Each page crackled as the village priest opened centuries old church birth records and my anticipation heightened when the page fell to my great grandfather’s name. The discovery of a hand written family tree led me to this “old country” village of Metlika, Slovenia, Old Yugoslavia. Soon I would find the working vineyard where my great grandfather Martin Jakljevic emigrated from in the late 1880’s to start a new life in America.
Vineyards, wine making and sheep breeding are the heart of the Bela Krajina region, a mere 2 miles from the border of Croatia. The annual wine festival, the Vinska Vigred is a celebration of the white and red wine harvest and I knew that was just the right time to visit. My long lost relatives own a tourism B&B including farm to table foods and they anxiously awaited my visit.
Growing up with the Yugoslavian relatives, we shared freshly home baked potica bread and discussions as to where the family truly originated from in Europe. This expedition would be like Columbus being sent out by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as far as my family was concerned.
Envisioning dirt roads in a rural village, I was pleasantly surprised with the paved roads, big yellow directional signs and mini markets along the highway. Being a member of the European Union has modernized this country that is slightly larger than the state of New Jersey. The tourists have yet to find this sleeping gem of a gorgeous country.
Through rolling green hills, chalet style homes with family gardens protected by little fences and a sunny Mediterranean climate, I arrived to my homeland. The Jakljevic family ran to greet me and grand papa age 80 through the youngest third cousin age 13 circled around me with very broken English giving me the warmest welcome.
Immediately whisked away to the large patio overlooking a steep valley with sheep roaming and bales of hay tightly rolled up, a crisp tablecloth embroidered with the family crest was ceremoniously draped over the patio table.
Glass carafes of red and white wines were proudly set on the table and refilled often as our conversations focused on the family lineage. I grazed on fresh lamb sausage, jagged chunks of cheese and hearty breads served from a decorative tray. The older relatives who were survivors of World War II and knew the days of war torn Yugoslavia ate their food down to the last morsel. Locals arrived to buy wines and peaking through the big wooden doors to the cold wine cellar, I knew as long as there was wine, there was conversation!
In the afternoon, we all walked through the Metlika wine festival enjoying freshly baked breads and roasted meats while listening to native Slovenian musical groups performing on stage. Third cousin Katje played the accordion with enthusiasm on stage!
The village priest awaited us and he gathered the old books of birth and baptism records from a back room.
The names that I had heard of all my life unfolded right before me, great grandparents and great aunts and uncles all listed. Later, walking through the local cemetery where my ancestors are buried I was impressed how the families had modernized each plot out of respect for the loved ones.
The visit went by quickly and the family invited me back in the fall to help with grape harvesting. The harvest is a community event with each family helping pick grapes, playing the accordion and singing as the grapes in the village are gathered.
Grand Papa pointed to the vineyards and exclaimed, “Martin, Martin!” The vineyards begun by Martin continue to prosper in many ways to this day. I’ll be ready for the grape harvest with my wicker basket and helping grand papa pick from our century’s old vines happily singing along with the accordion music.