Romania over the river

DJERDAP 90 Rasa Smijlka Dam

In May 1990, I drove around Serbia, then in (the now ‘former’) Yugoslavia. At first we followed the River Danube eastwards coming close to Romania, a country I have yet to visit. I wrote a book, “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ“, which describes my impressions of Yugoslavia as I found it on numerous visits to the country between 1973 and 1990. Here is an excerpt from the book describing how I glimpsed Romania from a short distance – it was so near, yet so far:

Beyond Tekija, the river, which had been flowing north-eastwards, made an almost ninety-degree turn, and then began heading southeastwards. The island of Adakaleh has lain hidden beneath the waters flowing around this bend ever since 1970, when a dam was constructed further downstream. In 1878, the Congress of Berlin redistributed the formerly Ottoman Balkan territories between Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, and other countries. However, the tiny island of Adakaleh was overlooked during the proceedings of this complicated conference. It was not assigned to any of the countries that were grabbing the spoils from the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Thus, it remained a part of the Ottoman Empire, albeit an isolated enclave. At first, it was a personal possession of the Sultan, and then it became part of Turkey. In 1923, it became Romanian territory. Until its evacuation in 1970, its small population was entirely Turkish. Most of them returned to Turkey, but a few settled in Romania. If I had to admit to having any regrets in my life, one of them would be not having visited that fascinating island before it
was submerged. Incidentally, the word ‘kaleh’ that forms part of the two names Adakaleh and Kalemegdan (in Belgrade) is the Turkish word for‘fortress’.

We drove a little further downstream, and arrived at the dam which wasresponsible for submerging Adakaleh, the fortress at Golubac, and Lepenski Vir. The Đerdap Dam (also known as the ‘Iron Gates Dam’) was a joint venture between Romania and Yugoslavia. It became functional in 1972. We parked the car, and walked almost up to the Yugoslav end of the massive hydroelectric barrage. The forest of pylons, under which we stood, emitted an eerie crackling sound; our hair felt as if it was standing on end and we began to sense a dull headache. There was truly electricity in the air. After gazing at this marvel of modern technology, we stepped back in time. A few Km further downstream, we visited the Roman ruins at Diana, from where we had a very good view of a village on the Romanian shore.

The town of Kladovo was our next stop. From its promenade beside the Danube we could easily see people walking along the opposite riverbank in the much larger Romanian town of Drobeta-Turnu Severin…

 

SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ

BY ADAM YAMEY

IS 

available here: 

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

and also on Amazon as well as Kindle

 

The photo, taken in 1990, shows my travelling companions and in the background the Đerdap Dam and the distant Romanian bank of the Danube

Where two countries kiss

KAZAN 90 The Danube narrows

Steep cliffs encroaching

The stream gathers speed

The Iron Gates loom ahead

 

The Iron Gates is a narrow defile or gorge through which the River Danube flows. One side of this attractively impressive canyon is formed by Romania and the other by Serbia. At one point, the two countries come so close to each other that they seem as though they are kissing. Where they come closest, there is a hydroelectric dam that was built during the Communist era.

My picture was taken from the Serbian shore in 1990, when Serbia was still part of Yugoslavia.

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.

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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.