ask, but I suspect it was a sentiment the six Americans among us — me, Mateja, Danny’s wife, two children, and their sixteen-month-old schnauzer — shared, for without this family or my stepfather, we would be rather stuck.
We were staying in a traditional Slovenian-style hunting cabin, courtesy of Mateja’s father, whose dozens of trophy antlers graced the walls, along with a crucifix and one stuffed and very startled-looking marmot. After we recovered from our jetlag and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise, Mateja’s family came over for a barbecue — aunts, uncles, grandparents and all.
I tried to assist with preparing lunch but had little success. Mateja’s mother, father and sister-in-law spoke very little English, and the only phrase I knew in Slovene — hvala, or “thank you” — could only get me so far. Thankfully, as a high school English teacher, Mateja spoke the language fluently, as did her two children. I moved on instead to trying to help with drinks, carrying beer and a jug of homemade wine down to keep cool in the ice-cold spring that runs down from the mountain every summer.
The other half of the American party arrived, having spent the prior week in Paris and Italy, and so did the Slovene half — brothers, nephews and old friends kept filing in by the car-full. We sat, and elbow-to-elbow, we ate. Grinning and yelling down the benches at each other, we often said things twice for the benefit of both parties — or simply once, using gestures as our lingua franca. Mateja’s father, patriarch of the huge family spilling in and out of the house, got up periodically to refill everyone’s glasses. Piti! Piti! “Drink! Drink!”
We ate onions and tomatoes doused in homemade olive oil and soaked in their own juices, alongside pickled cucumbers, breads and cheeses, and grilled meats: marinated pork steaks, chicken wings — the whole nine yards. To top it all off, Mateja’s brother brought a ceramic dish full of sizzling sausages to the table and approached my mother. “For you!” he gestured, holding out the pork, beef and lamb concoction called cevapcici, a traditional Balkan dish.
The dish prompted the continuation of a story my mother had been telling earlier. As a teenager, my mother had lived in Sarajevo, and once she had begun to master the language, she proudly went to the local butchers’ to ask for sest cevapcici but instead ordered sest carape, or six socks.
Sarajevo, when my mother had studied there, was part of Yugoslavia, the Communist state ruled by General Tito. It encompassed areas that today are independent nations such as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, and two provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina. The war that ended Yugoslavia’s existence took more than 140,000 lives with it. Raging from 1991 to 2001, the war and its ethnic cleansing, led my Slobodan Milosevic, are frequently compared to atrocities such as the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. There are still scores of unexploded land mines in the Croatian mountains, Mateja and Danny told us at dinner one night, after we’d spent the day driving in tunnels past them.
After a long, lazy lunch, Danny told us — the Americans and the half of us born after the nation of Yugoslavia had ceased to exist — about the civil war that finally brought Yugoslavia to its knees. Their daughter Katarina, now 14, was the first child in their family to be born into a country called Slovenia. She played with an iPad on the couch as we talked and, without looking up, commented “Satan” from behind the screen as her father described Tito’s rule.
“Recently, they found a grave,” he explained. “The women, the children — all gone.” He raised his hands in a gesture that mimicked an explosion. “From 1945. Just discovered,” he said, palms still facing the sky. He gestured to the front door behind us. “Just down the road, they are there.”
Image source: Lorenzo Magnis under Creative Commons
Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].