Foreign exchange

CAKOR 75 Summit

 

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

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

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

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

 

Picture shows view from the summit of  the Ĉakor Pass

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.

Stay away from the windows

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Many years ago sometime during the 1980s, I spent New Year’s Eve in Belgrade, which was then the capital of a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia.

I was staying with my good friend Raša. He enjoyed a good party. We set out to attend one in New Belgrade, which was built after WW2 on the left bank of the River Sava, a tributary of the Danube.

The air was chilled when we left Dorčol, the old part of the city where Raša lived. There was an odour in the wintry air that I always remember: the smell of the smoke from the lignite that was burned in central heating units in the city.

As we travelled in the tram towards New Belgrade, my friend explained that many retired military personnel lived in New Belgrade. Many of these people kept guns and rifles in their flats.

Raša advised me to keep off the balcony and well away from windows as the last midnight of the year approached. The reason for this was that as the new year began, drunken people would begin firing their weapons to celebrate. There was a good chance both of being struck by poorly aimed bullets and by others that ricocheted when they struck walls and so on.

Midnight came and went, but I cannot remember hearing any gunshots. Maybe I had imbibed too much vodka and other highly alcoholic drinks such as sljivovitz and loza!

Now, Yugoslavia is only a fond memory as is my friend Raša. I last saw him in May 1990. He passed away several years later after having done much work to help refugees caught up in the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia apart.

Fools Crusade: war in the Balkans

REVIEW OF “FOOLS CRUSADE” 

by

DIANA JOHNSTONE

 

When the Berlin Wall was destroyed in 1989 and the USSR ceased to be a world power opposing the West and the USA, Yugoslavia, which had been considered a bulwark between the West and the Soviet Empire, ceased to be of importance to the West (by which I mean the USA and its NATO allies). Furthermore, the ending of the Soviet Empire removed the chief obstacle to the expansion of the USA’s global imperial ambitions.

 

FOOL 1

This excellent book by Diane Johnstone describes how the West was both misled by irredentist nationalistic groups in the former Yugoslavia, and how it allowed itself to deliberately misinterpret facts which did not suit its own aims. The aim of the West was to demonise Serbia for a multitude of reasons, some of which were self-serving. Western military and financial aid was given to anti-Serbian factions for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, to counter the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Serbs against, for example, the Catholic Croats, the Bosnian Moslems and the Kosovar Albanians. In each of these examples, there were undoubtedly atrocities perpetrated by both sides: Serbs killing Albanians or Bosnians AND vice-versa. However, much of the Western media only chose to recognise killings carried out by the Serbs, or those that might have been carried out by them but were never proven.

 

Sad to relate, but the Serbs have long had a poor reputation regarding what would now be called ‘genocide’.  In 1912 the renowned future colleague of VI Lenin, Leon Trotsky, who was then reporting as a journalist for Kievskaya Mysl, a paper published in Kiev, wrote (excerpts chosen by me):

During the war, I had an opportunity – whether it was a good one or a bad one is hard to say – to visit Skopje (Üsküb) a few days after the Battle of Kumanovo. In view of the nervousness caused in Belgrade by my request for a laissez-passer and the artificial obstacles put in my way at the War Ministry, I began to suspect that those in charge of military events did not have a clear conscience and that things were probably happening down there that were hardly in keeping with the official truths released in government communiqués…

…The atrocities began as soon as we crossed the old Serbian border. We were approaching Kumanovo at about five PM…

…Whole Albanian villages had been transformed into columns of flames – in the distance, nearby, and even right along the railway line. This was my first, real, authentic view of war, of the merciless mutual slaughter of human beings. Homes were burning. People’s possessions handed down to them by their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers were going up in smoke. The bonfires repeated themselves monotonously all the way to Skopje…

…Four soldiers held their bayonets in readiness and in their midst stood two young Albanians with their white felt caps on their heads. A drunken sergeant – a komitadji – was holding a kama (a Macedonian dagger) in one hand and a bottle of cognac in the other. The sergeant ordered: ‘On your knees!’ (The petrified Albanians fell to their knees. ‘To your feet!’ They stood up. This was repeated several times. Then the sergeant, threatening and cursing, put the dagger to the necks and chests of his victims and forced them to drink some cognac, and then… he kissed them. Drunk with power, cognac and blood, he was having fun, playing with them as a cat would with mice. The same gestures and the same psychology behind them. The other three soldiers, who were not drunk, stood by and took care that the Albanians did not escape or try to resist, so that the sergeant could enjoy his moment of rapture. ‘They’re Albanians,’ said one of the soldiers to me dispassionately. ‘Hell soon put them out of their misery.’ ” [from: http://www.albanianhistory.net/1912_Trotsky/index.html,%5D

And so it went on back in 1912. In those days, the Serbs were not the only people involved in atrocities such as Trotsky described; the Turks, Bulgarians, and Macedonians, and others were far from innocent.

Before, international ‘humanitarian’ assistance in the form of NATO troops could be provided to the so-called oppressed minorities in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it was necessary to encourage the break-up of the federation into smaller nation states such as Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia. This way, conflicts that should have correctly have been considered as civil wars within Yugoslavia suddenly became international disputes in which it was deemed suitable to provide international military aid.

The break up of Yugoslavia was aided and abetted by the West, for example by Germany. Germany during WW2 championed the formation of an independent Croatia and an enlarged Albania that included large parts of Kosovo. In the 1980s and 1990s, Germany, no longer led by the Nazis but instead by social minded liberals including the Green Party, encouraged the re-formation of what had been achieved in the early 1940s. The (mainly Roman Catholic) Croats and Slovenians were considered by the Germans and others in the West as being ‘civilised’ Europeans, whereas the (mainly Orthodox) Serbs were considered as uncivilised barbarians. Even worse, the Serbs, thanks to their poor public relations compared to those of the Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians, became considered as the new ‘Nazis’ of Europe – purveyors of ‘genocide’ and a new ‘holocaust’. Undoubtedly, the Serbs were responsible for some inexcusable murderous activities in Kosovo during the late 1990s

Johnstone goes to great pains to demonstrate that not only has the word ‘humanitarian’ become corrupted in its usage, but also the far more emotive words ‘genocide’ and ‘holocaust’. In the famous and horrible Serbian ‘massacre’ at Srebrenica, not only were the Bosnian women and children spared by the Serbs, but also wounded men. This does not happen in true genocide. Furthermore, in the case of this particular unfortunate incident, it seems, she wrote, that the Serbian massacre of the Bosnians might well have been engineered by the leader of the Bosnian Moslems in order to gain further ‘humanitarian’ (i.e military and financial) aid from the West.

What was in it for the West? Why was the bombing of Serbia so important or even necessary? Had Yugoslavia been allowed to continue as an independent multi-cultural country as it had been prior to the downfall of the USSR, it might not have been amenable to the expansionist, power hungry designs of the West, for which you should read ‘USA’. One of these designs was the construction of an oil pipe-line from the Black Sea to the Albanian port of Vlora on the Adriatic coast. This would allow oil from the Caspian to avoid travelling along the already congested Bosphorus, and also to use the larger tankers which the port of Vlora would easily accommodate. It is therefore not surprising the the USA have built Camp Bondsteel near to Uroševac in Kosovo, conveniently located to guard the proposed pipe-line.

Even if only 5% of what Johnstone claims in her meticulously annotated text is true, then what she writes should send shivers down the spine of anyone who values the true, old-fashioned meanings of words such as ‘freedom’, ‘independence’, ‘humanitarian’, and that favourite American word ‘liberty’ as well as ‘genocide’ and ‘holocaust’. Johnstone successfully demonstrates how the citizens of the West were duped into believing a simplistic version of events in the Balkan peninsular, and were then bamboozled into thinking that aiding forces hostile to the West (eg Croatian fascists and Islamic mujahidin in Bosnia) and bombing Serbia would somehow resolve the problem. Instead of resulting in a humanitarian victory, the West wittingly and unwittingly magnified the suffering of the ordinary person, Serb and otherwise, in the former Yugoslav territories.

This is a book that is a must-read if you are interested in Balkan matters and/or the growing malevolent influence of the USA on world affairs. The author writes well, and apart from achieving her main aims, gives a remarkably lucid view of the complex history of the country that was once known as ‘Yugoslavia’.

Adam Yamey is the author of SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ, a nostalgic look at life in Yugoslavia before its break-up began in 1991. His book is available (paperback and Kindle) on Amazon and bookdepository.com, and also directly from the publisher by clicking HERE

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.

Pilgrim on a ‘plane

 

While I was practising as a dentist, people at parties often asked me what I did for a living. Telling them what I did often brought the conversation to a quick conclusion.

MARY

Medjugorje is a small town in Bosnia and Herzogovina. Between 1942 and ’45 during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, over sixty Roman Catholic friars were killed there, allegedly by Communist resistance fighters. In 1981, when this area was still part of the former Yugoslavia, some six children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Despite opposition by the Yugoslav authorities, Medjugorje rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. The authorities softened their opposition to this during the last few years leading up to the country’s tragic disintegration.

I used to visit friends in Belgrade often during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. I flew back and forth, often on flights operated by Jugoslovenski Aerotransport (‘JAT’), one of Yugoslavia’s two major airlines, the other being the former Aviogenex. A friend of mine in Belgrade was once looking after some visiting German bankers, when he told them:

“Yugoslavia has two state airlines. Germany only has one … now that the Luftwaffe has been closed down.”

Many of the JAT flights between Belgrade and London touched down at Zagreb to pick up passengers. In the ‘80s, Zagreb was an airport used by pilgrims visiting Medjugorje. I was travelling back to London with a friend from Belgrade. We had occupied two of a set of three seats. We used the middle seat, which was free when we boarded, to store some of our hand-baggage. Many people boarded at Zagreb, including a man who occupied the middle seat. He told us that he had just been to Medjugorje, and asked my friend:

“Do you believe in the Blessed Virgin Mary?”

“I would love to discuss that with you,” she said, “but not now because I have a terrible headache.”

The pilgrim turned to me, and then asked me something.

Not having heard it properly because of the noise made by the ‘plane’s engines, I replied:

“I am a dentist, actually.”

After that, our initially chatty pilgrim neighbour did not say a word during the flight to London.

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

Ticket to Sofia

BULG 1 sofia church

A church in Sofia, 1983

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

 

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

BULG 4 Sofia outskirts

A factory on the outskirts of Sofia, 1983

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

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

BULG 3 Sofia univ

University of Sofia, 1983

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

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

BULG 1a Sofia Station

A railway station in Sofia, 1983

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

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

BULG 5 Sofia dimitrov

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

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

 

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

BULG 0 Scrabble