Letter from Slovenia

My voice barely rose above a whisper as I obeyed the sounds of Slovenian hospitality. I nodded as my hosts filled my cup, and took more food. I am a foreigner, a special guest in the countryside, privileged to be invited into this tight-knit family.

We munched on bread and cheese as the bonfire blazed behind us, echoing the other fires that lined the hills for the May holiday. I had been living in Slovenia for almost three years, but that was the year I moved in long term, learned the language and started to make Slovenia home. This family welcomed me in and helped me do that. 

That weekend, I planned to only stay for a day when they invited me to join for the next day’s celebrations. Heading out for the night, unsure if I would be there when he returned, my friend’s dad hugged me goodbye and said “rad te imam, naša Chealsia.” I love you, our Chealsia. Those words were rare and weightier than the light, lazy “I love you” that often falls from fellow American mouths. I joyfully cancelled my ride back to Ljubljana. 

Slovenia is largely homogeneous—83 percent of its 2 million people are Slovene, 5 percent come from other former Yugoslavian states, and 12 percent are a mixture of immigrants.

When my black father came to visit, he couldn’t help but point out the only other black guy he saw in his six days here. For me, with olive-tinted skin blended over in beige, it’s the coarseness of my blondish brown curls, the major indicator of my race, that makes me stand out. I can often see the question of language (Slovene or English) in someone’s face as they take in my mass of kinky-curly hair.

I order soup at a cafeteria-style restaurant in my neighborhood and the man at the counter exults over how amazing it is that I speak Slovene. I walk into a dance class and the instructor begins speaking English before I open my mouth. It’s a wonder and rarity for a foreigner to speak Slovene, so I remind myself that these are expressions of hospitality and encouragement, though my pride insists I challenge their assumption and speak Slovene.

As we arrived, the family chatted around a blazing fire, drinking white wine spritzers. After everyone greeted us, a grandmother holding a two-year old lingered. She asked if I wanted to hold the child, who instantly shied away. “But look! Look at her hair,” said the woman, taking the girl’s hand and placing it on my head.

They used my hair as a ploy to warm her up to me the day before, but this time I felt uncomfortable—like my hair was a shiny toy and I was the display case that held it. I was reminded of the many times here, where people asked to touch my hair and reached in my direction before I could reply. As if they needed to rush in case I said no. 

But I get to say no, don’t I? I do. Yes, you do.

I’d always felt severed from my natural hair. For most of my life, I only saw it when it was being tamed– smoothed and straightened– to match the hair that naturally grew out the heads of my white friends. Here, it sometimes causes greater distinctions. 

At a party this summer, a group of strangers asked if I would stay here forever.

“You can’t go back to America, you speak Slovene,” said a blonde guy with perfectly coiffed thin hair. “You’re ours.”

I blushingly thanked him.

“But your face doesn’t look Slovene,” he corrected himself.

“No,” said his girlfriend, “it’s the hair. If you had different hair, you could be Slovene.”

As we sat at the fire-lit table, I felt a gentle tug on one of my curls, as if a beetle clipped me on its way past. Checking to see if it was still there, I found, not a bug, but my friend’s aunt, who, though she was at least in her fifties, blushed like a child. She stared at me, caught, hair in hand.

“Oh, it’s you,” I said politely. “I thought it was a bug.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Kakšne lase imaš!” What hair you have!  Her giggle alerted the rest of the table and before I could respond, hands swarmed me from every direction.

My head lowered as I felt the weight of timid pulls and pats. I reopened my eyes to reply to the stream of responses: It’s so soft! Have you ever braided it? Do you dye it? 

I sifted through Slovene and English in my head, caught grasping between my status as a guest and disbelief. 

As my heavy bun hit the pillow that night, I wished that I spoke as clearly as my hair. I knew they didn’t mean anything by it. But still, I could have interjected “no” as quickly as they grabbed. Instead I sat there, deflated. 

When I shared my feelings with my dad, he sympathized before sternly saying, ”you need to self-identify. You never had to do that before.”

A tear dropped as I processed this. I didn’t self-identify with him before; I hid behind the privilege of my mixed-race ambiguity. It wasn’t until I was the only black person in nearly every room I entered, where ignorance emboldened people to turn to me in a full room to ask, “why are black people killing people” or defend a racist joke with “it’s not like there are any black people here,” that I needed to speak. 

Here, I felt how shock paralyzes. I felt hurt when my fellow Americans, who were white, stayed quiet and waited for me to respond. I felt frustration and pressure knowing I would need to thwart defensive justification before anyone would listen. I never thought it would be here, far from the black-white conflict in America, that I would identify with my blackness and learn to speak up. 

Chealsia Smedley