To Serb With Love

Pavle Milic untangles his Balkan roots and discovers a cauldron of ancient passion and prejudice

"This couple came in and the lady said, 'Hmmm, with those cheekbones, I think part of you is Colombian.' The husband said the other part was Yugoslavian.

"Jesus Christ. I'm in New York two days, I have no money and I'm going to have to buy this couple a $200 dinner. How will I do that? How did they do that?

"Then they both started laughing. I'd waited on them years earlier in Phoenix."

Pavle laughs easily at the memory.
But the puzzle of Pavle's identity had always been jumbled and painful.
Pavle never forgot the ridicule he suffered at the hands of a football player when he attended high school in Arizona.

"They said I had an accent," remembers Pavle. "Yet I did not know where I was from."

He might as well have etched the quandary upon his business card.
He recalls clearly how disoriented he was to discover his father.
"I'd been so detached from this idea of having a dad. I had this monologue in my head. . . . 'So, this is my father.'

"I didn't know what a father was. My father was fearful of me pointing fingers. But no. Christ, he was welcome. This was my father. And it was such a surprise. He was highly interesting and philosophical. He didn't talk about my job or ask about my accomplishments. He asked me what I thought about this or that. He asked me what it was like to be alone in America."

The discovery of his Serbian family finally allowed Pavle to grasp the loose laces and tie his shoes.

"I grew up in a Colombian tradition, the food, the music. But I knew something was missing. It was as if I was always rough around the edges. It felt like a part of me was never nourished. With my aunt, I know that a part of me is in Eastern Europe. She is a threshold that allows me to step over the questions. It fills me up. The body asks for this."

But discovery does not contain itself to a simple mold.
How did Pavle feel upon learning that his dad was infested with old hatreds, or that his aunt was an apologist for ethnic cleansing and a carrier of the party line on genocide?

"I talked to my dad about that," said Pavle. "When he was here in Arizona, he met a friend of mine, another waiter, who is from Bosnia. My father was very pleasant to him when they talked. But later, he told me he couldn't help his initial reaction to this fellow who was Muslim.

"I said to him, 'Don't you think your bigotry is unintelligent?'
"'God help me,' he answered, 'I still can't help feeling pissed at Muslims.'
"As for my aunt, yes, it is a little upsetting. But I can't blame someone who only sees one side. Is she a patriot? Is she a victim of propaganda? And having bombs dropped on your head alters your objectivity unless you are highly evolved.

"But what she closes her eyes to in Kosovo is very sad. That is war."
Pavle Milic has, finally, a measure of contentment as he climbs upon the new limbs in his family tree. He still intends to visit his grandfather's grave in Yugoslavia in the company of his father and his aunt. Their hatreds, for him, are beside the point.

"A great deal of who we are rubbed off on us from others. Those are their experiences," said Pavle of his aunt and father. "But I've never been hurt by Muslims."

In the months of discussion between us during the Balkans war, Pavle had more on his mind than the safety of his aunt.

When his fiancee dumped him by e-mail in the spring of 1998, Pavle made a mistake.

"Needless to say, I was devastated, so devastated that I called an ex-girlfriend and went out to a bar and flooded my bloodstream with as much alcohol as I could withstand. The rest I'll leave up to your imagination," said Pavle.

At the end of April, DNA results proved Pavle fathered a child during that lost evening.

While trying to comprehend a Serbian family he never knew, Pavle inadvertently began a new one.

He hopes that what he has discovered about his own family will sculpt him as a parent.

"It makes me pensive that this little girl that carries a Serbian name, does not know hate," says Pavle. "This baby will not be raised to hate other people because of their religion or race. This baby does not live in the Balkans, for this I'm glad.

"On a more personal note, I'm really scared about being a dad."
The details of this new family are complicated; the parents do not intend to wed or even live together.

And the mother and infant are not expected to return to Phoenix from California until July.

But Pavle is resolved to stand by the baby, Hanah Lynn Milic.
Every morning at 7, the infant will be dropped off with Pavle, who will care for his daughter until 4 p.m., when he must get ready for work.

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