A cave in Slovenia

WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER in the 1960s, I became fascinated by life in the countries behind the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ but was nervous about visiting them. In the late 1960s, I made my first foray into the world that intrigued me. I paid a brief visit to what was then regarded as being the least repressive country with a Socialist dictatorship: Yugoslavia. Here is an extract from “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”, my book about travelling and meeting people in that no-longer existing country. This excerpt describes my first very short excursion into a world that was supposed to be so different from what we were used to in Western Europe.

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My father taught economics at the London School of Economics (the ‘LSE’). This institution, despite its name, offered a wide variety of subjects including modern languages. The Language Department used to invite native speakers to help teach its students. There was a young Italian lady called Patrizia amongst these teachers. Soon after her arrival at the LSE, she became a friend of our family, visiting our home frequently. After her contract with the LSE was over, she returned to Udine, her hometown in the north-east corner of Italy. This part of Italy is only a few kilometres (‘Km’) west of Slovenia, which was one of the six constituent republics of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The other five were in alphabetic order: Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, & Serbia. Over the years, I visited all of them.

I visited Patrizia and her hospitable family several times during my school holidays. Realising that I was interested in the Balkans specifically and the Socialist countries in general, she offered to take me on a brief excursion, my first, into Yugoslavia. It was in the late 1960s when we travelled in her small white Fiat car across the border into Slovenia. The first thing that I noticed was that the villages did not resemble those in Italy. The architecture was different; there was a different feel about them – they did not look Mediterranean in the slightest. A new ‘world’ had opened up to me.

We stopped at a café in a small village for a snack, and Patrizia ordered something that she said was typical of Yugoslav cuisine. What arrived at our table were two plates of ćevapčići. These are small kebabs made of grilled mince-meat, which taste rather like under spiced Turkish köfte. It was the first Yugoslav food that I had ever tasted, which is why I still remember it. Since then, I have tasted and enjoyed a rich variety of dishes during my many visits to Yugoslavia. However, ćevapčići were never amongst my favourites.

Soon after we crossed into Yugoslavia, we had a minor collision with another car on a winding mountain road. No one was injured, nor was there much damage to either vehicle. Luckily, the car that we bumped into was being driven by an Italian and was also registered in Italy. Had the other vehicle been Yugoslav, we might have faced problems, not merely of a linguistic nature. After an amicable exchange between Patrizia and the other driver, we continued our journey and arrived at the car park next to the entrance to the Postojna Caves.

The geologically interesting parts of this network of subterranean caverns were a long way from the entrance. To reach them, we boarded one of the open topped wagons of a narrow-gauge railway. The train trundled along its tracks through a featureless, grey walled tunnel for a few minutes before we were allowed to disembark. We followed a guide, who showed us around. The highlight of the tour was an underground pool full of slender, slimy amphibians, which wriggled around in the shallow water. Patrizia became very excited when we saw them, and exclaimed:

“Look, Adam, these are the ‘human fish’.”

These rather repellent looking creatures, whose biological (Linnaean) name is Proteus anguinus, are nicknamed ‘human fish’ on account of their pink skin colour. We returned to Udine. Our journey back was uneventful, but my mind was made up: I wanted to see more of Yugoslavia.

Read more about Yugoslavia as it used to be before it collapsed into civil war in the early 1990s in “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” by Adam Yamey, which is available from:

https://www.bookdepository.com/SCRABBLE-WITH-SLIVOVITZ-Once-upon-time-Yugoslavia-Adam-YAMEY/9781291457599

and

https://www.amazon.co.uk/SCRABBLE-SLIVOVITZ-Adam-Yamey-ebook/dp/B00ELFL2ZC

and

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/scrabble-with-slivovitz-once-upon-a-time-in-yugoslavia-adam-yamey/1118082757?ean=9781291457599

and on Kindle

 

Hotel Lokomotiv

IT WAS 1982 WHEN THE ‘IRON CURTAIN’ still divided Soviet-controlled Europe from Western Europe most effectively. I was heading off towards Budapest from England in order to meet my friend and budding author the late Michael Jacobs, who was  becoming a renowned travel writer.

 

SOPRON 1

Before setting out on this trip, I had noticed that there was a railway line that began in Austria, crossed over the Iron Curtain into Western Hungary, and after running a short distance through Hungary, it crossed back into Austria. Intrigued, I checked whether it carried passengers, and found that it did. This, I decided would be the way that I would try to enter Hungary.

On reaching Vienna’s Westbahnhof, I travelled through the city to the Südbahnhof, where I caught a train that took me to Wiener Neustadt. When I disembarked, I noticed a diesel powered passenger rail bus standing on a siding. It was painted in a livery that I did not recognise. It was not the livery of OB (the Austrian State Railway), or of MAV (the Hungarian State Railway).  Two men wearing black leather jackets were standing next to it. I asked them in German whether this was the train to Sopron (just over the border in Hungary). With hand gestures, they motioned me on board. Soon, the two men boarded the train. One was its driver. We set off. I was the only passenger as the train drifted through vineyards and fields. After a short time we stopped at a small village called Wulkaprodersdorf.

The driver and his assistant disembarked, and so did I. From where I stood next to the ‘train’, I could see men in blue overalls working in a distant field. The two train men stood smoking and chatting to each other in Hungarian. An old steam engine with the logo ‘GySEV’ stood on a plinth, a memorial to times gone by. The rustic scene reminded me of lines from the poem ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas:

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop — only the name

 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 

And for that minute a blackbird sang…

Just change Adlestrop for Wulkaprodersdorf, and you will know how I felt waiting there.

After a while, all of the workers in the field converged on the train and boarded it. I joined them in the now full train, and we set off towards Hungary.  To my surprise, we sailed past the rows of barbed wire fences, the sandy tracks, the watchtowers, the military men with dogs, without stopping. I had crossed the ‘Iron Curtain’ and entered Hungary without showing my passport. This was quite unlike any other time that I had travelled to Hungary by train.

The single carriage train pulled into Sopron’s station alongside a platform that had a barbed wire fence running along it. When I stepped out onto the platform, two uniformed guards came to meet me. How they knew that I was on the train was a mystery to me. They took me to an office, where their superior examined me and my visa, before stamping my passport. As the officials seemed friendly, I decided to ask them where I could find a private room to stay. Instead of directing me to the state tourist office, which usually arranged accommodation for foreigners, the official told me to come with him. He drove me to a house on the edge of Sopron, and told me to wait in its garage.

After a few minutes, he returned with a lady, who then took me to her house. Somehow, she managed to explain to me that I could rent a room from her, but I had to leave at 8 am in the morning. I rented her room for two nights.

On the following morning, I decided to try to ring Michael Jacobs at the number he had given me where he was staying in Budapest. I found a coin-box public telephone, but was completely flummoxed by the instructions which were only written in Hungarian. Undaunted, I entered Sopron’s fin-de-siècle central post-office. The large public hall was surrounded by desks each with signs above them in Hungarian. I looked for a desk with a sign that resembled ‘telephone’ or even ‘telefon’, but saw nothing remotely similar. While I was looking, a man in a suit and tie came up to me and announced in passable English:

Today is my day for helping foreigners. How may I help you?”  

I told him that I was trying to ring a number in Budapest, and he took me to a desk where I parted with a not inconsiderable amount of cash, only to discover that the call could not be made.

After that disappointment, my ‘helper’ asked:

You like wine?

I replied that I did.

Come with me then,” he said, leading me to a group of well-dressed middle-aged men.

“Visitors from Austria,” he said, leading me and his visitors to a minibus bearing the livery of OB, Austrian Railways. We drove through Sopron, and my new friend explained that he was hosting some Austrian railway officials who were visiting for the day.

We arrived at a wine cellar in a historic building in the heart of Sopron, and sat at wooden tables in a cellar with a vaulted ceiling. By now, I was getting quite hungry. My new friend sat me beside him, and for the rest of the time ignored his Austrian guests. In front of us there wooden platters with salami slices and what looked grated cheese. Greedily, I put a handful of this grated matter in my mouth, and sharp needles shot up towards my eyeballs. The ‘cheese’ was in fact freshly grated horse-radish! Wine was served, and all of us partook of it liberally.

During our drinking session, my friend said to me:

It is Vunderful. So Vunderful. You could have visited Paris; you could have visited Rome; you could have visited New York.  But you have come to our little Sopron. That is so Vunderful. So Vunderf…”

Eventually, it was time for the Austrians to return home. They piled into their minibus, and we waved farewell to them. Then, my Hungarian friend led me to a rather tatty looking faded green minibus, an East European model, and we entered. My host, an official of GySEV (Győr-Sopron-Ebenfurti Vasút) – the mainly Hungarian-owned railway company which had brought me into Hungary – drove me to a shabby hotel.

Hotel Lokomotiv,” he announced proudly, “now we drink more.”

By now, I had had enough wine, but insufficient food. I drank Coca Cola or its Hungarian equivalent whilst my friend continued drinking wine – all afternoon. After the sun had set, I decided that I should return to my room.

I will take you there,” he said slurring.

As we began walking through the town, I had to support my staggering friend, and also guide him through his own town. When we had nearly reached where I was staying, he said:

Next time you are in Sopron, you will stay in my house. I will put wife in another room. You will sleep in my bed.”

With that, we parted company.

I never took up his offer because the next time I visited Sopron, I was already married.

Green and wet

The heart of Central Europe_800

 

As a child and teenager, I did not like gherkins (pickled cucumbers). My parents ate them, but refused to buy them if they were made behind the Iron Curtain, for example in  Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or Poland. They would only by jars of these green, wet vegetables if they were made in Western Europe, say in West Germany or Holland. You may well wonder why my parents were so fussy about the origin of their gherkins. The answer is simple. They were unwilling to buy anything from Soviet-dominated parts of the world because they felt, rightly or wrongly, that every penny they paid for goods from these areas would help the Soviet Union pay for yet another atomic bomb or some other military equipment that could be used against the West.

I did not worry me where my parent’s gherkins were grown and bottled, as I did not eat them. This was true until the late 1970s when McDonalds opened a branch of their hamburger restaurant chain in London’s Haymarket.

At first, I felt that I was too superior to enter a McDonalds, and developed an irrational prejudice against the company. Eventually, some friends decided to eat at the Haymarket branch andas I was with them and also a little curious about McDonalds, I joined them. I cannot recall which burger I ordered, but whatever it was, it contained slices of gherkin. I did not remove the gherkin as I might have done had I been served it a few years earlier. I bit into the burger and realised that it was the gherkin that made the rest of the burger sandwich delicious. From that moment onwards, I have become a gherkin afficionado.

I am happy eating gherkins anywhere. However, some of the nicest gherkins that I have found are those often served in fish and chips shops. These large, very tasty specimens often come Holland. Served from large glass jars, these gherkins are often known as ‘wallys’ (pronounced ‘wollees’) in London and South-East England.

Finally, here is something that you might not know about gherkins. The south of India, which I visit often, hasbeen a major producer and exporter of gherkins since the early 1990s. The soil condition in that region are perfect for growing the cucumbers that will be pickled. For more information, see: http://igea.in/.  Had these been around in the days before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I wonder whether my parents would have bought them.