Foreign exchange

CAKOR 75 Summit

 

A chance encounter in the former Yugoslavia has stuck in my memory

Sometime in 1975, I travelled from Peć (now in Kosovo) to Titograd (now in Montenegro) by bus. I chose to take the route that went via the wild and difficult Ĉakor Pass that traverses the mountain range shared by northern Albania and Montenegro, where I was heading. We reached the highest point on the pass after driving around a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, and stopped there to give the driver a break.

While I was wandering around the treeless, grassy summit, admiring the views into the valley into which we would be descending, a grubby little boy approached me. He said something to me in a language, which I did not recognise as being Serbo-Croat. It was probably Albanian. Somehow, he made it clear to me that he wanted foreign coins. I thought that he was either a beggar, or more likely, just a curious youngster pleased to have chanced upon a foreigner. I gave him a few British coins, and then he rummaged around in his pocket. After a moment, he handed me a few Yugoslav Dinar coins, and left. He was no beggar, after all, but simply a young fellow with a well-developed sense of fairness.

After leaving the Ĉakor, we wound through the mountains to Andrijevica, a small Montenegrin town, which was enshrouded in rain and mist. Then, we descended gradually via a series of deep wooded canyons towards Titograd. All I saw of the town on that occasion was its bus station.

 

Picture shows view from the summit of  the Ĉakor Pass

Embarrassment

The 50 pence coin, a seven sided silver coloured object, had already been introduced into circulation in the UK when I was a pupil at Highgate School in North London (1965-70). In the mid to late 1960s, 50 pence had considerable purchasing power. For example, this amount of money would pay for two new paperback books.

At Highgate School, all 600 pupils ate lunch together in a large dining hall. The Headmaster, then Alfred Doulton, sat at a high table facing the long tables where his pupils and teaching staff ate.

At the end of lunch, Mr Doulton used to stand up and make brief announcements. If some money had been found lying about, he used to ask if any of us had lost it. Always, a pupil would walk up to the high table to claim the money. Before releasing it, Doulton would ask the claimant to prove that it was his.

I began worrying what I would say if I felt that I had lost the money that Doulton was asking about, especially if it were a valuable 50 pence coin.

So,whenever I had a 50 pence coin, I used a compass or dividers point to scratch my initials, “AY”, on my seven sided coin.

Luckily, I never mislaid any of my 50 pence coins. Had I done so and it had appeared in Doulton’s hand at the end of a lunch time, I would have been able to check whether the coin was mine. I still shudder to think that I would have become the laughing stock if the school had Doulton announced to the assembled pupils something like: “See how prudent Yamey has been. He has even marked his money just in case it gets lost.”

Now, remember if you are ever handed a 50 pence coin and it bears my initials, give it back to me. It’s mine!

Ticket to Sofia

BULG 1 sofia church

A church in Sofia, 1983

I decided to travel to Bulgaria in Easter 1983; it was close to Yugoslavia and I had not been there before. I wanted to travel by train rather than air, and to visit friends on the way. I planned to start my journey from Rainham, the village in Kent where I had been practising dentistry for just over a year.

 

I went to the local station and asked about buying a return ticket from Rainham to Sofia. I was told that as this was not a commonly made journey I needed to go to a special office at London’s Victoria Station to get this prepared. I did as I was instructed, paid the fare, and was informed that my ticket would be ready for collection a week later. Armed with this bespoke ticket and a Bulgarian visa, I left Rainham for Dover, crossed the English Channel by steamer, and then boarded a train bound for Milan.

BULG 4 Sofia outskirts

A factory on the outskirts of Sofia, 1983

My future wife, Lopa, was living in Milan, where the company for whom she worked as a management consultant was based. During the few days that I stayed with her, I met Dijana (from Belgrade) and her then boyfriend quite by chance in the Piazza del Duomo, the huge square in front of the cathedral. They came to eat with us at Lopa’s flat, where her mother was also staying during a long visit from India. Dijana, whose interests in feminism were developing rapidly at the time, was impressed that Lopa’s mother was a doctor, a gynaecologist. She held female professionals in much higher regard than male ones.

After dinner, Dijana and her friend washed the dishes. I remember that when her unshaven boyfriend, who was desperately attempting to empathise with her burgeoning feminism, was washing a pan, he pointed out that he was washing the outside of the pan as well as the inside. He claimed vociferously and self-righteously that most men ignored the outsides of cooking pans, whereas women always washed them. I believe that his close relationship with Dijana was short-lived.

BULG 3 Sofia univ

University of Sofia, 1983

I continued my rail journey to Belgrade, where I stayed, as usual, with Raša. I learned that disaster had struck: there was a grave shortage of coffee in the city. This was truly a tragedy amongst its citizens, most of whom drank vast quantities of the stuff. I promised Raša that if I saw coffee for sale in Bulgaria, I would bring him some on my return. A few days later, I met my friend Shabnam at Belgrade’s railway station. She had arrived from London, and was joining me on the trip toBulgaria.

When our train had crossed the border and entered Bulgarian territory, a Bulgarian immigration official came into our compartment and examined our passports. After handing them back to us, he sat down and asked us where we were going. When we said that we were visiting Bulgaria and going no further, he smiled. It was, I felt, an expression of genuine joy. He was so pleased that we were taking the trouble to visit his country rather than simply using it as a corridor, as most travellers did on their way to Turkey.

BULG 1a Sofia Station

A railway station in Sofia, 1983

At the main railway station in Sofia we exchanged some of our Sterling for Bulgarian Lev at an official bureau-de-change. I had read that it was best to avoid black market currency exchanges because, even though a highly favourable rate of exchange could be expected, there were serious penalties for foreigners who used unofficial money-changers. Even at the official rate of exchange, we found everything in Bulgaria to be ridiculously cheap by our standards.

The station was quite far from the city centre. We hired a taxi to take us there. When we reached the destination, I asked how much we needed to pay. I spoke in my primitive Serbo-Croatian which was useful for making me understood in Bulgaria. This was not surprising as Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian are quite closely related on the family tree of languages. The driver replied,“One Pound, one Dollar, one Deutschmark, one Swiss Franc…” “But we have Lev,” I interrupted, waving some Bulgarian currency notes at him. The driver stuck his nose into the air contemptuously, and said, “Two.” I pointed at the meter, which indicated a fare of one Lev, and said, “It says ‘one’.” He turned around and pointed at the two of us, and said, “Two, you are two people.” I gave up and paid. After all, 2 Lev was worth about 3 pence in those days.

BULG 5 Sofia dimitrov

Mausoleum of Bulgarian Communist politician Georgi Dimitrov[1882-1949] in Sofia, 1983

A lady at the tourist office arranged for us to stay in some private accommodation, and then explained how we should reach the place. I asked her to repeat the information as I had not heard it properly. She looked at me sternly, and said in English, “You need to concentrate better.”

 

This is an excerpt from my book “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, which is available on Amazon and bookdepository.com

BULG 0 Scrabble