Seventeen hours of air travel. One crappy rental car. Three generations of strong females. During a pilgrimage to the mother country, a lot of things go wrong, but the important things go just right.
Photo: Hanno Mackowitz

Photo: Hanno Mackowitz

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“Mom, what’s the exit number?” I ask, turning up the windshield wipers higher so I can see the yellow signs through the rain.

My mother traces her finger along the map of Slovenia we got from the rental-car guy at the Ljubljana airport who watched us load five suitcases, one booster seat, and three pairs of skis into our janky stick shift that has the horsepower of a lawnmower. With its engine light on.

“Well, it says 9, but I don’t see any numbers on the signs, do you?”

The clouds hang too low for us to see 
the distant mountains, but the brown hills have such a defined snow line, they look 
like they were airbrushed on with a stencil. Handcrafted hay-drying racks with shingled roofs, icons of Slovenia, dot the soggy yellow fields. This country is so small—one 13th the size of our home state of Colorado—yet so... Slovenian. Proud and insular.

“Do they have lice in Slovenia?” Cate, seven, asks from the back seat. She can see out of only one window, thanks to the ski bags running down the center of the car. I have to shove them back every time I shift. She’s still disappointed about passing the scalp inspection at school because her best friend, Joey, got to miss a whole week. “I’m sure they do, honey.”

I check the time. Nineteen hours after we started, after chasing the airport security woman in Dallas Fort Worth who picked up the phone my mom left in the bathroom, after spending $30 on a neck pillow shaped like Nemo, after continuous arguments over my mother’s refusal to relinquish Cate’s rainbow leopard backpack (“I got it!”), after repeated inquiries as to who would like a Starbucks, and then repeated arguments over paying for the Starbucks (“I got it!”), three generations of girls have made it to our motherland. Well, almost.

“What’s the street called, Mom?” I ask.

Silence. Then she erupts in laughter and shakes her head. I wonder how her hair can look so great after flying all night. “I don’t even know what these letters are!” she says. My mother, with her bright scarves, low heels, and pedicured toes, is a master at accessorizing. I’m more of a hider of dirty hair under a hoodie. And Cate? She packed her bag with slippers and a robe for “hanging out at the spa.” I am seriously outnumbered.

My mom is still laughing. “What kind of alphabet is this? T-r-z-a-ska Cesta?!”

“Grandma, ask Siri,” Cate offers. “She’ll know.”

God help us. A passing truck douses our windshield in water, and I drive right by the exit, which may or may not have been ours. “Well guys,” I announce, “we may be lost, but at least we don’t have lice.”

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My mother’s mother is Slovenian. She lives in Vegas now, but when I was growing up in Denver I knew her house better than my own. I wasn’t planning on seeing her before our trip, but my great-uncle died, so she came back home to Denver two days before our flight.

"Hi, honey!” Nina said as I walked in the door to my house, where she was already chatting with my uncle Jim, my mom, and my stepdad Ron, my daughter Cate, and my brother Andy. They were early, or more likely I was late. Probably both. She reached out 
to me with arms as brittle as bird wings and grabbed my face with soft, knobby fingers. She was wearing the same plum funeral suit she wore to my grandfather’s funeral 20 years ago, and it was so big on her that it made her look like a little girl playing dress-up.

“You look so skinny!” she said to me.

“Oh my God, Nina. Look at you!” I said back.

“Well, I’m old. But I must say I don’t look half bad for my age. I have to tell you. The other day I was in the steam room at the gym...” and she launched into a version of the same story she’s told as long as I can remember. My favorite is when she goes to the doctor and he tells her she has great boobs. Which, I must admit, she really does.

Meanwhile, Ron rummaged through the dishwasher to find matching bowls—or any bowls—for hummus and peppers, while my mom poured Nina a Bud Light Lime that’d been in my fridge since the last time she visited. “Being at your house is like camping,” my mom said, opening up the hutch in the dining room. “I mean, you don’t even know what you need. Where are those bowls I bought you at Costco?”

My uncle Jim was laughing in great hee-haws at something Cate just said, and then my brother scolded her gently with his latest science lesson. “No, sweetheart, the moon makes waves. Not wind.” Ron took orders for the Thai food. Nina accidentally called Cate by my name. And no one knew what the hell Panang curry is.

We’ve never met The Relatives. When Nina went to Slovenia and then Herzegovina to stake out apparitions of the Virgin Mary on a rocky hillside 20-some years ago, she wasn’t able to find them. But a few years back, her cousin Joze sent her a letter with 
a photo of himself with two tow-headed kids on a tractor, in front of the wood stacks that surround his shed. That was the only connection we had to go on.

Nina’s father came to the States when he was only 14 and worked at a smelter in Globeville, a Denver neighborhood that sprouted in the late 1880s and was once the heart of Denver’s Yugoslavian community. He eventually married, via arrangement, my then 16-year-old Slovenian great- grandmother, who was half his age. I never knew him; he was an alcoholic who died of pneumonia contracted in the South Platte River flood of ’65—his lungs were shot from the smelter—but I remember the barrels where he made sour Slovenian-style wine in the basement. Joze’s father, who lost all of his toes in World War I, is the only one of five siblings who stayed behind.

As Nina talked, Cate watched her intently, her eyes as big as a fruit bat’s. I remembered being her age, watching my great-grandmother roll out homemade noodles and potica, a Slovenian dessert cake, on the vinyl tablecloth on her kitchen table in that same Globeville house. I remember the time I rinsed the too-runny eggs she made us down the sink without a garbage disposal, and she swore up a great storm in Slovenian. I remember the sun pouring in through those kitchen windows, and the tree out back we climbed to pick plums for jam. The air outside always smelled like burning rubber.

I looked around my candlelit dining table at my family, matriarchal by attrition. Like all families, we’ve suffered loss and harbored grudges, but there’s so much love here. Four generations of women...the past, present, and future. I got a feeling in my chest that’s not dissimilar to the one you get when you sit one row back from the orchestra pit. What a rich sound.

I may only have part Slovenian blood, and my daughter even less, but it’s the only ancestry to which I feel connected. And besides, Slovenians are skiers. What better excuse for a family trip is there than that?

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Ljubljana’s Hotel Cubo is all clean lines and low-slung furniture. Our bathroom is walled in glass. None of the light switches work. Mom says, “Oh my god, there’s two toilets in this tiny room!”

Cate says, “Grandma, that’s the bidet. It’s for your butt.” Then she walks over to the door and sticks the room key in an electronic slot in the wall. All the lights turn on.

“Cate, how did you do that? How do you know what a bidet is?” I ask, welling up with a mixture of pride, laughter, and horror.

“I dunno. I go to school, Mom,” she says, a hidden smile pulling at one side of her face.

“They teach you about bidets in school?”

“Well, no, you taught me that.”
 “I did?”
 We look out the window. It’s overcast and rainy, but the hill from which the city’s ancient stone castle presides is white with fresh snow. It’s like a fairy tale. This is where the Alps begin. This tiny country is almost all mountains; more than half is covered in rich, dark, damp forests, punctuated by the 9,000-foot peaks of the Julian Alps. I tell Cate that people were on skis here in the 16th century, which is just after America was discovered.

“When do we get to go skiing, Mom?” The question is surprising, a deviation from her usual request to go shopping. Or to the movies. Anywhere but skiing.

“Tomorrow, honey,” I tell her, with cautious excitement creeping into my voice. “Tomorrow.” I know enough by now to just leave it at that.

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There are some skiers who become parents and somehow manage to complete backcountry objectives, go on hut trips, and generally infuriate other skiing parents who haven’t had a pow day all year. I am not one of these. I am a skier. And a parent. And because neither of those things is, at this point, negotiable, I have to combine them. In other words, I take what I can get.

And so for me, skiing has become a test of patience. And mindfulness. Because if I spend my day yearning for the future or pushing Cate to be like other kids, I miss out on the present and miss out on who she is. Besides, I tell myself, if she’s never going to be as passionate about the sport as I am, well, she’ll certainly make a better living.

Vogel resort, 45 minutes from the city, seems to be just our speed. Mellow cruisers through deciduous forests are the only runs open, due to a snowpack that, this year, looks more like a nursery for willows and shrubs. The lifts are slow, the light is milky, and we’re having a blast. It’s my mom’s first time back on skis since a double knee replacement,
 and it’s Cate’s seven-bazillionth time on skis. Which means they’re pretty much on the same page.

I cruise with them for a few runs, Cate still working on keeping her skis in french fry and out of pizza, and then we get to a steeper pitch and her legs start vibrating with the effort of trying to scrub speed. Meltdown. I feel my chest tighten with frustration as I try to coax her along, and familiar thoughts churn through my head.

Sometimes parenting feels a lot like fumbling around in a purse for a lost set
 of keys. Or trying to drive while someone holds his hands over your eyes. Which is to say, I have no idea what I’m doing. The plus side of all of this, however, is that I wholly forgive the shortcomings of my own mother. Especially since I’m about to ditch her with my own screaming child to go meet my guide, so I can do some real skiing.

I pick Cate up off the snow and ski her between my legs until the hill mellows out again, then straightline down to the bottom. I’m not sure where the guide will take me, conditions and visibility being what they are, but I’ve been eyeing the ridge off the summit, with some steep chutes that look full of hazards but fun all the same.

It becomes immediately apparent, however, that a few things have been lost in translation.

Grega, the guide, stands before me smiling with a pair of what must be 157-cm slalom skis. He is not carrying a backpack. I have mine, complete with shovel, probe, and beacon, schlepped through DIA, DFW, Munich, and Ljubljana.

“Are you hungry? Let’s go have lunch!” he exclaims.

What can you do? Eat, I suppose. We walk into the log base hut, a classic mountain chalet. It’s full of character, and not the typical touristy Eastern Euro decor, which inexplicably always seems to include plastic swans. He orders us “mountain soup,” because traditionally mountain people make one pot over the kitchen fire, and it feeds the family for a week. We have pork and vegetable soup, and cabbage soup with sauerkraut. It’s delicious. There’s animal lard that I just can’t force myself to spread on my bread, and creamy cheese and cured salamis that I definitely can.

I ask Grega in what is hopefully a casual tone what kind of guiding he does. He pulls out a brochure for his business, which includes “mountain biking” on foldable bikes that fit in the trunk of a rental car. I ask him about backcountry skiing, and
 he points to a photo of a guy in cross-country skis on a track. I ask him about ski mountaineering. He tells me that Slovenians are proud mountain people. And no one guides for that kind of thing, because everyone who does it here already knows where to go. So he is here, I presume, to guide me through the menu and around the four clearly marked groomers I’ve already skied with my 64-year-old mother and first-grade daughter.

Outside, the weather has worsened; the sky is spitting drops of water on the rippled glass windows. We zip up and head out again, my desire to explore significantly weighted down by lunch and of course by the fact that we’re not actually exploring. He takes me back up to the top via a yellow single-skier chair—it looks like a bunch of old-fashioned school desks attached to a cable, and we ride through the fog into what feels like nothingness.

We take a few more runs, and the backdrop could be straight out of an
Ansel Adams photograph, the bare trees and underbrush black against the snow. The lifties play different music at each lift station, including Slovenian polka, and we’re almost always the only ones in the maze. The bunny slope on the front side, however, is surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday, with families cruising around on Atomic and Elan carving skis, riding the poma over and over. Grega tells me more people skied when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia because it was cheaper under Communism. People are struggling now, he says, but they still ski.

The weather looks like it’s clearing, so we get on the lift one more time to try to catch the views of Slovenia’s treasured Triglav National Forest. Just as we’re cresting the last pitch, the curtain lifts, and suddenly I’m in a Thomas Moran painting. The light, the light! The Julian Alps, their pale limestone faces coated with snow, glow in the gauzy winter sunshine. I see about a thousand lines I want to ski.

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I hang up the hotel phone, the directions to meet The Relatives written on the hotel notepad. I can’t believe we actually tracked them down. 

They live in the village of Ratje, but we arrange to meet them in Zuzembourg because Ratje is not on any map we can find. It’s raining, and the hamlets we pass through feel cold, empty, and charming all at the same time. We see barns, wood stacks, stone huts, quaint inns, and more hayracks in the brown winter fields. Roundabout after roundabout has us wondering if we’ve gone too far.

Just as we’re about to turn around, we go through another roundabout and see a castle right off the road. That must be it. To us, the castle seems like it should be a celebrated tourist destination, but to our relatives it’s just a landmark near a parking lot that’s perfect for meeting estranged foreign kin. We see Joze, his daughter Janja, and two of her beautiful blond children, Katarina and Dominick, who are walking out of the inn next door.

Joze doesn’t speak any English, but 
I say, “Nice to meet you,” and hug him awkwardly. He is old but very fit, with two deep and curious scars under his mouth. The first thing he says is, “Mikaela Shiffrin in Maribor!” I raise my eyebrows and laugh. He has no idea I am a skier but is referring to the World Cup slalom race she just won there. In Slovenia, it seems, everyone speaks Skiing.

It’s getting dark now, and we hop back into our car and follow them up a road barely wide enough for our tiny rental. The road tunnels through a dark, wet forest, the branches black against the deepening sky.

The forest thins and we see a crucifix marking the turn. Cate asks, “Mom, what is that? Why is he naked? And is that blood?” If my own mother hadn’t spent most of
 her adult life trying to recover from her Catholic upbringing, I might be worried that she would judge me for my parental inadequacies. My mom laughs—“I can’t wait to hear this”—and I explain that 
yes, it is blood, from the nails through his hands and feet that are holding him to the cross. I tell her that is Jesus Christ, who is actually the son of God. Or wait, is he God? Anyway, I continue, he came back to life a few days later and walked out of a cave. Or something like that. “Wow. That’s creepy,” she says.

We pull up to the house, a two-story wooden building with the same wood- ringed shed that we saw from the photo. The air smells like woodsmoke and damp leaves. We walk up the porch stairs to the entrance on the second story, and Janja tells us proudly that this is the same house Nina’s father—and her grandfather—grew up in. It’s been recently renovated, which as far as I can tell means they covered everything in linoleum. There are paintings of the Last Supper on the wall, all hanging far too high, up by the ceiling.

We sit down at the table and Joze’s wife brings us a giant plate of bologna, pickles, mushrooms, bread, and some local wine 
in small juice glasses. Janja and her kids translate for Joze. She brings out a box of photos from the living room, and my mom and I sift through them. My mom stops at one in particular—one of her when she was no more than five, sitting on a front porch with her brother and two sisters.

“Oh my gosh, how do you have this?” she exclaims.

Janja asks Joze and says, “Your grandfather sent it a long time ago.”

Cate, meanwhile, is telling Katerina about her hamster, which we found dead in its cage a week earlier. “He was really mean. I had to wear gloves to touch him,” she says.

“Mine too!” Katerina says, her blue eyes widening. “His name is Charlie. He’s a biter.” Then she asks Katerina the question I should have known was coming. “Have you ever had lice?”

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There are moments, traveling with my mother and daughter, when it feels like we’re playing a game of telephone. Cate tells me something that my mom can’t quite hear, she asks me what Cate said, I explain, she doesn’t understand, I get frustrated and hurt her feelings. (“Mom, don’t worry about it. It’s not important.”) There are moments when we’re all tired, and our nerves feel like they’re on the outside of our bodies, and I hurt everyone’s feelings. (“Cate, if you wake me up one more time to tell me Grandma’s snoring, I’m going to freak out.”) 

But then there are moments like this. It’s nighttime, and we’ve just finished a beautiful dinner at a lakeside restaurant in Bled. We were the only patrons there, and the family who owns the restaurant brought out dish after dish of local specialties: struklji with mushrooms, salmon smothered in fresh tomato sauce, and, of course, buttered pasta and cheese for Cate, who is apparently on a beige-food-only diet.

Back at the hotel room, full and sleepy after two glasses of wine, I sit at my computer going through my photos while my mom puts Cate to bed. She has one little arm flung onto my mom’s chest and one leg thrown over my mom’s lap.

“Cate, I’m trying to get you to relax,” my mom says. “Go floppy.”

Cate giggles. And then farts. And then giggles some more.

I scroll through photos of us at Piran, on the Adriatic Sea, and of us in the darkness of the caves of Postonja. Then comes a photo I forgot I took, of my mom and Cate on the chairlift at Vogel. I’m on the chair behind them, and they’re both just looking up ahead—at what, I can’t tell. I think about something the guide said: “Slovenians are mountain people. It’s in our blood.”

“No, go floppy. Go limp.” My mom picks up Cate’s leg and wiggles it. “I’ve been trying to teach you this since you were a baby.” My mom is laughing now, and Cate stiffens up again so she’ll keep playing the game.

Then exhaustion takes over, and Cate quiets down. My mom clicks off the light and cuddles her until she falls asleep. I hear them both breathing deeply, and, realizing that my mother has already drifted off, I smile.

I drag the photo into a folder of those I want to send to Janja and Joze. Who knows, maybe someday Cate will come across it with her own grandchildren, sitting around that same farmhouse table, in the middle of the forest somewhere in Slovenia.

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