Feeling at home in the UK

ALBANIA. BULGARIA, AND YUGOSLAVIA are countries that I visited in the 1970s and 1980s. I visited the former Yugoslavia the most and acquired a smattering of Serbo-Croat, the main language spoken in that fascinating part of the Balkans. My limited knowledge of this language helped me get by in Bulgaria. My poor Serbo-Croat seemed to be well understood in Bulgaria. During my first visit to Albania in 1984, although we were prevented from communicating with the locals, there were plenty of examples of the Albanian language in the form of propaganda posters and political slogans written with numerous pebbles on the sides of mountains.

Until 1990, my vocabulary of words from various Balkan languages was of limited use to me whilst I was practising dentistry in England, first in north Kent then, after 1994, in London.

In the mid-1990s, I began treating patients who were refugees from parts of the then violently disintegrating Yugoslavia. Many of my new patients were from Bosnia and Herzogovina. Some of them had little command of the English language and were grateful that they were being treated by someone who knew ‘where they were coming from’, as the saying goes, and who knew some words of their own language. Sadly, some of them hearing me repeating what little Serbo-Croat I knew, assumed that I was fluent. I attracted a faithful following, some of whom were charming and a small minority, the opposite, On the whole, even the most difficult of my ex-Yugoslav patients were grateful and brought me gifts, often strong home-brewed alcohol sent from Bosnia, as a mark of their gratitude. One dear lady even brought me a pair of earrings that her uncle in Sarajevo had made specially for my wife.

Some years later, I began treating Albanian-speaking refugees from Kosova, a region of the former Yugoslavia that had and still has a population, which is mainly of Albanian heritage. Many of the recent arrivals from that country, who came to my surgery for dental care, had minimal or no English. My knowledge of Albanian was extremely limited. I could greet them with ‘diten e mire’ (‘good day’) or wish them ‘mirupafshim’ (‘good bye’), when they left my surgery, but I could say little else of any practical use. However, if I said ‘rrofte partia socialiste e shqiperise’ (‘long live the Socialist Party of Albania’) or ‘lavde shoku Enver Hoxha’ (praise Comrade Enver Hoxha’), which I had learnt from propaganda posters in Albania back in 1984, this caused many of my Kosovan patients to smile.  

Now that I have been retired for a few years, many of the new arrivals to this country from the troubled Balkans have settled down and contribute positively to life in the UK.  Only today, whilst waiting in the street for take-away coffees, we were joined by three other customers, workmen dressed in overalls. Seeing my furry ex-Soviet Army hat, they struck up a conversation. They were all from Serbia and were delighted that I knew some words of their language, if ‘samo malo’ (‘only a little’). I decided not to show off my knowledge of Serbian swear words that my friends in Belgrade had taught me long ago, and which I shall not share with you.

Just before reaching the café, we had been taking exercise in Holland Park. This park, like many others in London, has wooden benches, often inscribed with words to commemorate lost member(s) of a family. I was idly looking at a row of benches opposite the curious “Annunciation” sculpture, a structure consisting of horns and cogs, when I spotted one with words that are not English:

“Detikuar prinderve  tane  te dashur sabri dhe behije preci”

I recognised this as being in Albanian. Google translates this as:

“Dedicated to our dear parents Sabri and Behije Preci”

Until today, I had not seen a park bench with an Albanian dedication. Seeing this typically British form of memorial made me feel that members of communities that have had to flee from their war-torn homes in the Balkans are beginning to feel that Britain is now also a place they can call ‘home’, whose public amenities they are helping to cherish. 

Almost but not quite nude

IN THE EARLY 1980s, I travelled to the island of Mljet, which is off the Dalmatian coast of what was then Yugoslavia. It was notable for at least two features. One was that most of the island was out of bounds to motorised traffic. The other was that nudism was both tolerated and encouraged.

I had been introduced to nude bathing a year or two earlier when I visited Dubrovnik with some friends from Belgrade. We used to take a ferry from the city to the nearby island of Lokrum. At the island’s ferry station there was a sign. One arrow pointed to the ‘nudismo’ beach and the other to the ‘ne nudismo’ beach. The first time we headed for the nudismo beach, I expressed concern about my modesty. One of my Yugoslav friends told me:

“Don’t worry, there’s always someone on the beach who looks worse than you.”

Surprisingly, these words reassured me.

Our party on Mljet included four people from the British Isles, including me, and three Yugoslavs. One of us Brits and the Yugoslavs were well-versed in nude bathing, but two of us ‘Brits’, including me. were relative novices.

Recently, my wife and I visited the gardens of Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. This lovely place is home to several outdoor sculptures. One of these is a naked youth carved in white stone. Someone, most probably a visitor, had placed a pair of sunglasses on the sculpture, rendering the youth no longer fully nude. Seeing this reminded me of our holiday in Mljet.

My friend from London and I joined in the nudity that was expected on Mljet, maybe a little anxiously at first but we soon got to enjoy it. After a few days on the island, one of my Yugoslav friends pointed out that unlike the rest of our party, neither of us ‘novices’ were ever completely nude. Either we wore only a sun hat, or a wristwatch, or even just a pair of sunglasses like the statue at Anglesey Abbey.

It is odd what can trigger far-off memories. That statue with the sunglasses did manage to remind me of the wonderful times I spent in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.

An Austrian in Albania

I WISH THAT I had taken a photograph of it when I was visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 1984, the last year of the life of its long term dictator and admirer of Josef Stalin, Enver Hoxha (1908-1965). I managed to get at least one photograph of a statue of Stalin in Albania, the only European country that still displayed monuments to this by then mostly discredited Soviet dictator. However, in May 1984, I failed to take a picture of something I have never seen outside Albania or in Albania when I revisited it in 2016. What I failed to record on film was the sight of men walking along the streets with heads of flowers whose stems they were holding between their teeth. Their lips were hidden behind the blooms. I mentioned seeing this to several people who have visited Albania, and none recall seeing flowers being carried that way. So, I was beginning to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks as time passed.

A few days ago, I was browsing the bookshelves in an Oxfam charity shop when I noticed a travelogue that contained a few pages about the author’s experience of Albania, which he visited several decades before my first encounter with the country. I was thrilled and relieved that my memory had not failed me when I read the following words he wrote:

“The inhabitants of Tirana love music and flowers. You can see men going around with roses in their mouths. They seem to use them as an extra buttonhole.”

These words, translated from German, were published in the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, a German newspaper, on the 29th of June 1927. They were written by its journalist, the Austrian novelist Moses Joseph Roth (1894-1939), better known as ‘Joseph Roth’. The book in which I found his articles on Albania is “The Hotel Years”, edited and translated by Michael Hoffmann and published in 2015. The anthology of Roth’s writings covers countries, to mention a few of them, including Austria, Hungary the USSR, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Albania.

Roth visited Albania in 1927 and published six articles about it between May and July that year. He mentioned the love of music in Tirana. This observation relates to both the mandolins played mainly by Albanians who had unaccountably, in his opinion, returned to their country after having lived abroad, mainly in the USA, and to military bands.  During his sojourn in the capital, he notes the seemingly endless army exercises and parades that are carried out throughout the day.

By Cora Gordon, 1927

With regard to the Albanian army, it was his impression that they were poorly equipped:

“Now the army has Austrian rifles and Italian ammunition, bullets that jam, magazines that can’t be clicked in, British knapsacks that can’t be secured with Italian straps, covers for field-shovels and no field-shovels with which to dig trenches, Italian officers who don’t know commands in Albanian, …”

And, he asks:

“For whom do they exercise? Surely not for their country? Because half the country is unhappy with their government – for reasons of idealism.”

Reading this, made me wonder why Roth was sending reports from Albania between the end of May and the end of July in 1927.  Near the end of his largely unflattering description of the country and its people, he wrote:

“Albania is beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring.”

Although Albania is anything but boring for me, I was curious about its “current topicality” during those months in 1927. Roth’s readers probably knew, but that was long ago.

I looked at various issues of the “Times” newspaper of London and other sources to discover what might have interested the world’s press in Albania at the time that Roth wrote his articles. On Monday, the 6th of June, the Times noted that diplomatic relations between Albania and its neighbour Yugoslavia had broken down. On the 27th of May, Mr Juraskovitch, an interpreter at the Yugoslav legation in Tirana, was arrested and his house was burnt down (www.jstor.org/stable/25638310?seq=1). Naturally, the Yugoslav government objected. On the 31st, Tzena Beg, an Albanian representative in Belgrade, explained to the Yugoslavs that Juraskovitch was an Albanian citizen and that compromising documents had been found in his possession. Mr Sakovitch, the Yugoslav chargé d’affaires, disclaimed all knowledge of this and demanded the release of Juraskovitch. Hussein Beg Vrioni, the Albanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that his case was purely an internal matter. On the 4th of June, the Yugoslav legation was withdrawn from Tirana. The following day, the Albanian government declared that it was taking the case to the League of Nations.

On the 5th of June, the “Times” noted that many Albanians feared that this diplomatic incident would create anxiety and unrest in the country, and many felt that the flames were being fanned by a third party with a great interest in Albania, Italy. According to “The Annual Register, Vol. 169- for 1927” Italy had:

“…sent to Berlin, Paris, and London a Note calling attention to alleged preparations on the part of Yugoslavia for an immediate invasion of Albanian territory. The crisis had arisen as the result of the arrest by the Albanian police of a certain Jurascovich, charged with espionage on behalf of the Yugoslav Government. Refusal to release the alleged spy led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Minister from Tirana, and to the Italian Note. The matter was, however, satisfactorily settled between Italy and Yugoslavia.”

Eventually in November 1927 after much Italian antagonism to the French and their cordial relations with Yugoslavia:

“ … the Italian Government published the text of an Italo -Albanian Treaty of defensive alliance.”

This was not the first attempt to forge an alliance between Italy and Albania as is illustrated from the following quote from “The Annual Register”:

“Relations with Italy and Albania were disturbed at the end of 1926 by the first Tirana Treaty and became more strained in March, 1927, when the Italian Government addressed a Note to the Great Powers (Germany, Great Britain, and France) accusing Yugoslavia of military preparations against Albania.”

Thus, Albania was being dragged gradually into the strong influence that Italy held on it until the Second World War had begun.

Roth travelled to Albania around about, or just after the Juraskovitch affair had begun. This might have been one reason for his visit. Another thing that might have attracted his attention, which was reported in the “Times” of the 10th of June 1927, was the growing unrest of many Albanians, particularly in the north, resulting from dissatisfaction with the government of Ahmed Zogu. However, by mid-July, a couple of weeks before Roth’s last article about Albania, the two countries, Albania and Yugoslavia, had come to a more or less satisfactory settlement of the Juraskovitch affair.

My surmise is that Roth came to Albania not out of curiosity but in connection with the diplomatic incident and the strained relationship between Albania and its Slav neighbour. My impression is that the urbane Roth cared little for what he observed during his time in Albania. His description of his arrival sets the tone for much that appears in the anthology of his Albanian travel writings:

“ … the hut, like so many attractions these days, has a guest book; sitting over the book is a man in a black uniform, rolling himself a cigarette, and this is the Albanian border police. A master of the alphabet, but unused to writing, he sits there whiling away the time of new arrivals by painstaking scrutiny of their passports … I cut short his study by offering to set down my name for him … Workmen are repairing the road. There are always two hunched over together … they collect little scoops of sand on their tiny shovels or in their bare hands, pour it into scars and potholes, sprinkle a few stones on top … and stamp it down with their bare feet …”

Roth also remarks on the telegraph wires linking Durres with Tirana. They were:

“… strung not on masts, but on crooked trees, which have been lopped and cropped. They used to stand by the wayside, a home to birds … now they are redesignated as telegraph poles … equipped to transmit journalistic reports – the twitterings of political sparrows – to Europe…”

Whereas Roth’s descriptions of Albania in 1927 are hardly flattering to the country, some other travellers, who visited it that year, published a far more flattering account in the same year. The travellers were Jan Gordon (1882-1944) and Cora C Gordon (née Turner;1879-1950), who wrote and illustrated a book called “Two Vagabonds in Albania”. It is amongst the best books I have read about the country. Unlike the critical and disapproving Roth, they take a delight in what they observed and convey that beautifully in their text and the illustrations they created.

Roth would be amazed by the changes that have occurred in Albania since his visit in 1927. I was also staggered by the changes I saw between my first visit in 1984, when I saw men with flowers in their mouths and motorised vehicles were few and far between, and 2016 when Tirana had become a modern city with traffic congestion and tall buildings to rival those found in any of the world’s large cities.

Blinded by Bosnia

HERE IS A BOOK that provides a fascinating view of the crisis that afflicted Bosnia and its people during the 1990s. It reveals that what happened in that beleaguered part of the Balkans was far from a simple black and white conflict in which Serbians were the villains and the Bosnian Muslims were the innocent victims. It records that often the Bosnian Muslims and their allies behaved far from virtuously. What the book reveals is extremely disturbing and of great relevance today, so many years after the end of fighting in and around Bosnia.

“UNHOLY TERROR” by John Schindler is about the Bosnian crisis in the 1990s and its dangerous consequences. Using his  personal experiences (he was a US spy in the Balkans) and a variety of credible sources, he demonstrates how Bosnia’s post-Communist Muslim government misled the West, and especially the USA, into believing that the Bosnians were fighting the Serbs and Croats to achieve a multi-ethnic non-sectarian state, where all beliefs are tolerated. The author describes that the opposite was true: the Bosnian government was converting Bosnia from a racially and religiously tolerant community to a hard-line fundamentalist Islamic state.

Schindler convincingly demonstrates how the Bosnians hoodwinked the West into believing that it was only the Muslims who were victims of aggression in the fighting following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.  Most in the West, including a former US president, were happy and only too willing to believe that it was the case that the Muslims were being subjected to genocide by the Serbs. Anyone who dared contradict this was ignored and/or ridiculed. Whilst it was true that many Bosnian Muslims were being murdered and otherwise persecuted, Schindler gives evidence that they were not alone: the Serbs, Croats, and moderate (not hard-line or Wahabi) Muslims living in Bosnia received much aggression from the forces under the control of the Government of Bosnia.

The USA and its allies helped the Bosnian Muslims with military matters alongside(!) the Iranians, the Saudis, and other promoters of hard-line Islamism.

This book describes how Muslim fighters, Mujahadin and jihadists, moved into Bosnia (some had been fighting in Afghanistan) to assist their Muslim ‘brothers’ with the struggle. Schindler suggests and gives evidence for these imported fighters’ role in establishing a fundamentalist Muslim state in Bosnia, a state in which Christians and moderate Muslims were treated as hostile.

Bosnia’s wartime president Izetbegovic skilfully hoodwinked the West into believing he was creating a tolerant forward-looking state whilst he was actually creating an Islamic state that adhered to a hard-line form of Islam known as Wahabism.

Following the apparent end of hostilities, Bosnia became home to many determined Jihadists and a nest of terrorists whose activities included likely involvement in the 9-11 attacks in New York City, the Madrid bombings and many other dreadful acts. It appears that many terrorist activities after 1990 can be traced back to Bosnia.

Schindler’s fascinating and highly readable book could well be called “Blinded by Bosnia” because that is precisely what Izetbegovic and his government did to the critical faculties of the USA and its allies. I read this book with great sadness. I was upset to read that a part of the Balkans, which I had grown to like during the 1980s, had been transformed into what Schindler’s book (published 2007) describes as having become a dangerous rogue state after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

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