THE trip to Yugoslavia, when it still was Yugoslavia and not torn by civil war, was a whimsy. I was in nearby Italy at the time, and so, why not? I knew I had a distant relative there, an old woman living in one of those vowelless places that dot the country. The romance of traveling to an island called "Krk" took me by storm, and I surrendered blindly to the impulse.
I recall the boat ride through the canals of Venice; the train through the dark mountains of Slovenia and down to the warm Croatian Adriatic; the ferry to the island; and the long walk along a dirt road, past laughing schoolgirls, bright cottages, gardens brimming with roses, and a kerchiefed grandmother walking her ox along, prodding it with a stick, calling it "my sweet." When I paused, unsure of my way, an old bear of a man in a worn tweed coat threw his arm around my shoulders and said, "I will take care of you. Don't worry."
I didn't. How could I? The people I had met thus far were as agreeable as the landscape and the weather: warm, welcoming, their faces etched with the wear of working and laughing hard. Tactile and open as they were, I felt that I was among family as soon as I had crossed the Yugoslav frontier. I recognized that I was not just in another country, but another world as well, one that had been sewn together into a brilliant patchwork quilt of languages, lifestyles, and customs. Between Trieste and Krk I hear d Italian, Slovenian, Croatian, and Macedonian, and I saw businessmen, gypsies, grandmothers, and soldiers, all riding the same trains. And I was part of that crowd.
The old man on the island of Krk walked with me a kilometer or so. He had been to Chicago once, he told me in halting monosyllables. Then he stretched his arms wide, rolled his eyes, and pronounced, "America!" He continued to accompany me down the road, finally leaving me at a gravel walk that led to a white stucco cottage with clay tile roof. And then, without warning, he gathered me in his arms, gave me a bearhug, and enunciated "Chicago!"
I headed up the walk, through a front garden overgrown with brambles that clutched at an arbor long bereft of its grapes. But here and there rambling blood-red roses poked through the thorny canes. I looked toward the doorway and saw an old woman, squat, kerchiefed, and with a long gray sweater over her housecoat.
She stopped her sweeping and raised her moon face toward me. Her eyes brightened, but with curiosity rather than recognition, for this visit was unannounced.
When I reached her, she released a barrage of Slavicisms - thick, consonant-laden chunks of language that fell upon me like a driving hailstorm. I mustered the few Serbo-Croatian words and phrases I had learned from a guidebook, but my pronunciation must have been indecipherable, for this woman, my distant relative, only smiled benignly.
Salvation arrived in the form of an old man in a besooted, tattered black suit. He came up the walk and joined us on the threshold, smiling toothlessly at me. He hovered in awkward silence for some moments when, on a whim, I asked the man if he spoke German. He nodded, identifying himself as a chimney sweep. I explained who I was, and he translated to the woman. She threw her broom down, embraced me, and began to wail, pushing me away and clutching me to herself by turns. She kept repeating a phrase, an exultation, which I later learned was, "The son of my daughter-in-law's cousin!" Soon the neighbors had arrived, along with their children, and the word spread among them like a lit fuse: "The son of her daughter-in-law's cousin!" In the next moment, roses were brimming in my arms, and I was sitting down in a small kitchen with a cookstove, eating dumplings.
Her name was Marija. She was 79. She lived alone in her cottage but was well looked after. In the morning, a dark huddle of nuns would come by with bread and other staples. The afternoons were filled with visits from neighbors, and from the children with names like Ivana and Katrina from next door. Marija showed me family photos - sepia-toned images of people long since passed away. She fed me and sat with clenched hands, watching while I ate and speaking to me in a language that was impenetrable as lead
I tried to help her, to lighten her work where I thought I could, but she would not allow it. One day I accompanied Marija to the woodshed. She limped along, lightly swatting her bad leg with a branch. But when I reached down to gather the wood for her, she swatted my hand away, shook her head, smiled, and carried the wood herself.
I stayed with Marija four days. After the second I felt at home. By the third I didn't want to leave. I was not only happy but incorrigibly curious about who would enter the house that day, and what their story was. When I look back on that time I am filled with images and sensations that can only be appreciated when life is lived in slower motion: turnips simmering in a white enamel pot on a cookstove, a man replacing a brick tile in his roof, a child suspended in a hammock among raspberries and roses, three elderly nuns giggling like schoolgirls at the sight of a stranger, a churchbell ringing in the evening.
On the fifth day I left. Powerful emotions erupted from Marija, her weeping punctuated by the clip of her shears as she gathered roses from in front of her house. She thrust them into my arms, embraced me, released me, embraced me again. The leave-taking was almost unbearable, but I showed no resistance to her sentiment. In Marija's eyes, I deserved nothing less, for I was the son of her daughter-in-law's cousin.