AT THE START OF THE ‘LOCKDOWN’ in March 2020, there was some panic purchasing and it became difficult to buy items such as toilet paper, paracetamol tablets, yeast, and several other products used regularly. Fortunately, this situation has been resolved. Having experienced this situation briefly reminded me of two trips I made to Belgrade, the former Yugoslavia during the 1980s.
Often, I used to stay with my friend ‘R’, who had a flat in the heart of Dorćol, an old part of the city’s centre. One day, R announced that he had secured two places on a prestigious tour to visit the extensive Roman archaeological site at Gamzigrad in eastern Serbia. The tour group was to travel in two buses. One of them was for the ‘intellectuals’ and the other for the ‘workers’. We were to travel with the latter. The long drive from Belgrade to Gamzigrad was highly enjoyable. Everyone was drinking alcohol, chatting loudly, and often breaking into song. I wondered how we would cope with what promised to be a serious guided tour of the ruins of what had once been one of Diocletian’s huge palaces.
We were shown around by the eminent Professor Dragoslav Srejović (1931-1996), an archaeologist significantly involved in the discovery of the ancient Lepenski Vir site (9000-7000 BC) on a bank of the River Danube. I was impressed that everyone on the tour, especially my ‘tanked up’ fellow bus travellers, listened to the Prof quietly, attentively, and respectfully. By the time we had seen around the ruins, it was well after 1 pm. We were taken to a field with a few trees where there were long tables covered with tasty snacks and bottles of wine. We enjoyed these before boarding our coaches. I thought that we were about to head back to Belgrade, but we did not.
We were driven to a restaurant in nearby Zaječar, a town close to Bulgaria. What I had thought had been our lunch at Gamzigrad was merely a light hors’ d’oeuvre. We were served a hearty three-course meal. The desert was baklava. This was not served in the form of dainty little pieces like ‘petit fours’ but generously large slices. Turkish coffee ended the meal. The coffee was served in cups bearing the logo of the restaurant. Several of the group took them home as souvenirs.
After lunch, we had about an hour to look around Zaječar. R and I stepped into a food shop. My friend became very excited when he saw packs of butter on sale. This commodity was almost unavailable in Belgrade at the time. We carried our butter back to the coach, where R told some of the other passengers about his discovery. Moments later, everybody on our bus stampeded towards the shop and emptied it of butter.
On another visit to Belgrade, in April 1983, my friends were most upset. There was a severe shortage of coffee (in any form) in the city. This was a serious problem for people in the capital of Yugoslavia. I was staying in Belgrade on my way Bulgaria, which I was visiting for the first time. I told my friend, R, with whom I was staying in Belgrade, that if I found coffee in Bulgaria, I would bring some back for him and his friends.
There was no shortage of coffee in Bulgaria. I bought two kilogrammes of the stuff and after my short tour of the country, I headed back to Yugoslavia by train. At the Bulgarian side of the border, the train stopped. My travelling companion, S, and I were almost the only passengers in our carriage. After a wait of more than fifteen minutes, a Bulgarian customs official entered our compartment. He asked (in passable English) if we had anything to declare. We said that we had nothing. Then, he asked if we were carrying any coffee. I told him that I had two kilogramme packets, and he frowned before saying:
I asked him what to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders and said again:
I offered him the bags of coffee. He nodded his head up and down, which is the Bulgarian expression for ‘no’, and not to be confused with the English head nodding that means ‘yes’.
“Shall I throw it out of the window?” I asked.
“Not,” he replied before leaving our compartment.
Then, nothing happened for more than one hour. The train did not move, the countryside was silent, the train was noiseless, and nobody moved inside the train. After this long period of inactivity, I peered out of our compartment and looked up and down the carriage’s corridor. At one end, ‘our’ official and a couple of his colleagues, were smoking cigarettes and nursing tiny cups of coffee.
Suddenly, there was a jolt and our train began moving into the no-mans-land between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Clearly, my illegal export of coffee had been forgotten or forgiven. My friends in Belgrade were extremely happy with my gift of coffee beans from Sofia.
On subsequent visits to Belgrade, I never again encountered shortages of anything as basic as butter and coffee. I hope that Britain never finds itself in the ‘shortage’ situation, which is anticipated by some who believe that this might become a problem if the country leaves Europe without a trade deal.