A nest in Macedonia

In about 1977, I travelled to Greece overland with my PhD supervisor (‘Prof) and his wife (‘Wink’). Every year they towed a caravan across Europe to their favourite camping spot near Platamon on the coast of northern Greece. They were averse to camping overnight in campsites. They preferred to camp ‘wild’ at spots of their own choosing. Their journey involved three nights in the former Yugoslavia, a country where camping outside official campsites was against the law. However, over the years they had found several places in Yugoslavia where they could camp ‘wild’. Prof and Wink were always anxious when they travelled through that country, constantly worrying that their illegal camping activities would get them into trouble. Let’s join them on the last few hours before leaving southern Yugoslavia (in what is now Macedonia) and an official campsite, where circumstances forced us to stay one night. Here are two extracts from a book, which I have not yet published.

OHRID 0

Picnic north of Ohrid in Macedonia, 1977. The author is standing

“After lunch, we drove onwards towards the town of Ohrid that lies on the eastern shore of the lake bearing the same name. As the sun began to set, we faced a problem. Prof and Wink had never travelled to Ohrid before and knew of no places where we could camp ‘wild’. Driving along, we could see nowhere suitable to do so. Cautiously, I recommended the town’s campsite. I had stayed there a few years earlier with my friend Hugh. It was a lovely spot next to the lake shore. Reluctantly, Prof agreed that this would have to be where we should spend the night. At the entrance of the camping grounds, we had to surrender our passports in order that the camp could register our presence to the police. Prof was reluctant to let go of his passport, but when the officials assured him that they did not need it for long, he gave in.

While supper was being prepared, I took a stroll around the campsite. An elderly employee of the campsite approached me and greeted me like an old friend. When I shook his outstretched hand, I remembered who he was. I had met him the first time I camped in Ohrid for a week in the late 1960s. On that visit, I used to walk from the campsite to the town in order to do sightseeing or to catch buses from it to other places in the area.  At the end of each day, I used to walk back to the campsite, where Hugh had sunbathed all day. On one of these return journeys, this man, who greeted me so many years later, had seen me on the road and had invited me into his home to meet his family. I was touched that he recognised me…”

OHRID 1 1973

Ohrid in 1973

“… we continued our journey towards Greece on the following morning. We left Ohrid and drove across the mountains east of Lake Ohrid to Resen, where we did not stop. Had we not been in so much of a hurry to leave Yugoslavia – Wink and Prof always felt more than a little uneasy being there – I would loved to have visited the nearby Lake Prespa, which, like Lake Ohrid, shares its waters between Yugoslavia (now Macedonia or FYROM or Northern Macedonia) and Albania. Unlike the bigger Ohrid, Prespa also shares its water with Greece. In fact, the frontiers of the three Balkan countries meet in the middle of the lake. We crossed another mountain pass after leaving Resen, and then descended into the plain in which the town of Bitola stands.

We parked near a large mosque in Bitola, and then began wandering around an open market. Prof stopped by a stall selling green grapes. There were flies crawling all over them. He took out a notebook and pencil, and then pointed at a fly on one of the grapes. He was hoping to learn the local word for that particular kind of fly; he was always trying to improve his vocabulary in the languages that he encountered en-route. He even carried a miniature tape recorder in which he recorded people pronouncing words in, usually, Modern Greek. He used to listen to these recordings and try to repeat them in order to improve his pronunciation. The seller of the grapes, seeing Robert’s interest in his wares, was hoping to make a sale but could not understand what the foreigner was asking. Both parties were left unsatisfied.

OHRID 2 BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

The road from Bitola to Medzhitilija on the Yugoslav side of the Greek border in 1977

After leaving Bitola we drove southwards across a flat cultivated plain until we reached the Yugoslav customs post at Medzhitilija. We waited in a queue of vehicles until we drove under the wooden canopy over the roadway adjacent to the border officers’ cabin. Before handing our documents to the official waiting alongside the car, Prof looked up into the eaves of the steeply pitched roof and began pointing at something. The customs officer looked up and then at Prof, who was frantically leafing through a small well-worn Serbo-Croatian pocket dictionary.

“I wonder what the Yugos call a house-martin’s nest,” Prof kept muttering.

The officer looked him, puzzled rather than impatient.

“For heaven’s sake, let’s get on,” Wink shouted at her husband from her perch behind us. 

She, even more than Prof, was keen to leave the communist country where, on previous trips, they had had minor though worrying brushes with authority.

Minutes later, we were driving south along a Greek road …”

Gifts of the grateful

In the 1980s, I visited my friends in the former Yugoslavia frequently. Also, I visited Albania and what is now independent Kosovo. During my trips, I picked up a large vocabulary of Serbo-Croat, including quite a selection of outrageous swear words. Grammar has always been beyond me in foreign languages, and often in my own. My interest in Albania and my brief visits to Albanian-speaking parts of the Balkans resulted in me acquiring some vocabulary in Albanian, but far less than in Serbo-Croat. Until the 1990s, I believed that my fragmentary knowledge of these languages would be useless outside the Balkans.

gift 2

Prizren in Kosovo, pre-1990

During one trip to Belgrade, a friend arranged for me to be an observer in a clinic of a leading oral surgeon. I turned up at a large hospital and spent a couple of hours watching the surgeon reviewing a series of his patients. Although I was grateful to be allowed to watch the great man, I learned little that was relevant to practising dentistry. However, one aspect of this clinic interested me greatly. As each patient entered the consulting room, he or she presented the surgeon with a gift: a bottle, a large piece of cheese, a ham, etc.

The last patient to enter, a man in a somewhat shabby suit, entered and sat in the dental chair without having presented a gift. After his mouth had been examined, the surgeon took the patient and me out into a corridor. We walked through the hospital to a room with locked doors. My host unlocked it, we entered, and he locked the doors behind us. After a brief conversation, the patient handed the surgeon a small brown envelope, which he thrust into his jacket pocket. Then, after the doors were unlocked, the patient went one way, and we went another way. As we walked along the corridor, my host patted the pocket containing the envelope, and before bidding me farewell, said: “Pornographic photographs.”

gift 5 saraj

Poster of Marshal Tito in Sarajevo, Bosnia in the 1980s

My last visit to Yugoslavia was in May 1990.  Soon after that, wars broke out in the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated painfully to form smaller independent states. In the early to mid-1990s, there was terrible strife in Bosnia. Many people fled as refugees to places including the UK. In the late 1990s, Kosovo suffered badly from warfare between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians. Many of the latter fled to the UK.

I moved from one dental practice outside London to another in London, an inner-city practice, in 2001. A significant number of my patients there had come from the former Yugoslavia as refugees. I was the only person in the practice who could greet them in Serbo-Croat or Albanian. Maybe, I was only one of a few dentists in London at that time who had this ability.

To the Albanian speakers my vocabulary was restricted to words such as ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’, which brought smiles to their faces. Following a trip to Communist Albania in 1984, I recalled the Albanian words of political slogans such as “Long live Enver Hoxha”, “Enver’s party”, and “Long live the Peoples’ Party of Albania.” As many of my Albanian patients had come from Kosovo rather than Albania, these slogans meant little to most of them.

gift 3 travnik

Travnik, Bosnia, 1975

My limited Serbo-Croat was more extensive than my Albanian. I could entertain some of my Bosnian and Serbian patients with polite small-talk. Many of the ex-Yugoslav patients, like those I had seen long before in Belgrade, brought me gifts. Even those, with whom I felt I was not getting along with well, brought me, usually, bottles of home-made alcohol (e.g. rakia, slivovitz, and loza) that had been distilled by relatives who had stayed behind in the former Yugoslavia. These strong alcoholic drinks were delicious, smooth, and delicately flavoured. One fellow plied me with DVDs of the latest Hollywood and other films that he had ‘pirated’. One lovely lady from Bosnia presented me with a pair of earrings, which her uncle had made, to give to my wife. She wears these often, and she is very grateful.

gift 4

Many Middle-Eastern patients also felt that it was appropriate to bring me gifts. Thus, a lot of delicious baklava and other similar confections came my way. Delicious as these were, they were neither good for my teeth nor for my general health. A Hungarian family kept me supplied with large gifts of paprika powder, and there was a Romanian gentleman who brought me nice bottles of wine. Incidentally, the only words of Romanian I know are “thank you” and “railway timetable”. Once, we employed a Romanian dental nurse and I told her my Romanian party-piece “Mersul trenurilor.” She pondered for a moment and then replied “Ah, the programme of the trains.”

Once, my dental nurse, a friendly West Indian lady, and I were standing near a window facing the main road when a delivery van stopped nearby. A man was delivering trays of baklava to a nearby shop. I said to my nurse: “Why don’t you see if he’ll give us some to try?” She returned with a tray of baklava. Carelessly, because I was in a hurry to see my next patient, I put a large lump of baklava into my mouth, and then bit hard on it. As I was doing this, I heard a deafening bang in my head. The baklava was not too fresh. I had split a molar tooth into two parts, the smaller of which was loose in my gum.

gifts 1

Baklava

Unlike this disastrous piece of confectionary, the gifts kindly given to me by my patients did no harm. Furthermore, what I believed to be a useless tiny vocabulary of Balkan languages proved to be quite useful.  

Finally, you might still be wondering whether anybody ever took me aside to present me with an envelope containing pornographic photographs. To satisfy your curiosity, I can tell you that nobody did.

Seeing John Travolta in Serbia

The film “Saturday Night Fever”, starring John Travolta, was released at the end of 1977. It reached the UK in 1978, the year that I first spent a lengthy holiday in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia. In this excerpt from my book “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, which is about Yugoslavia before its dismemberment in the 1990’s, I recalled some aspects of socialising in Belgrade. (The photos of Belgrade were taken in the late 1970s, early 1980s).

B2 BEOGR 82 Terazije with intourist

We spent every evening eating out in restaurants such as Vuk, Doboj, and Mornar, as well as visiting Mira’s friends. Her father was a diplomat, and many of her acquaintances were the children of members of the upper echelons of Yugoslav society. Almost all of them lived in spacious apartments, which made many middle-class British homes seem modest in comparison. My knowledge of the Serbo-Croatian language was almost non-existent during this first visit to Belgrade. Most of the people to whom I was introduced spoke English with varying degrees of competence; many of them were almost fluent. Naturally, most of the conversation was in their mother tongue. I listened quietly, imbibed the (often smoky) atmosphere, and sipped numerous glasses of almost neat vodka, which was my favourite alcoholic drink at that time.

B3 BEOGR 86 View into a yard

We used to return to Strahinjića Bana late at night or in the early hours of the morning. We often encountered the workers who were hosing clean the main streets long after most people had gone to bed. Sometimes, in jest, they aimed their powerful jets of water at our feet and made us dart out of their reach. Once or twice, I remember waking up the morning after an evening of particularly heavy vodka consumption and noticing that the surface of the skin of my limbs and digits were slightly numb. I know now that temporary paraesthesia of the skin is a common after-effect of this particular drink and is the cause of many deaths in Russia. When someone ‘sozzled’ with vodka lies down in the snow, they are unable to feel its coldness because of this anaesthetic effect of the drink, and they are literally chilled to death.

B4 BEOGR 86 7 Juli facade

Just before setting off for my first stay in Belgrade, I accompanied one of my numerous cousins to the cinema in London in order to watch the recently released film “Saturday Night Fever”. It was not a film that I would have chosen to see. In those days I preferred intellectual arty films, many of which were screened at the now long since demolished Academy Cinemas in Oxford Street. However, to my surprise, I enjoyed it. In Belgrade, Mira asked me whether I minded seeing “Saturday Night Fever”. Her cousin Ana, who was much younger than mine in London, wanted to see it, and she was taking her with Peter. Out of politeness, I did not say that I had already seen it in London; I agreed to join them. The cinema was of a design that I had not seen before. The seats were not raked, but the screen was placed high enough so that no one sitting in a seat behind another would have his or her view blocked. I saw the film again, but this time with Serbo-Croatian subtitles. It was not dubbed. Had it been, it might have been an even more amusing experience.

B1 BEOGR 82 Kalmegdan path

Once when visiting friends in Budapest in Hungary many years later, I watched a Benny Hill show dubbed into Hungarian, which greatly improved its entertainment value.

B5 PASS Crossings YU GR

After my first visit to Belgrade, I joined my parents in Greece for a driving holiday around the Peloponnese peninsula. Wherever we stopped, music from “Saturday Night Fever” was being played in the background. It was all the rage that summer. During our journey we stayed at a hotel in the southern town of Gytheion. The hotel’s restaurant had a gramophone, which was playing a rather slow, slightly mournful tune. Soon, I realised that it was a number from Saturday Night Fever. It was being played at the wrong speed, 33 rpm instead of 45! Nowadays, the film not only brings back happy memories of a trip to the Balkans …

 

Once upon a time in Yugoslavia

Scrabble with Slivovitz” by Adam Yamey is available as a paperback or Kindle from Amazon. The paperback is also obtainable via lulu.com, Barnes & Noble,  and Bookdepository.com