A barber in Belgrade

YESTERDAY MY WIFE visited the hair salon for some routine hair maintenance. On that visit, her hair was treated by ‘G’, a hairdresser from Greece. He told my wife that he had had a salon in Athens and had come to London in March 2020 to try his luck here and to satisfy his dream to live in London. Nine days after he arrived in London, everything closed because of the covid19 ‘lockdown’, which put an end to hairdressing for several months. He was pleased to be back at work again.

Hotel Moskva in Belgrade in the 1980s

G spent a great deal of time with my wife’s hair. She told me that he had sprayed various things on her head, far more than other hairdressers at the same salon usually used. When G was finished, he showed her the result in the mirror and took several photographs because he was pleased with his creation, as was my wife. G had used the various chemicals to give her hair more body than it had previously. He explained:

“You are now like beautiful Greek lady. You have style like Greek ladies. Much better than British, English like only too simple: no style.”

When my wife walked out of the salon, she looked as spectacular as ever, but even more so. Seeing the wonderful hairstyle that G had created reminded me of something that happened to me sometime in the 1980s.

I was staying in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia. As was often the case, I stayed in the centre of the city with my good friend, the late ‘RR’. One day, he suggested that we should visit his barber and that I should have a haircut. The barber, who was clearly a good friend of RR, said that he was thrilled to have a British customer. I felt honoured to be the first of his British clients. He told me (RR was translating) that it was his ambition to work as a barber in London. I expressed the hope that his dream would be fulfilled.

The barber spent an hour and a half working on my hair, far longer than any other barber had ever taken to deal with my coiffure. Some years later, I attended a hairdressing school near Holborn (London) and volunteered myself as a model for a trainee. After more than two and a half hours, the trainee had barely done anything. Fortunately, the teacher came to my rescue and completed my haircut excellently and in only a few minutes. But, returning to Belgrade, my Serbian barber had not been idle during the ninety minutes I was in his capable hands.

Both the barber (‘бријач’ in Serbian) and my friend were very happy with my new hairdo. I looked quite different, but not improved as far as I was concerned. I felt that at least I had made two people happy by submitting my ‘Barnet’ (Cockney rhyming slang for ‘hair’) to the care of a ‘Dover Harbour’ (‘barber’) in Belgrade.

When we left the barber, I tried to run my fingers through my hair. It was impossible. All of the hairs seemed to be stuck together. My hair felt rigid rather than flexible. My hair had the texture of cheap dolls’ hair. A comb just bounced off the carapace that was covering my skull. The barber had used some kind of lacquer to render my hairstyle immutable. Not wanting to hurt my friend’s feelings, I made no complaints. However, as soon as I left  soon as I left Yugoslavia, I washed my hair more thoroughly than usual and managed to get rid of whatever had given my hair its unpleasant rigidity.

Autobahn

SOME YEARS AGO, I began listening to music performed by the German group Kraftwerk, formed in 1970 in the West German city of Düsseldorf. They specialise in electronically generated music, a field in which they were pioneers in their country. In the 1980s, I used to drive across Europe from my home in North Kent to places as far afield as Italy, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. The cars I drove at the time were equipped with music cassette players. I recorded my own cassettes from LPs and CDs in my own large collection. Amongst the music I found satisfying during the long journeys I made were some of the creations of the Kraftwerk band. Amongst my favourite of their albums were “Autobahn” (first released 1974) and “Radio-Aktivität” (released 1975). The music was a great accompaniment to speeding along the highways of Europe including Germany’s Autobahns.

I used to break my journeys along the highways at regular intervals, stopping in villages or towns to take a short rest and refreshment. On one journey, I drove off the Autobahn into a picturesque small town in Bavaria, whose name I have forgotten. I entered a busy Gasthaus (pub with a restaurant) and found a vacant seat next to an elderly gentleman who was enjoying a stein of lager.

I remember seeing people sitting nearby drinking beer with slices of lemon. However, what I remember most is the brief conversation I had with my elderly neighbour. My German was, and still is, rudimentary but sufficient to have a simple conversation. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing. I explained that I was driving to Yugoslavia. Then, I said something about the high quality of motorways (Autobahns) in what was then West Germany. The old man smiled, and said (in German):

“Naturally. They were made by our leader Adolf Hitler.”

I was at a loss for words because few if any Germans I had met until then had ever mentioned Hitler and certainly not in such a favourable light. Without waiting for me to respond, he explained that he had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Russians during WW2 and had spent many years in prison camps there. I would have loved to have discussed this with him in detail, but my German was not up to it and also, I had to get on with the journey I had planned for that day.

Most people, including yours truly, credit Hitler with stimulating the building of Autobahns and similar highways. This is a mistake depending how one defines a motorway. In this context, a motorway is a road often with limited access and limited to motorised vehicles.

While Germany was being ruled by the government of the Weimar Republic, work began on an ambitious scheme to build a car only highway/motorway linking Hamburg to Frankfurt/Main and Basel (Switzerland). Parts of this were constructed before Hitler came to power. That road lacked a central reservation as found on modern motorways, but excluded traffic such as cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles pulled by animals. The Autobahns constructed after Hitler came to power were similar to those currently constructed.

In the 1920s before Hitler ruled Germany but after Mussolini became Italy’s dictator, Italy was the first country in the world to build motorways reserved for motorised vehicles travelling at speed. The first Italian autostrade (motorways; singular: autostrada) were completed between 1924 and 1926 and by the end of the 1930s, the country had over 250 miles of both single- and dual-carriageway autostrade. It is sad to relate that the UK had to wait until 1958 for its first motorway, the Preston by-pass, now part of the M6. In 1959, the first section of the M1 was opened, linking Watford and Rugby. This stretch of highway had no central reservation, no lighting, no crash barriers, and no speed limit. Things have changed since then.

When I used to cross Germany, the motorways (Autobahnen) had long stretches where there were no speed restrictions. Once, I decided to check out the ability of my box-like Volvo 240 estate car on a German Autobahn. To my surprise, the vehicle whose shape looked anything but aerodynamic, effortlessly achieved a speed of 105 miles per hour going up a steep incline. When driving at high speeds in Germany, you can be sure that there will be plenty of vehicles that shoot past you at even higher speeds.

After the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, many former East Germans flooded the Autobahns with their poorly powered Trabant vehicles. Often when driving along the motorways in Germany I saw these slow-moving cars valiantly sitting in the overtaking lanes trying to pass vehicles with far more powerful engines. The drivers of speedy cars like Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes Benz, needed fast reflexes and good brakes to avoid crashing into the Trabants being driven by those who were enjoying the freedom of travel after many years of repression in the former DDR.

My days of driving across Europe from the UK have ended. The short journey from Kensington to the Channel crossings is tedious on account of the heavy traffic in London and South East England. Also, it is tiring to drive for at least a day and a half before reaching lovely countryside, be it the south of France or the mountains of Switzerland or Austria. I still enjoy driving but not the great distances I used to cover, and my enjoyment of the music of Kraftwerk remains as great as ever.

Shortages

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.

 

BLOG Prof Sreyevic

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:

“Not allowed.”

I asked him what to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders and said again:

“No allowed.”

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.

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.

gift 4

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

 

Camping under the stars

THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.

 

adventure alps camp camping

]Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com]

At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.

In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent.  After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.

We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.

The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.

That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful  ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian.  I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.

With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:

“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”

“But, there is a problem,” I answered.

“And, what is that?”

“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”

The official looked at me curiously. I explained:

 “I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”

“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”

I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.

From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.

Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.

 

Peter and Dora

I WAS STAYING IN BELGRADE with my friends Peter and his wife. Peter said to me that because it was just over the border from (the former) Yugoslavia and neither of us had been there before, we should make a short trip to Hungary. That way, we could ‘tick off’ another country as having been visited. I agreed to accompany him. This was in 1981 when Hungary was still in the Soviet bloc.

B BUDA pioneer PF GOOD

British people required a visa to enter Communist Hungary. The Hungarian embassy in Belgrade was in Krunska, a leafy street near the Hotel Slavija. I entered and filled in a form. One of the questions on it related to the colour of an applicant’s car. It gave several options like ‘red’, ‘blue, or ‘green’, and one translated from the Hungarian as ‘drab’. I suppose that ‘drab’ was a mistranslation of the Hungarian word for ‘grey’ (the Hungarian for ‘grey’ is ‘szürke’ and for ‘drab’ is ‘sárgásszürke’).   After filling the form, I walked to a counter by a small window in the wall. It was covered by an opaque green cloth curtain. I waited. After a few moments, the curtain was pulled open sharply by a lady behind it and the counter.  I handed her my passport and the application form. My passport was full of bits of paper that I wanted to preserve safely. The lady plucked these out of the passport and handed them to me, saying:

“This I do not need.”

I picked up my passport with its new multi-coloured Hungarian visa stamp a couple of days later.

Peter and I boarded an overnight train from Belgrade to Budapest. Very soon, Peter fell asleep. After passing the station of Subotica in northern Serbia (Vojvodina), we reached the Hungarian border station at Kelebia. The train halted at the floodlit station for a long time. Apart from a few men in uniform, the platforms were eerily empty. Hungarian border guards entered the train. They carried satchels with shoulder straps. Each satchel was fitted with a hinged wooden lid that served as a small desk. Peter was sleeping deeply when two border officials entered our compartment. It was with great difficulty that the three of us, the two officials and I, managed to get him to open his eyes. Once he was awake, the guards took our passports. They looked at our passport photographs and then at our faces, and then back at the photos, then at our faces, and so on. This procedure was repeated several times until they were satisfied that our ‘mugshots’ were true likenesses of Peter and me. Then, they placed each passport on to the little desks attached to their satchels and pounded them with rubber stamps.

Some years later, the late Arpad Szabo, a philosopher in Budapest and a good friend, told me what he did when he was travelling out of East Germany (the former DDR) by train. The border guards in that country were particularly tough and very thorough. They entered his compartment and began prodding and opening the passengers’ baggage. When they approached his bag, he told them:

“Be careful with my luggage: I am smuggling an East German out of your country.”

The guards failed to appreciate the humour.

We arrived in Budapest Keleti Station early in the morning with no idea where we were going to stay. Someone directed us to a small window in a booth in the station. It was an official agency for arranging accommodation in people’s homes. We registered and were handed a scrap of paper with the address of our hosts. Without knowing the layout of the city, we hailed a taxi, which drove us across one of the Danube bridges to Obuda, a suburb north of Buda. Our accommodation was with a couple, who lived in a flat high up in a modern tower block. They were friendly but spoke no English. Somehow, I managed to communicate with them my interest in folk music. They recommended a singer called Katalin Madarász and told me that there were good record shops in Vaci Utca (Vaci Street), a shopping street in central Pest.

We made our way to Vaci Utca, where we found the Anna Café. This eatery served the most delicious cakes and savoury snacks in the form of open sandwiches. We found the record shops that we had been told about and that afternoon I bought the first of many Hungarian folk and classical LPs that are still in my enormous collection. I ate a toasted sandwich in a Café named Martini. It was there that I was able to add the words ‘meleg szendvics’ (hot sandwich) to my minute knowledge of Hungarian, a language outside the Indo-European language family.

I fell in love with Budapest, with the unfamiliar (to me) vocabulary of the Hungarian language, the food, and the friendly people we met. Peter and I explored many things in the city including a visit to the Young Pioneers’ Railway that ran in the Buda Hills. This was run and operated smoothly by youngsters, mostly teenagers, dressed in uniform. We visited Szentendre, a village north of Obuda, the Hampstead of Budapest. Not only is this place picturesque, but also it has a significant community of people with Serbian ancestry as well as a Serbian Orthodox church.  

One evening, Peter wanted to visit a night club. In the early 1980s, Budapest seemed devoid of life after dark, but we found that the Hotel Astoria boasted a night club. This was entered through a discreet, almost hidden, street entrance and then up a staircase. We entered a darkened room full of people seated at tables. Soon, the cabaret, such as it was, began. The highlight of the rather unadventurous show was a magician performing tricks. The audience was subdued but showed its appreciation by genteel clapping.  The people seated around us did not look as if they were used to visiting night clubs; they looked dowdy and provincial. I am quite sure that what was on offer at the Astoria was not what Peter was hoping for.

I do not know whether Peter ever visited Budapest again, but I did often. My appetite for Hungary was truly whetted by my first brief visit. I made another trip the following year, but not before doing some careful ‘contact tracing’ as they say in the current pandemic crisis. I wanted to meet Hungarians in their homes.  One of my many contacts was supplied by my PhD supervisor’s wife, Margaret.

Margaret, gave me the contact details of Dora Sos.  Dora was trained as a chemist in Hungary. Just before WW2 started, her company sent her to the UK on a business trip. When the War broke out, she was stuck in Britain and detained as an ‘enemy alien’. Soon, she was released from internment because she was not regarded as being a threat to the security of the UK. She was sent to work in a chemical laboratory in the Slough Trading Estate, just west of London. There, she met and assisted Margaret in her work connected with extracting valuable elements from household and other metal goods donated for the war effort. Dora and Margaret became close friends. During her stay in Britain, Dora was given a British passport.

After the war, Dora returned to Budapest and began working in a laboratory there. Every now and then, the British embassy invited her and other holders of British passports to parties. One evening, she arrived at the embassy, but the Hungarian guards at its door prevented her from entering. She was arrested and her British passport confiscated. She was told never to visit the embassy again. This would have been during the harsh times, when Stalin was still alive and before the failed 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

Working in the laboratory soon became difficult and unpleasant. Every night, everything, all notebooks and other paperwork, had to be locked up. An atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion reigned. As Dora had lived in the West, she was regarded as being unreliable by the state. She left and became an interpreter: she was fluent in Hungarian, German, and English.

Some years later, restrictions eased a little in Hungary. Dora was permitted to visit Holland, which she did using her Hungarian passport. She made her way straight to the British Embassy at The Hague and told them about her British passport. After checking her story, the ambassador issued a replacement. He told Dora that in the future when she wanted to travel, she should travel somewhere with her Hungarian passport and then she could pick up her British passport at the British embassy at that place. And, when she was about to return to Hungary, she was to hand it into the nearest British embassy at the end of her trip. This worked well for her. A British passport was subject to far fewer visa requirements and travel restrictions than a Hungarian one.

By the time I first met Dora in her flat in Buda, she had stopped travelling abroad. In her seventies, she was still busy working as an interpreter. Because young Hungarians had to study Russian as a foreign language at school, few learnt German or English. This meant she was in high demand. At international technical conferences, she told me, she was able to make simultaneous translations for people speaking in German to those who only understood English and vice versa. It is not a common skill to be a three-way simultaneous translator.

Every time I visited Budapest, I used to spend time with Dora, usually in her flat. A chain smoker, she used to have frequent bouts of uncontrollable coughing.  She was a good cook. Her speciality was chicken paprika, which she served with home-made pasta, which she extruded through a perforated metal disc straight into a pot of boiling water.  I used to write to her before I arrived in Hungary, asking if there was anything she wanted from the West. Invariably, she asked for the latest editions of technical dictionaries, which she needed for her translation work. She did not ask for works of literature forbidden in Hungary, like the works of Solzhenitsyn. She enjoyed trying to smuggle those illicit books into her country after her occasional trips abroad.   She told me that whenever she returned to Hungary, the customs officials would ask her if she was carrying any ‘Solzhi’ in her baggage.

While writing this, I remembered a joke I was told in Hungary. Two policeman’s wives were discussing the flats where they lived. One said boastingly:

“We’ve got Persian carpets on our floors.”

The other said:

“We’ve got Rembrandts on our walls.”

To which the first replied:

“Gosh how awful. How do you kill them?”

Enough of that. There was little for the average Hungarian to laugh about living in Communist Hungary. I recall seeing a shop where foreign goods could be obtained with hard currency (US Dollars, UK Pounds, Deutschmarks, Swiss Francs, etc.). Crowds of Hungarians pressed their noses towards the shop’s windows, staring at things that they might never afford. These goods, which were otherwise unobtainable in Hungary, included tins of Coca Cola, imported alcohol, western cigarettes, and electronic equipment that was no longer the latest in the world outside the ‘Iron Curtain’.

For several years after the ending of Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, I did not return to Hungary. In the late 1990s, after our daughter was born, we drove to Hungary and stayed with some young friends in Budapest. Under Communism, Pest, which to some extent resembles 19th century Paris, lacked the ‘buzz’ of a city like Paris or London. After the end of Soviet control of Hungary, Budapest sprung to life as if it had come out of a coma or recovered from a general anaesthetic.

I wanted to introduce my wife to Dora. I tried ringing the number I had for her a few times, but there was never an answer. So, one morning we took a tram to the place where Dora had her flat. We entered the building and used the ancient lift to reach Dora’s floor. Her front door opened onto a gallery overlooking an inner courtyard where rugs were hung on wooden stands and beaten by their owners to rid them of dust.  Dora’s name was no longer on the small plate next to the doorbell. I rang the bell. Nobody answered it. I never saw or heard from or of Dora again. Maybe, her chain smoking had finally got the better of her.

As for Peter, whose suggestion in Belgrade led to my love affair with Hungary, I lost contact with him for many years. About two years ago, we re-established contact via Facebook. Last year, after he and I had returned from our separate trips to India, we arranged to meet up again face to face. I was really looking forward to seeing this highly witty and intelligent friend of ours again. A few weeks before the rendezvous, he sent me an email telling me that he was unwell and that we would need to delay our meeting until he recovered. Sadly, he never did.

 

Picture shows Peter seated in the Young Pioneer’s Train at Buda

Birthday in Kosovo

K1 PROHOR PC 90 Church ext BLOG

MY BIRTHDAY IS on VE Day (8th of May). In 1990, I celebrated it in the former Yugoslavia. I was driving around Serbia in a rented car with my friend from Belgrade, Raša R. His birthday was the day following mine.

Before I rented the car, Raša, a vey wise fellow, advised me to rent a car from one particular company because its cars carried Slovenian registration plates, rather than Serbian. This  proved to be sound advice.

On the seventh of May, we booked into the comfortable accommodation provided at the beautiful Prohor Pčinjski monastery in the hills of southern Serbia. We decided to stay there two nights in order to celebrate our birthdays.

My birthday wish was to drive into the autonomous region of Kosovo and Metohija, which was populated by a high percentage of Albanians. And, then as now, I was greatly interested in all matters connected with Albania and the Albanian diaspora. Both Raša and I had separately visited the area in the 1970s. We were both keen to see it again.

Raša, a Serbian, had some reservations about driving into Kosovo, where there had been some unpleasant violent incidents between the Serbian and Albanian communities some months earlier. However, he decided that he would accompany me for two reasons. One was that our car bore Slovenian plates, not Serbian. The other related to his excellent command of the English language. He said he would only speak in English in Kosovo, not a word of Serbian.

We set off, driving through the relatively empty Serbian countryside. The boundary of Serbia and Kosovo was at the summit of a low mountain pass. As soon as we entered Kosovo,  we discovered that, unlike the part of Serbia we had just left, the countryside of Kosovo was relatively crowded with people, by the road side and in the fields. The landscape was liberally dotted with recently constructed homes and other buildings. This was quite different from what we recalled of our earlier visits.

We drove into Priština (Prishtinë), the capital city of the autonomous region. The main road was filled with a sea of people. We inched forward. The crowds parted slowly to allow us to proceed. Raša advised, nay forbade, me to sound the car’s horn. He did not want to upset anyone. I had never before driven through such crowds. Four years later, I did it again, but in the central market area of Bangalore in India. There, I and other motorists sound horns incessantly, but nobody pays the slightest notice to them.

We parked in the centre of the city in a car park that looked like it was the site of a large demolished building.

I was keen to buy recordings of Kosovan Albanian music for my ever growing collection of music from all over Yugoslavia.  The best supplier turned out to be a kiosk that sold cigarettes, magazines,  and newspapers. I bought about fifteen cassettes, the kiosk’s entire stock, but had no bag to carry my haul. The enterprising shop keeper saw my plight. He opened a couple of cartons that each contained twenty packs of cigarettes and emptied the packs onto his small counter. Then, he carefully packed my cassettes into the cartons.

After lunch in what seemed to be the grandest hotel in the city, we drove to see the beautiful Serbian Orthodox monastery at Gracanica.  Then we wended our way back towards Serbia, stopping for coffee at Gnjilane (Gjilan). There, I spotted a kebab shop that used a logo identical to the well-known McDonalds ‘M’. When I pointed this possible breach of ‘copyright’ to my friend, he shrugged his shoulders and said:

“This is Kosovo. Anything goes.”

We reached Prohor Pčinjski, where we ate a lavish and tasty dinner. The following day, Raša’s birthday trip was a drive through parts of Yugoslavian Macedonia. After passing some rice paddy fields, we were stopped by a policeman with a speed measuring device. He fined me the equivalent of £1 Sterling for speeding. My friend was fined half of that for not wearing a seatbelt. Otherwise, we had a good day, visiting an attractive small town, Kratovo, and the Roman ruins at Stobi on the River Vardar.

The following day, we drove back into Kosovo, stopping at the small town of Prizren. On both the 1990 and my 1975 visits, Prizren captured my heart more than any other place in Kosovo. Recently taken photographs I have seen show that it is still a delightful place.

From Prizren we drove to a dramatic pass that led from Kosovo into south eastern Montenegro.  We spent the night in Rozaje, a small Montenegrin market town. Thus ended a memorable double birthday celebration.

Soon after we visited Kosovo together, it was time for me to fly back to England. Raša accompanied me to Belgrade airport. Just before I entered the secure departure area, I waved to him and experienced a weird sensation. I felt that Raša knew that we would never meet again.

My sensation was not without basis. Soon after I left Yugoslavia,  the country began its painful dismemberment. Visiting my friends in Belgrade and elsewhere in Yugoslavia became inadvisable.  Sadly, by the time that uneasy peace began to reign again in what was once Yugoslavia, Raša had passed away.

VE Day marked the end of hostilities between the Axis and Allied powers in Europe on the day that was to become my birthday a few years later. The imposition of socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe that followed  did not put an end to festering sores that had been troubling the Balkans and elsewhere since the decline of the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian empires, which had already begun at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This was certainly the case in what was Yugoslavia. During the ‘reign’ of Marshal Tito, a semblance of unity was achieved in his country. However, after his death, as if recovering from a general anaesthetic, old unresolved conflicts reawakened. President Milošević did little to resolve these, but instead helped to exacerbate hem. Hailed by some Yugoslavs, mostly Serbs, as the new hero of Yugoslavia, this assessment was not shared by many, especially the Albanian folk in Kosovo.

For all the opprobrium that was heaped on Serbia during the 1990s, I cannot forget the warmth, hospitality, and friendship shown to me by ordinary people living in Yugoslavia, Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Albanians, and many others during the 1970s and 1980s. They did not deserve what befell them during the 1990s and much of the 20th century.

You can read more about travelling in the former Yugoslavia in “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” by Adam Yamey. This illustrated book is available from:

Amazon

Bookdepository.com

Lulu.com

Kindle

Photo shows Prohor Pčinjski monastery

The kindness of strangers

SARA 4 BLOG

I VISITED YUGOSLAVIA frequently during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Often, I travelled between towns on public transport, often using the efficient networks, each of them operated independent bus companies, of inter-city buses. I travelled routes all over the country from Subotica in the north to Ohrid and Skopje in the south, and from Zadar in the west to Zaječar in the east. It was on these vehicles that my love of the varied forms of Balkan folk music was born. Every bus was fitted with loudspeakers and a radio. For hours on end the bus passengers were treated to an endless, and in my view delightful, stream of folk songs and folk music. On one of these bus trips, my first to Sarajevo, I met someone who was to become a good friend.

Dubrovnik was the point of departure for my first visit to Sarajevo. I bought a ticket at the bus station just outside the walls of the old city, entered the bus, and headed for the seat, whose number was printed on my ticket. In those days, and maybe this is still the case today, passengers were assigned specific numbered seats on long-distance buses. Whenever I knew that I would be travelling a day or two ahead, I used to buy my ticket in advance in order to get one of the seats numbered 1 or 2, which were at the front of the bus, and therefore with the best view, and, incidentally, also with the highest risk of injury in a head-on collision.

On this particular occasion in the bus station at Dubrovnik, I found a young French tourist was sitting next to his girlfriend in my seat. I started explaining, in my poor French, that he was occupying my reserved seat. As I was doing so, a middle-aged woman, sitting near the rear of the bus, explained the situation in fluent French. The French couple vacated the incorrect seats and settled into their assigned places. These happened to be close to the woman and her friend. I could hear them conversing in French as we wound our way up along the valley of the Neretva River and away from the Adriatic coast. I felt a little miffed that they had found someone to converse with, but I had not.

After a few hours we stopped in a village perched high on a hillside. The young French couple said goodbye to their new friends, and left the coach. Our bus, which should have arrived in Sarajevo well before nightfall, remained parked on a steep slope in the small mountain village for hours. The few passengers who were continuing on to Sarajevo sat on a bench under a tree in the sultry afternoon sun. Eventually, I asked the lady, who could speak French, what was happening. She explained that one of the tires of our bus had been punctured, and that it was taking a long while to repair it. She revealed that she was an inhabitant of Sarajevo and that her travelling companion, an old friend of hers, was a schoolteacher from France.

Finally, our bus was ready to depart. As it was now almost empty, I sat near to the two women and chatted to them. The sun was setting, and we were still only halfway to our destination. Soon after we began moving, the heavens opened. The mountainous region through which we were slowly making our way was filled with crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning. Torrents of rain made driving slow and difficult. I began despairing of ever reaching the city where the Hapsburg Archduke was shot in 1914. And, I was becoming concerned. I was heading for a city, which I did not know and where I had no accommodation arranged, and it was beginning to look as if would be almost midnight by the time we reached it.

I asked Marija, the French-speaking lady from Sarajevo, whether she could recommend a hotel for me. She shrugged her shoulders and said that as she lived there, she did not know about hotels. At this point, her companion said to her in French:

“Whenever I meet foreign students in my hometown in France, I invite them to stay in my home.”

Marija said nothing. It was my impression that she had not needed to hear this bit of information.

It was late at night when we eventually arrived in Sarajevo’s bus station. It was located far from the town centre on the main road that led to the spa at Ilidža. Miodrag was waiting for Marija, his mother-in law, and her French friend. I was told to get into his tiny car with them and all of our baggage, and we drove along ill-lit rain soaked streets through the darkness of the night until we reached the end of a short, steeply inclined cul-de-sac in central Sarajevo. We entered Marija’s second floor flat, and Liljana, Marija’s daughter, served us a huge, tasty supper. At the end of the meal, I still had no idea where I would be spending the night. Before I could ask where I would be staying, Liljana showed me her mother’s spare bedroom, and told me (in good English) that I should sleep there.

After breakfast the next morning, I set off to find a hotel in which I could stay for the rest of my visit. It did not take long to find one and to reserve a room. Next, I bought a bunch of flowers – they were stems of gladioli – for my kind hostess and returned to her flat. I entered, gave my bouquet to Marija, thanked her for looking after me, and told her that I had found accommodation. She told me not to be ridiculous; I was to cancel the hotel and to stay with her and her family.

Marija and her family lived in two flats in the small houses that lined a short street that led off one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Marshal Tito Street. It was within a few metres of the Baščaršija, the old bazaar area of the city. From my centrally located base, I was able to explore Sarajevo with ease. Set on both sides of the River Miljacka, the city stretches along a long narrow valley and spreads steeply up the hillsides flanking it.

The Baščaršija district looked just like a typical Turkish bazaar. When I showed pictures of it to Mehmet and Saadet, some Turkish friends in London, they said that it looked just like Bursa, their hometown in Turkish Anatolia. Like most oriental bazaars the one in Sarajevo was divided up into areas specialising in different trades. For example, there was a cluster of copper-beaters, another of silversmiths, and yet another of leatherworkers. I fell in love with the city.

I visited Sarajevo several times, always staying with my new friends. On several occasions, they visited me in London and once they stayed in our then family home in north London.

In the late 1980s, Miodrag and Liljana expressed their concerns about political changes that were happening in Bosnia. This was before the city became entangled in a fearful struggle for life during the complex and bloody civil war that occurred during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. They decided that they needed to leave Yugoslavia and start a new life elsewhere, which they did. Miodrag and Liljana and their daughter migrated to an island in the Indian Ocean, where life was calmer and prospects better than in Bosnia. Although we met them on one of their visits to London from their new home in the Indian Ocean, I have lost touch with them unfortunately. As for Marija, who remained in Sarajevo, I hope that she did not suffer during the attacks on her city.

For more of my experiences in the former Yugoslavia, please read my “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, available on Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and lulu.com.

Eating on a train

 

OHRID BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

 

IN THE SUMMER OF 1973, I was on holiday in Greece. Our family and that of ‘K’, a good friend of mine were guests of an extremely wealthy Greek. We had been put up in luxury hotels. We stayed in the George V Hotel in Athens and K’s family were put up by the sea at a luxurious resort at Vouliagmeni. Before leaving England for our Greek holiday, K agreed to accompany me on an excursion north from Greece to a lake in southern Yugoslavia, Lake Ohrid, a body of water now shared by Northern Macedonia and Albania. I was curious to gaze at the then very mysterious Albania across the water from Yugoslavia and K was just being a ‘good sport’ in agreeing to join me.

One day in Athens, K and I left our very comfortable accommodation and arrived at the railway station from which northbound trains departed. The route between Athens and Thessalonika was long and slow, the train having had to wind its way across mountain ranges.

Every twenty minutes, an attendant arrived at our compartment carrying a tray with pork kebabs, lumps of cooked pork on thin wooden skewers. The barely warm meat was delicious. Each skewer seemed better than the previous one. We kept on buying them each time the attendant arrived.

After several hours and many skewers, K said that he had eaten enough of them and he was not feeling too well. My reaction to this was that being an inexperienced traveller compared to me, his stomach was weak compared to mine. I continued munching the delicious kebabs as the journey continued.

At a small place, which was probably Platy, in northern Greece, our train left the main route and headed along a branch line towards Edessa, where we disembarked. Before leaving the station, we had to have our tickets endorsed by a railway official so that we could continue our journey the following day. As soon as we disembarked, K thrust his ticket into my hand and rushed to evacuate his bowels in a field of ripe corn next to the railway.

We booked into a small hotel, the Olympus, in Edessa, where we paid the Drachma equivalent of £1 Sterling for a room with two beds. I gave K some of my anti-diarrhoea tablets, and he ate some plain yoghurt for supper. At this point, I was still thinking how sad it was that my friend’s stomach was so delicate. Surprised to be hungry after having devoured so many pork ‘souvlaki’ on the train, I ate a normal supper.

The beds in the hotel were very short. My feet projected beyond the bed end. I slept well. The next morning, K was feeling much healthier. However, I was not. I had a terrible pain in my stomach which made it difficult for me to stand up straight. I took some of my tablets and tried without much success to enjoy a bowl of plain yoghurt upon which there was a puddle of oil.

We returned to the railway station and boarded the train which took us westwards to the small town of Florina. We had a short stay, a few hours, in Florina, where I recall buying a roll of toilet paper. The daily train, a single motorised carriage, from Florina to the border with Yugoslavia departed in the early afternoon. K and I were the only passengers. At the border, the Greek carriage drew up next to a Yugoslav motorised train with several carriages on the neighbouring track. A Yugoslav soldier instructed us to move from the Greek to the Yugoslav train and then we set off northwards through southern Yugoslavia, crossing a flat plain with well-tended fields.

We disembarked at Bitola, once known as ‘Monastir’, and transferred to a long-distance bus. As the sun set, this carried us north westward over the mountains towards the historic city of Ohrid on Lake Ohrid.

It was dark by the time we arrived at the campsite on the lakeshore about a mile north of Ohrid city. Both of our stomachs had settled down. For the next few days, I explored the beautiful sights along the lake and enjoyed the local food, much of which was in the form of kebabs. K, having been made wary as a result of our experiences with the Greek railway ‘souvlaki’, avoided this kind of food, preferring to feed himself at our campsite.

 

Picture taken in 1977 shows the train in Yugoslavia between the Greek border and Bitola

Long lasting

A bunch of flowers

Brings endless happiness

And plenty of  good cheer

 

Back in the early 1990s when I was practising as a dentist in Kent and owned a house in Gillingham, my future wife and I visited the local superstore, the Savacentre. Its name has nothing to do with the River Sava that meets the River Danube near Belgrade in Serbia. The shopping mall in Kent is pronounced “saver-centre”.

We wanted to buy some flowers and approached a florist within one of the wide corridors of the mall. He had some blooms of a kind we had never noticed before. We asked him what they were, and his answer sounded like “owlstromeriya”.

We bought a bunch of these attractive flowers and asked him how long we should expect them to survive in a vase. He answered:
“No worries there. They’re good lasters.”

And, he was right.

Alstroemeria, or Lily of the Incas, are native to South America but I guess many of those on sale in the UK are grown elsewhere.