In 1991, Erica Johnson was an investment analyst living in New York city when she met a dark-haired Slovenian poet, Ales Debeljak. On their first date, Ales made it clear that he intended to return to Slovenia in three-months time, and that he would not let any “forbidden bread” (i.e. forbidden fruit or in this case, Erica) derail his plans. The looming expiration date aside, the two began a relationship, with neither one knowing exactly where it was headed. A break-up and make-up later, Ales, true to his word, returns to Slovenia; Erica promises to call and visit, and take things one step at a time.
Despite the initial pitfalls of very-long distance relationship, Ales proposed in 1993 and Erica made the radical decision to leave her job, her family, and her friends and move to Slovenia. In the early 90’s, Slovenia was a country that very few Americans ever heard of. Gaining its independence from the former Yugoslavia in a ten-day war, Slovenia was struggling to modernize and enter the twentieth century with meager resources. Not surprisingly, Erica’s decision was greeted with puzzled looks, questions like “Where is that?” and warnings from her Eastern European friends about her future husband not lifting a finger.
Married to Ales in October of 1993, Erica embarked on a journey of discovering a radically different culture. With farms in the middle of the city and entertainment consisting of three bars, Ljubjana (the capital of Slovenia) was light years apart from New York City. Erica was often looked at as the silly American who did not understand customs (or more often old wives’ tales) like wearing slippers inside a home to prevent ailments, or triple-diapering a baby to avoid strange leg deformities. She often felt lonely and detached from the people around her, but took her new surroundings in stride. Erica learned Slovenian, dealt with the remnants of Soviet bureaucracy and most importantly, came to appreciate and enjoy the country that was now her home.
As described by Publisher’s Weekly, Forbidden Bread is at once “a love letter to Erica’s husband and an introduction to the Slovenian world”. Part a reverse mail-order bride story, part a history/geography lesson, and part a family account, Forbidden Bread is above all a tribute to the lengths people go to for love.
1. I am originally from the former USSR, and know firsthand how different the American and Eastern European cultures are. That said, what was the one thing that was most shocking to you when you first moved to Slovenia? What was the one thing you missed the most about the United States?
The most shocking thing, and it is dealt with in Forbidden Bread, was definitely the bureaucracy and the fact that, even after marrying a Slovenian citizen, I had no proper status in Slovenia. I didn’t automatically have the right to reside or work in Slovenia. This was a real eye-opener for me. I had always taken for granted the rationality of the state and its role to look after its citizens (and their spouses). Suddenly I was confronted with what struck me as a totally irrational governing body. Over time, of course, Slovenia more or less got its act together, and I began to look over my shoulder and realize that perhaps what I had taken for granted, the rationality of the American state and its own protective role, was actually not as perfect as I thought.
What I missed most about America was on an entirely different level: I missed ethnic food (at the time there was none in Slovenia), and I missed homosexuals, the campy party life of New York and its night clubs. Of course, there were and are gays in Slovenia but they tend to be much less flamboyant and out-of-the-closet than their New York counterparts…
2. Do you ever wish you could raise your children in the US, or do you think Slovenia offers them the perspective that US couldn’t?
That is the issue that troubles me the most as time passes and my children grow up in Slovenia. It is something of a paradox. The American school system can be so poor in terms of straightforward education: for example, teaching kids languages and geography and what they need to know about the world around them. But it does convey a certain optimism and can-do spirit which is totally lacking in the Slovenian and wider European system. And there are so many possibilities in the American system in terms of schools with various pedagogical methods, universities in different cities, etc.
The Slovenia system remains a very old-fashioned monolithic system that stresses memorization over creativity and lacks any sort of diversity. That being said, being raised in Slovenia and other smaller countries of the world gives children a more nuanced perspective on how life can and should be lived. American children (and Americans in general) are very parochial and materialistic and often cannot see beyond their own narrow, and destructive, way of doing things.
3. What do you think is the biggest difference between Americans and Slovenians?
I suppose it’s the classic difference that I alluded to above: the optimism and dynamic can-do spirit of America versus the more circumspect European approach to life. Slovenia is perhaps even more cautious in its relationship to the world because it is so small and this aspect of identity, which might have liberated Slovenians, continues to be a source of torment and introspection.
Though I must say, as a footnote, that it is strange to live in Europe in this particular moment when America is going through such a bizarre chapter in its political life, for example, in the debate over healthcare. Europe is held up by many Americans as some sort of horrifying socialist realm, a characterization that strikes me as almost comically absurd. Because, in fact, the European, and Slovenian, way of life is so much more sane and balanced than the American. I mean people should have decent health care and should have a decent amount of holiday each year and shouldn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on college or four hundred dollars a night for a routine hospital stay (even when they’re insured). The Slovenian era I wrote about in Forbidden Bread, the nineties, was Slovenia’s time to figure out who it was as a state. Now I think it is America’s turn and we all look on with great interest.
4. What made you decide to write Forbidden Bread?
The seed of Forbidden Bread was planted back in 1995 when an editor of Slovenia’s largest circulation newspaper, Delo, asked me to write a series of articles about my life as an American in Slovenia. (I wrote in English and the articles were translated into Slovenian.) This eventually turned into a book published in Slovenia for a Slovenian readership in 1999 (Foreigner in the House of Natives). I always wanted to tell the story to an American audience and was given that opportunity by North Atlantic Books, which heard about the Slovenian memoir and asked me to rewrite it for the American market.
Forbidden Breadis an entirely new book, telling the story in a much more novelistic and less essayistic manner. It focuses more on the love story and less on sociological differences, and it benefits from the hindsight of ten years. In Forbidden Bread, I was really able to see the nineties, the transitional period in Slovenia, more clearly. Looking back on it now, it was a unique and magical time: the lazy unmotivated leisure of socialism (i.e., drinking all night and having long-winded conversations about literature and history and the bankruptcy of Western ideas) combined with a sense of forward momentum and hope for the future. Now that we all have to work so hard in Slovenia and the West really is bankrupt, it’s much less fun.
5. What are your three favorite books?
Oh, I always find favorite book questions so difficult to answer. I have different favorites at different times. Annie Dillard was one of my great inspirations for non-fiction and memoir writing, particularly An American Childhood and The Writing Life. In terms of Yugoslav literature, which I discovered when I moved here, I love Ivo Andric’s Bosnian Chronicle and Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish. My favorite recent read was Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, a book that deals with similar themes as Forbidden Bread: love and exile.