To Serb With Love

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

Pavle discovered his Serb relatives just as Yugoslavia began to break apart.
You must know something of all of these remarkable people when you wonder how long troops will be required in the Balkans to impose and keep the peace.

Pavle cannot sort out his family's legends. He wishes only for peace and the safety of his aunt in Belgrade. He is left on his own to pass on the tales, to try to make sense out of the incredible hatreds, to say, as all young people must: These are my people; but who am I?

Pavle Milic orchestrates his dinner service with the sort of spunky, comic banter one might expect if a less-frantic Roberto Benigni scripted the meal.

Menus are mere props to his stream of consciousness.
This is Pavle's story about his marriage.
He found the perfect girl in New York City, a stockbroker who graduated from St. John's.

He swept her off her feet by taking her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and introducing her to Van Gogh.

When she visited Arizona, the couple went up in a hot-air balloon, where Pavle opened up a ring box and popped the question on bended knee.

Of course, she said yes.
Still, there were complications.
"Her family was mortified," says Pavle. "She'd been manicured to marry Prince Charles, and here I was a street kid with not so much as a degree, let alone any economic prospects."

Three months into the engagement, she dumped Pavle by e-mail.
"Who gets dumped by e-mail, this, this, fiber-optic limbo?" wonders Pavle.
After indulging himself in 24 hours of inebriated despair, he refused to accept his dismissal and, three months later, on July 15, 1998, they wed.

"Then I watched the video of the marriage," says Pavle. "When they asked, 'Does anyone know a reason why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony?' There's her mother, waving her hand wildly."

The marriage lasted 12 weeks.
"What can I say? It is true I have lived."
Dinner with Pavle is always like that. You soon feel you're meeting the new man in your favorite niece's life over Sunday pot roast.

He is neither tall nor short. The plumpness of Pavle's face is cherubic, unlined and darkly burnished like a cruet of olive oil. The dimple in his chin is the appropriate distance from his chopped, dark hair.

The truth is that women simply cannot resist his impishness.
Recently I took a winter visitor, Olivette Rodgers, to dinner at Rancho Pinot. A rambunctious woman who is more fond of Jack Daniel's and dirt tracks in the Baja than seems probable for someone past 70, Olivette sat bemused as Pavle itemized the evening specials with typical flourish and embellishment. When he returned to the kitchen, Olivette, grinning a few teeth shy of a leer, said to my wife, "Doesn't that young man have the cutest bottom?"

After many years of enjoying Pavle's professional charm, a point came when he lowered the mask of hospitality; only then did we speak more easily of children and parents. And so I learned that Pavle's family was scattered across the globe.

Nothing catalogued between the pages of Darwin's log upon the good ship Beagle ever suggested more possibility than Pavle's announcement at the dinner table some years back that he was half Colombian and half Yugoslavian.

Born in South America in 1972, Pavle grew up without knowing his father or any of his Slavic relatives. As a toddler, he spent many evenings under a cocktail table in the nightclubs Nora Lopez, his 18-year-old mother, frequented. When he was 7, she went to New York City on a temporary visa and stayed for four years.

While she was gone, Pavle attended military school in Colombia, not because his family harbored any designs about a career in uniform for their son but simply because it was a good school. He ignored the drilling and focused upon the military band, where he played the drums.

Pavle's memory of childhood loneliness is less strong than the recollection that it was his Colombian grandmother who introduced him to art, a passion that comforts him to this day.

In 1983, Pavle's mom returned to Colombia with a new husband from New York, a restaurateur, Guillermo Rivera.

When she attempted to move her son to North America, Rade, who had had almost no contact with Pavle, refused to sign the papers, reasoning that Nora was not the most stable of mothers.

Undaunted, his mother baptized her 11-year-old son a second time and changed his name from Milic to her maiden name. He arrived in New York in 1984 as Pavle Lopez.

Four years later, in 1988, Pavle moved to Arizona from Queens with his new family, enrolled in Saguaro High School and began working for his stepfather at Franco's Trattoria, and later at Adesso.

Through all of this upheaval, Pavle never forgot that his heritage was also Serbian, and, in 1992, when he became a U.S. citizen, he legally changed his name back to Milic.

In the beginning of our conversations, Pavle's stunted familial connections were draped in the misdirection of anecdote: Instead of trotting out skeletons, or relatives, from his visits to Colombia, he dazzled listeners with stories, like the time he saw the shrine where the Medellin drug cartel's killers pray to become better executioners.

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