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Forbidden Bread

The breezy, engaging memoir of a New York financial analyst who left her world behind to marry a poet and live in his native Slovenia.

By / April 23, 2009



When Erica Johnson Debeljak told friends and family that she was getting married and moving to live near her fiancé’s family, she didn’t receive the hugs and cries of joy that most newly engaged women expect. What followed instead was a moment of stunned silence – succeeded by horrified questions and dire predictions.

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“Isn’t there a war going on over there?” and “You will have to don the chador, no?” she was asked. And, perhaps most chillingly, your husband-to-be, she was told (by someone in position to know), “will never lift a finger.”

As a reader I must confess that I, too, expected nothing short of doom when I picked up Forbidden Bread, Debeljak’s jaunty, engaging memoir about her courtship and marriage. After all, this is the story of “a New York woman, a financial analyst, who against her own judgment and the judgment of pretty much everybody else that she knows, marries the most flagrant womanizer she’s ever met, a poet of all crazy things, and moves to his tiny new country halfway across the world” – Slovenia.

And yet, Debeljak points out, “Sometimes ... miracles happen.”

Debeljak’s last name was Johnson the night in 1991 when she met Aleš at a party in Manhattan. He was a student in the US, but preparing to return to his homeland, the freshly minted country of Slovenia (formerly the northernmost province of Yugoslavia). Debeljak was thrilled by Aleš’s foreignness.

He, meanwhile, snubbed her to pursue other women.

They did, however, finally meet up for dinner one night a few weeks later. But as they ate he quoted a Slovenian proverb, dismissing any attraction between them as the mere thrill of “forbidden bread.” They did, Debeljak admits, seem a comic mismatch of stereotypes: “he the poor and noble son of socialism, and me the pampered daughter of capitalism.”

By all rights, their romance should have ended there. Soon, Aleš went home to Slovenia, breaking up with her at least four times along the way. Somehow, however, she couldn’t let go. And every time she was about to, something seemed to push the unlikely love affair back on track.

The next year, Debeljak took the plunge and married Aleš, propagandizing wildly to family and friends as she went. Slovenia has “an amazingly egalitarian system,” she insisted. It has “kept everything that is good from socialism and gotten rid of all the rest.”

When her side showed up for the wedding in Ljubljana, the country’s capital city and her new home, she made sure that they saw the charming baroque and medieval city center, and not the “poured slabs of gray concrete with the occasional window hacked out of them” that constituted much of the rest.

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