"I have millions, 10,000 million people right here," said Ljubica Roth, throwing her arms wide as if to gather all humanity in, then clasping her hands over her heart. "I am in life really for the people, and I have a place for the next 10 million in my heart."
Having spent much of her life traveling and observing the human comedy, Ljubica (Buba to her friends, and that's almost everyone) is the six-months' bride of Peter Roth, a Swiss-born teacher of geology at the University of Utah.Theirs is a love affair that for most people would not have taken place, so much was it fueled by chance, and by extraordinary exertion. This accords well with Buba's philosophy.
"Life may be difficult, but all things are possible," she said, with a radiant, wide smile.
Going to Buba's house for an interview is not a matter of sitting primly on a sofa, writing down pat answers to formal questions. Instead, you are swept into a hospitable little home, filled with enthusiastic conversation and spicy cooking odors. Although it's only mid-morning, a lunch of cheese pirozhka ("closed pizza," she calls it) is ready to pop into the oven.
Abundance bubbles up and spills over, all around this vibrant, laughing woman with the hands of an actress, who has come to make America her home.
Buba was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and grew up in the seacoast town of Dubrovnik, with her grandmother and grandfather. "I finished high school in Uzhitse," she said, in English that is already becoming fluent. ("I knew only 40 words in English six months ago," she confided.) "From 17, I said, I can go it alone. I told my family, if I need you I will call, but I never called. I worked and finished school."
That included a two-year course learning to be a travel guide, a major in geography at the University of Belgrade, and a nearly completed master's degree in demography from the same school. But her real education has come from traveling - "two or three times a month, always, everywhere," she said.
All that was about to end, back in July 1987. She had signed on as a guide, escorting a medical group to Russia from Belgrade, "and I had decided it would be my last tour," she said.
Enter Peter Roth (on July 14, to be exact), traveling on the same Aeroflot jet to Leningrad as an exchange professor through the National Academy of Sciences for the United States, Soviet Union and East Europe. "I helped Peter talk to some of the doctors," she said, "and he mentioned his name and hotel.
"Two nights later I thought, I go find him. But he was not at the hotel he had named. I had only his name and the society's name to go on, but I kept trying, called 10 hotels, and after two days I found him.
"We had only a few hours together, for dinner and a stroll along the river. He told me, I am coming to Yugoslavia in September, and we arranged to meet - in Belgrade, then to Zlatibor, a resort town in the mountains, for three days. The sky was so close, with millions of stars, like a movie.
"When he asked me to marry him, my answer was simply `yes,' though I knew exactly what it would mean - people from two different countries, making a life in a third country; two different religions, Orthodox and Protestant. But I knew this would be the best life for us both, and we are all born to make the best life possible."
Though it's a second marriage for both, it's better than the first time, they agreed. Roth, a thin, bearded academician with a kindly expression, looked at Buba fondly and said, "wherever we go from now on, we will be together."
In 1987 Roth was going for the second time to the Soviet Union, to research and lecture on oceanography. "I'm adventurous, too," he said in a masterpiece of understatement. He left Switzerland "because there wasn't much work for geology teachers," and spent a year in Edinburgh studying English.
After graduate work in marine science at the University of Miami, he returned to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to take a Ph.D. His path eventually led to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego; and 13 years ago, to a position at the U.
For Buba, travel was spurred by a compelling desire to see for herself who and what is out there. "I did a lot of tour guiding, in Russia and Western Europe," she said. "But always I had this dream of China, and finally I saved enough to spend a year there, in 1985-86."
Beginning and ending at Beijing, she traversed Mongolia, Tibet, central and southern China, living among the people, sometimes with nothing to eat for three days, encountering many adventures.
Once at the top of Tanggula Pass in Tibet, in bitter weather (minus 75 degrees Celcius), she took shelter in a small room along with 200 motor vehicle drivers - the only woman, and the only non-Oriental. "I came wide awake at 4:30 a.m., and tried to go outside, but the skin of my hand froze to the doorknob," she recalled. "I screamed, and they came with warm water to loosen it. I cried; I thought what am I doing here, thousands of miles from home?"
Another time, hiking to mountain monasteries, she literally had a monkey on her back. "They rove in packs and beg food, and you must show them your hands, and say `meo, meo,' which means `I don't have anything,' " she said. "The monkey thought I might have food in my camera case or pack, and sometimes they slit people's throats, clawing for food. Just in time, a panda came lumbering out of the woods, and since monkeys are deathly afraid of pandas, they all ran away. It was a kind of miracle."
Such terrifying experiences have receded to their proper perspective in Buba's big, glorious dream that came true. "I am so happy I was born and went there," she said. "I am rich now. I have all Tibet here (clasping her heart), the Yangtze River - all those people in my heart."
Like many others, Buba Roth believes the 21st century will indeed be the age of information. But salvation will not lie in computers alone; technology must be the servant, in dispensing the sort of information that leads to communication, she said.
"The future is in people. A psychology professor in Siberia told me, the problem of war will not be solved by weapon production, but inside of people. If we have enough accurate information about each other, we will understand and love each other. We already have a great deal of information about the Russians, but we are too lazy to pursue it."
Buba's best friend in Russia, a political commentator for television in Tblisi, also favors communication to ease tensions. "He says at the personal level there is no problem. The Russian people still worry about war in their own land, they want peace. It's mad politicians that make the trouble - like the fable of two rams who meet head to head on a log over a river, and butt each other until both fall into the water."
Buba Roth has friends in China, though she doesn't even remember their names, and sometimes their communication was only by looks and glances. "One was a professor of biology in Shanghai, who helped me on a crowded boat, between Nanjing and Shanghai," she said. "I talked to him about China, and he likes what's happening, how the Chinese people have changed."
Pulling out some stylized pen and ink sketches of the dramatic Limestone Hills, she recalled a brief encounter with two artists in the nearby city of Guilin. "They had a little shop where they sold their paintings. They cooked, I brought wine," she said. "I couldn't speak their language, but we communicated perfectly by signs."
At another time, in Tibet, she surreptitiously watched a strictly secret and gruesome ritual. "Tibetan Buddhists believe that a suicide must be buried in the ground, but a good man who has died a natural death will not go to heaven unless he is dismembered, cut in little pieces, and his flesh eaten by the eagles," she said.
"I thought I must see this, so one very early morning I followed a cortege to the mountains, to a great stone, where the ritual was carried out by priests. I was weak with shock afterwards, and sat down in the road, I couldn't walk.
"Just then a man, his wife and three children came by. They saw I was in distress and tried to comfort me. But since we couldn't talk, the children sang and danced for me until I smiled - and they smiled, and that man is my friend.
"It's people to people contacts like this that are important," she said. "If travelers meet one good person, their impression of a country is good."
During her first 15-year marriage to a Russian, Ljubica "tried to be a housewife." She finds the Russian people hospitable by nature, but trapped by their situation, without the energy to make major changes.
"They are open and closed at the same time," she said. "Life is hard there. You never leave the house without a plastic bag, in case you find some food to buy. It takes more than an hour to find enough for dinner. If Russians go to the theater, they must work until 5, then go directly to the play by 7. They are hungry, they eat there, the place smells of garlic, they must catch the last Metro home.
"Already I am much more in tune with American life and arts. Not everything here is good, but people try, they are open to ideas," said Buba.
"I am not just romantic, I do everything for the best life. First I must find my personality here. I may teach Russian." Besides Russian, she is proficient in her native Serbo-Croatian and German, and speaks a little Chinese and Italian.
A free spirit, she traveled widely in the Soviet Union. "I have always gone where I wanted to go, and done what I wanted to do," she said cheerfully. "It's possible, you just say what you are going to do, then do it."
What she wanted included riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad several times, all the way to its eastern terminal in Vladivostok, then flying home.
"Thousands died making that railroad. Siberia is fascinating, it's like the Slovenian spirit - big, open and flat," she laughed, showing pictures of a sere, colorless landscape with small trees and rolling meadows. "Every morning for seven days, when you get up, the landscape is always the same."
Peter too spent time in Siberia, at Academgorodok near Novosibirsk. There many intellectuals have come to lead the development of Siberia, "and it's relatively nice," he commented, "but they all dream of Leningrad. It reminds me of our West, and the pioneer spirit. Russians refer to Siberia as `out East.' "
On one flight from Vladivostok, Buba sat beside the air force official who "pushed the button," authorizing the rocket shot to destroy the Korean airliner that strayed over Soviet territory in 1983.
"He was a high-ranking officer," she said, "and he didn't like America, he distrusted, but he worried that the cost of defense was too high. He was well educated, he quoted Dostoyevsky. He spoke of our lives needing more laughter, theater, food, being together, understanding."