Saturday, 29 September 2007

Red in the Morning (Chapter 4 - Bulgaria to Turkey)

Our one-night stay at the Legation lengthened into a long week-end, a week-end in which we learned a good deal about this satellite of Soviet Russia. Open-minded about Communism and a little sceptical of Press propaganda, I was interested to see whether in fact the system was as black as it was painted. In these four days I saw enough to last me for the rest of my life. The whole social structure is dominated by the military, and uniformed men seem to make up most of the population. Food and clothing are very scarce and of poor quality; petrol, at the equivalent of £ 1 per gallon, is muddy black and just about burnable. It is, of course, rationed and one has to search pretty thoroughly for a petrol station, even in Sofia. Bulgaria is a country where a rich man owns a bicycle.

Wherever we went, our number plate was recorded every five miles by a police watching-post, and deviation from the main road was strictly forbidden. Villages are afflicted with remote-control loudspeakers in the squares which blare forth unwanted martial music for the best part of every day, and every public amenity, from cattle-troughs to park benches and public lavatories, is stamped with the red star and a built-in plaque enjoining the Happy Workers to be thankful for the benevolence of the Glorious State.

We spent our last day, Sunday, with the Constant family on a picnic drive to a picturesque dam about twenty miles from the city. The man-made lake created in this flooded valley was a week-end magnet, and Sunday morning was the time for a mass-exodus by the townspeople. They are great walkers, the Bulgarians; indeed, they have to be. We passed group after group striding along the road towards the lake: twenty miles there and twenty back. Strenuous work for one day, but they all seemed fit and there was a lot of laughter, which we hadn't seen in the town. The men were nearly all stripped to the waist, carrying their shirts and soaking up the hot sun. The road was long and dusty, but the cool waters were reward enough for the long hike. I doubt if we should have enjoyed the day so much if we had had to hike back to Sofia. Half-way home, one of the hikers thumbed a lift. We gave him one and dropped him off in the city centre. He was very gallant and insisted on shaking hands with the driver and me and kissing the hands of the women. With a last sweeping bow he backed away and disappeared.

'A brave man,' said the Vice-Consul. 'That's the first time anyone has dared to accept a lift from me. If the police saw him getting out of a Legation car, he'll have a lot of awkward questions to answer.'

'But surely it's not as bad as that, is it?' I queried.

'You've no conception of life here,' said the Vice-Consul, but he would not elaborate and continued on a lighter note.

'Things are easing a little, though. Not so long ago it was forbidden to make the trip we did today, for instance. And there are not so many road checks now. But my wife's maid still has to shop black-market to buy edible meat, and report once a week to a certain someone who checks on our activities. It is ostensibly a visit to the doctor, but we know where she really goes; and she knows we know, but still the farce has to be enacted once a week regularly.' He concluded on a note of hope. 'But still, things are getting better.'

Our Yugoslav dinars at last changed to Bulgarian leva, we left the Legation on the Monday morning. Apparently the uprising rumour had been just a rumour. Bathed, fresh and clean, with our spare clothing washed and ironed at the thoughtful suggestion of our hostess, we took down last-minute addresses of these people who in the short space of a week-end had become good friends; we waved good-bye and sped off down the tree-lined avenue. Faces were still glued to the windows of the house opposite. Plovdiv would be our next big town.

Along the way we met many Bulgarian villagers which made a change from our lonely run from the border. Some of the older ones, when the excitement of inspecting our strangeness had passed, tried to talk to us in odd words of English and German, and by miming. But somehow there was always a policeman on the scene who, with a curt nod of the head, discouraged any fraternizing. We did manage to have a chat with one Bulgarian about thirty miles from Plovdiv. We had stopped in the middle of a night drive to brew up by the roadside, when a motor-cyclist pulled in, presumably thinking we needed assistance. Within a few minutes we were squatting round the Primus giving the news-hungry visitor, who spoke quite passable English, an unabridged report of the outside world. He told us that before the war he had been a prosperous factory owner, today he was paid just enough money to exist from one pay-day to the next. But, we reminded him, he was still pretty well off to own a motor-cycle. He gave a laconic grin and glanced at the machine. 'Oh, that belongs to an army officer. I'm a mechanic working overtime. It's out on test, that's all.'

That night, as we camped near Plovdiv, I began thinking about home and how well off our own people really were. They grumble about rising prices, weather, and the hundred and one other little complaints that make up the average Englishman's day, but in Bulgaria the problems of Mr Everyman are far more serious. He has to find something like £50 to get himself a winter coat, in England a comfort, in Bulgaria a necessity. The standard of living-never high-is now lower than almost anywhere else in Europe. What to us are elementary needs, to the average Bulgarian are inaccessible dreams, for the truth is that this unhappy country has been wrung dry by her Russian overlords. Nita and I sped on through the night, anxious to cross the border at first light the following morning. The past few days had spelled 'finish' to any sympathy I might have felt towards such a regime.

Through a rambling village-Svilengrad-an anxious moment while the customs searched one of the pannier-bags (fortunately not the camera and film bag), a curt nod, and we were past the barrier into Turkey. For the first time in days we felt really free again.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Red in the Morning (Chapter 4 - Sofia, Bulgaria)

The road surface to Sofia was perfect. Some tarmac, some well-laid cobbles, but all smooth and in first-class condition. The cobbles in fact were so well fitted that not the slightest bump was transmitted through the scooter frame. We made very good time to the capital, exuberant at our release from the frontier guards and from the exhausting business of negotiating rough Yugoslav tracks. Rolling pastures flanked the empty road ahead. We saw three other vehicles between the border and the capital, two of them party-member cars flying hammer-and-sickle pennants, and the third an ancient open army staff car with disc wheels. The only people we passed in the whole sixty miles were a group of road menders, most of whom were women, buxom lasses, heaving picks and shovels under the eye of a male foreman. They paused, statue-like, in their labours to stare at the sight of our unfamiliar vehicle. We gave them a cheery wave and a pip-pip on the horn, sailing gracefully past at a steady forty miles an hour.

We had a lot more trouble in Sofia. We arrived just as the banks were closing, which was unfortunate, because we had only Yugoslav dinars in our pockets. However, I managed to squeeze my way inside one of the imposing buildings and to catch one of the tellers. So the trouble started. They could not give us leva for dinars. I argued, in English; they shook their Bulgarian heads and remained passive. The manager arrived. No, it was not possible; what good were Yugoslav dinars? In desperation I offered him one of our travellers' cheques. Still no good. He looked dispassionately at the cheque book, it was obvious he was not going to exchange good leva for a leaf of that worthless paper. More mumbling until I detected the words' British Legation' uttered in French. We made more signs, talked a lot of mutually unintelligible gibberish, then the harassed man was smitten with the bright idea. He picked up a 'phone directory, riffled through the pages, then rang a number. A ten-minute pause, then he handed the instrument over.

'Hullo,' I sighed wearily, 'is that the British Legation?'

'It is, and what sort of trouble are you in, old chap?'

Oh that glorious Anglo-Saxon voice. My morale soared.

'Money trouble and our plight is desperate; we can't change our Yugoslav dinars and the Lloyds Bank cheques are apparently not too popular.'

'Uh, huh,' said the friendly, dark-brown English voice. 'Where are you? No, that's silly of me, you probably haven't a clue.' I acknowledged that.

'Put me on to the manager again for a moment, will you?' More burblings and a lot of dobra's. I was handed the 'phone again.

'Wait outside the bank, one of our chaps will be along in about fifteen minutes, you can't miss the car - he'll guide you along here to the Legation - we'll see if we can arrange something.'

With another sigh, this time of contentment, I replaced the receiver.
Outside, Nita and the scooter had disappeared inside a vast crowd of people, who were milling around talking loudly and excitedly. I hastened through the crush, faintly alarmed at this unprecedented Sofia reception. In the centre of the milling throng, my wife was doing her best to stand upright. She looked very relieved as I forced myself inside the human barrier.

'Thank God you've come; this is quite an ordeal.'

'It's all fixed,' I gasped, 'the Legation are sending a car round to pilot us in.'

We were both by now pressed hard against the scooter by the pushing of late-comers on the fringe of the crowd. I felt slightly apprehensive. There were these hundreds of faces, serious, neutral of countenance, gazing unwinkingly at us, our clothes, the scooter, and the equipment. We could speak no Bulgarian and they no English. But it was very easy to understand their interest. We were something from 'the other side', and this cross-section of the population, men, women, and children of all ages, were obviously measuring up this practical example of capitalism against their theoretical knowledge. On that reception, we passed their critical examination with flying colours. For a start, our little scooter was something unusual, to say the least; they marvelled at the finish, the cleanliness of line, the complete absence of visible machinery, at the quietness of the engine; there were gasps of wonderment as I pressed the self-starter. They were obviously impressed with the dash-panel too, probably the first they'd seen on a two-wheeled machine.

But it was our own clothing and equipment which really fascinated them. Without embarrassment they fingered the sleeves of our skin jackets, admired our boots, and repeatedly touched the fabric of our rolled tent and sleeping-bags. Quality was plainly at a premium in this little country. Almost all the onlookers were clothed in drab, thin-looking, inferior garments. There was not one splash of bright colour. Beyond the crowd one or two cars passed by, but traffic-particularly for a capital city-was extremely light. We had no trouble in identifying the Legation car. Thankfully we started up, while a dozen faces within inches of our own continued to stare unblinking at our every move; it was hard to keep up a steady disinterested gaze into the middle distance. The car hooted, the crowd reluctantly made a lane, and we pulled out of the crush.

The British Legation in Sofia stood on a once-affluent tree-lined avenue. Opposite, an ostensibly empty house concealed a swarm of khaki-clad figures: a convenient site for military surveillance of the comings and goings in the British stronghold on the other side of the road. There were a number of faces pressed to the windows as we drew up and stopped.

Mr Constant and his charming wife at once made us at home with refreshments and that blessed thing, the English language. How pleasant to relax in comfortable leather armchairs, surrounded by familiar furnishings, with two people who could understand every word and inflection of our voices. Exactly six weeks after leaving England, we spent the night 'camping' on the floor of this English living-room in Sofia. We slept soundly on the carpeted boards, until about half past two in the morning, when suddenly our sleep was shattered by the most hideous metal rumbling from the street outside. I leaped out of my sleeping-bag and rushed to the windows and there twenty feet below, glistening under dim street lamps, were three tanks, line astern, rattling their inexorable way down the avenue. The noise those caterpillar tracks made over the cobblestones was deafening and quite frightening at such an hour. I could just make out the heads and shoulders of the tank commanders, featureless in large berets and goggles. It took a quarter of an hour for the clatter to die away in the distance, and we returned to our sleeping-bags, wondering.

Next morning we got an explanation from Mr Constant. It did not make us too happy. There had been an unofficial whisper of political trouble-an uprising of some sort-in Plovdiv, the next town on our route. He thought it unwise for us to leave the capital until something had been confirmed. The tanks that passed in the night had been on their way to the trouble spot. But, we learned, they often embarked on a night prowl from time to time even without an excuse-all part of the intimidation tactics. They knew full well the value of waking the populace in the dead of night with their palpitating clatter.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Red in the Morning (Chapter 4 - Bulgarian border)

There were a hundred yards of no-man's-land. Through the trees along the rutted, sunlit track, we saw the Bulgarian border. It was seven-thirty a.m. We started the scooter and ran out of Yugoslavia and into the buffer strip of land between the two countries. For those hundred or so yards, we were politically nowhere. It was a peculiar feeling, those few moments in limbo. I felt that had we stopped and set up camp we could probably have stayed in that strategic vacuum, acknowledged by neither government, for ever. Ahead, to left and right, a stout wire fence marked the Bulgarian frontier. We drove up to a chequered barrier, stopped the engine and waited.

From a whitewashed hut stepped a uniformed double of Peter Ustinov, much as he appeared in The Love of Four Colonels. He opened the barrier and, in broken English that was almost as funny as the play, said:

'Hullow, travellers. Please insides; signings.'

We nodded, parked the scooter and followed his ample, heavily belted frame back into the hut.

'Passaporrtas please.'

He flung down his red-starred cap and settled comfortably behind a big desk that sported a dusty ink-well and an ancient hand-crank telephone. He indicated two hard-backed chairs for our pleasure and immediately fell to a most thorough examination of our precious document. Above and behind him, two faded portraits stared down, it seemed directly at Nita and me, with what appeared to be faintly disapproving expressions. One was Lenin, the other, surprisingly, was Josef Stalin, edged in black.

I looked about me but the rest of the room was empty save for a very old office safe, upon which I could just make out the 'Made in England' trade-mark. We sat in silence, waiting for the end of the perusal. After twenty minutes, the officer looked up with a
beaming smile.

'This one passaporrta not good.'

'Oh,' said I, thinking that all the pessimists back home had perhaps been right after all, 'what's wrong with it?' I tried to adopt a suitably aggressive tone in accord with that line on the passport flyleaf regarding 'Without Let or Hindrance'. But it was no use. Tapping the document against his thumb, he launched into a long, barely understandable explanation, which briefly revealed the trouble: apparently everything was in order so far as we personally were concerned, but the passport visa mentioned nothing about a motor-scooter.

I tried to explain that all the formalities regarding our transport were covered by the carnet - I flourished the fat booklet at him - but this was sadly insufficient. It should be in the 'passaporrta'; he was pleasant, apologetic, but firm. We would have to wait while he rang through to Sofia. If they granted permission, we would be able to proceed; if not, we would have to return to Yugoslavia. (He indicated this with a disparaging directional nod of the head.)

Nita immediately went outside and returned with the map case. She gave me an I-told-you-so look, as she began totting up the mileage to Turkey via Yugoslavia and Greece. I watched anxiously as our Peter Ustinov cranked vigorously at the telephone. He eventually got through to somewhere and after a few minutes' conversation which consisted mostly of the word dobra, he hung up and sat back with a contented smile. Sofia, he said in effect, would ring back within a few minutes with the necessary permission. In the meantime we were offered a glass of water and given cigarettes to pass away the time. It was just eight o'clock.

At two p.m. the poor man, who now looked less like Ustinov, was as fed up with the sight of us as we were with him and his wretched frontier post. He had certainly done his best to entertain, but after six hours he had run clean out of ideas. We had been on a tour of the garrison, including the barn-like soldiers' quarters and the vegetable patch, and walked round and round the postage-stamp lawn in front of the building. We had washed at the well, after superhuman efforts to draw water, and cleaned our boots of some of the thick dust which clung so tenaciously. The scooter had been repacked several times as a sort of occupational therapy and stood waiting outside the guardroom door. Still no permission.

At four o'clock, the last strained smile had been smiled and we all sat glumly and silently, chins in hands, watching and willing that telephone to ring. At four-thirty the quiet was broken by our captor with strange noises which turned out to be an invitation to eat with the rest of the frontier guard. We all adjourned to the barn and there joined the rest of the troops who were noisily engaged in drinking bowls of watery soup and eating mountains of dry bread. Nita and I took our indicated places at the long scrubbed table and conjuring up expressions of surprised delight, managed to swallow the luke-warm gruel and some of the ancient bread. For a pudding, we each received a small block of what appeared to be, and tasted like, solidified jam; quite pleasant, by far the nicest course, but very, very sweet.

Afterwards, we returned to the guardroom for what fortunately turned out to be the last half-hour of waiting. At five o'clock, exactly nine and a half hours after arrival, we were given permission to proceed. We went post-haste, anxious to reach Sofia sixty miles away before nightfall. We had learned our first lesson. Communist government departments had a lot in common with our own; but at least they supplied refreshments.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Pink Sky at Night (Chapter 3 - Belgrade, Yugoslavia)

It was monotonous driving along the valley of the River Sava. And as we cruised along at a steady thirty-five miles per hour, with flat, marshy ground stretching for miles on either side of the concrete highway, I had plenty of time to reflect on the advice given us by the man in Zagreb. 'Look for a Fat Man in the Hotel Moscow' sounded shady and full of intrigue, even Orson Wellesian. Why would the man with crinkly hair want to give us more for our cheques than they were officially worth? It didn't add up. The official rate of exchange was 1,120 dinars to the pound sterling; our tipster had hinted at something much higher than that figure. It sounded attractive but risky. I shouted above the headwind to my wife. 'What do you think about meeting the Fat Man in Belgrade?' 'Not much,' she yelled back, 'it sounds a bit dangerous. I'm not keen to see the inside of a Yugoslav prison.' 'Nor I,' I bawled, 'but maybe it's sort of within the law. We certainly could make use of a more favourable exchange. Might be worth trying to see him, then if it's obviously illegal we can back out gracefully.' Nita, undecided on this diplo­macy, wavered. 'Well. . .' So we left it open. We'd get to Belgrade first.

The Croatian countryside was dotted with villages, marshes, and a tremendous variety of bird life: duck and geese, both wild and tame, herons and smaller waders searching for fish among the reeds, flocks of rooks and pigeons. And although we saw little of the River Sava itself, the whole area, flat as a board, was soggy and insect-infested, a veritable bird paradise. On the far-distant horizons to left and right, purple mountains hemmed in the valley of damp. Bad country for camping, so we drove on through an insect-plagued dusk and far into the night.

We camped eventually in a meagre copse that was wet and uncomfortable, and Nita kept hearing footsteps approaching; I was glad when dawn broke and we could see our surroundings. Desolate fenland, heavy with mist. Even in daylight it was a gloomy spot.

We were still on the Autoput, though the Belgrade signposts did not now display such a formidable number of kilometres. All that day we drove without seeing more than a handful of people working in the fields and a dozen cars or so on the motor-road. Garages were few and far between, about fifty miles between each.

Towards evening, dog-tired after a hard day's riding, we were thinking longingly of a cosy camping spot, when the engine began to misfire-the usual trouble of plug-whiskering. I stopped to clean it and in the middle of the operation we were pounced upon by a bunch of knowledge-thirsty students, three young men and four girls all in their 'teens or early twenties. They spoke passable English and were excellent company. The ten-minute delay developed into a heated three-hour discussion on the various merits and faults of Communism and capitalism. They were all well read, with a shrewd conception of world affairs, perhaps a trifle misinformed in some respects, but tremendously interested in international politics and willing to assess our views dispassionately. However, they were unanimous in their respect for the British; three of them were even taking English instead of Russian as a second language. But unfortunately for this cross-section of the unified Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, their learning was unlikely to be broadened by travel. For apart from the lack of funds, they told us, it was almost impossible to secure passports. Not that these documents were ever actually withheld, but the formalities were so exhausting that applicants usually lost heart or ran out of stamp money. It was, they said, just not worth the effort. Perhaps, in a country striving to build and become prosperous, that is a good thing. If these boys and girls were an average cross-section of modem Yugoslavia they would be a great loss to their country.

It was again very late before we selected our open-air bedroom for the night, and by that time we were yearning for a good night's sleep. After the third day of fresh air, with only sparse patches of rest, we were prepared to sleep anywhere; so we did, about three yards from the road on the gravel verge.

We never found the man in the Hotel Moscow. How could we? During the whole time we were in the city-nearly a week-the hotel and its immediate environs, including a super-colossal boule­vard cafe, were always teeming with jostling crowds. It seemed to be the social hub of Belgrade. And a surprising number of the men who sat at the pavement tables sipping and chatting were fat, crinkly-haired, and suitably furtive. We forsook the crazy idea and gave our custom rather reluctantly to Putnik, the Yugoslav travel agency.
We had enough trouble as it was, trying to coax Jugosped, the transport company, to release our new film stock which had been flown out from London; and at long last when that favour was finally granted, we had to start over again to persuade them that the exposed film, which we wanted returned to England by air, was not of their military installations, bridges, or factories. All this was finally accomplished by Nita, who threw aside all polite business procedure and ranted at the company director in no un­certain manner: did they want to trade with Britain? Because if so, they were hardly setting a good example by all this needless red-tape!

She said a lot of other things too, but I didn't hear them, for while this last desperate parleying was in progress I made a cowardly withdrawal to another office to fill in another sheaf of forms and smoulder in impotent fury. I must have completed hundreds in those four days, which was not easy as they were, of course, all in Yugoslav. During these negotiations to wrest our film from the clutches of officialdom and get them to accept the ex­posed stock for dispatch, we visited nearly every government office in the capital, accompanied by a young girl from the Jugosped office, to try and gain the necessary permission. Some of the forms, I was certain from the interpreted questions, could not have had the slightest bearing on the problem. My grandfather's Christian names, for instance, could hardly clinch the matter one way or another. Questions, forms, more questions.

'Why haven't you carried all the film you needed with you?'

'Because we are riding a scooter-weight and bulk, you know.'

'Pardon?' they said, with puzzled frowns.

'Newsreel material-London. Its prompt return is urgent.' 'Newsreel?' they said, 'British Government Newsreel? What have you taken pictures of? Have you travelled through any of the military zones?'

'No,' I replied. 'Scooted via Ljubljana and Zagreb and taken some scenic shots.' And so on, for four days.

In the middle of all this jousting I got an attack of gout, a legacy from a port-fancying grandfather, the same whose name now reposed in the archives of Belgrade. Fortunately, the most excruciating period coincided with our exhausting but triumphant conclusion of the film fantasy, so that I could hobble, gratefully relieved, back to the small hotel bedroom to endure the following two days of agony in peace. Nita fed me my usual non-alcoholic diet; stayed away from my foot, the big toe of which was then a superb, pulsating specimen the colour of an angry sunset; and kept the conversation down to a minimum. No one with severe gout is good to live with. The only light relief during this trying interlude was a letter from Rediffusion, which expressed concern at the delay in the arrival of film. After doses of colchicum tablets, my fiery toe subsided after forty-eight hours and once again was pronounced fit to press the foot brake.

We spent our last evening in Belgrade shopping in a market which stayed open until very late in the evening. The city centre was well lit, with a surprising amount of traffic in evidence, more than during the day, and multi-storeyed buildings, bathed in floodlight, punctuating the skyline. Some of the city-the older quarter-showed a distinct Turkish influence, but all that seemed to be overshadowed by the new building projects. There were plenty of essential consumer goods, but positively no luxuries. For example, we passed many jewellers' shops displaying watch-straps but no watches, and in most of the windows were articles strictly utilitarian: lengths of gas piping, a telephone tastefully set up against a coloured crepe-paper surround, and in yet another shop a few angle-iron brackets (non-rusting).

Yet for all the austerity, people seemed to move with purpose and springiness of step. Gradually, they said, the results of the five-year plans were taking effect. We heard one or two hinted asides that Tito was not quite all he could be, but most of the English-speaking people we talked to during that week supported the country's leader wholeheartedly, indeed, fervently. They had faith in him and in themselves. They were working, they told us, to create a prosperous and independent Yugoslavia. What did we think of the beautiful architecture of the new buildings? Were they not symbolic of the new country, with their glass and con­crete silhouettes breaking the old, low skyline? Soon, too, all the major cities would be connected by the Autoput, and the dusty tracks would be but memories to the next generation. We both thought this last an excellent idea.

Certainly Belgrade today, built from the rubble of the Luft­waffe's savage onslaught, was proof of a national will to keep up with the world beyond the Balkans. Compared with Austria, their neighbour, they were poor; poor but proud, hardworking and eager. I liked the Yugoslavs and their country, despite the bureau­cracy, the exchange rate, the gout, and the incident when I was nearly thrown into prison for filming a tramp in the city centre. The people we met, almost without exception, were friendly, help­ful, and smilingly cheerful; I hope it will not be long before they can walk into their jewellers' shops to buy themselves wrist­watches. And their politics? As one man said, they are neo­-Communist because for them it holds the key to recovery; they are not fanatical about the creed, just quietly convinced that it is the right way. For their country's infancy it probably is: a parallel to our own maxim that a student must be a radical, before toning down his views with substance and maturity.

Over the Danube and out from Belgrade the road, at first metalled, deteriorated rapidly and, apart from a few tarmac stretches which seemed to end hardly before they had begun, was a trialist's delight. For us it was murderous. A repeat of the Ljubljana-Zagreb run, only worse. There were no smooth, rest­ful part, it was all holes, huge cavities filled with dust and jagged flinty rocks which were unavoidable at times. When these gave out temporarily, we had variety in the form of deep, even corru­gations from which there was no escape at all. The only difference in the country was the appearance of Cyrillic instead of Roman script on the infrequent signposts. The road, particularly near villages, was usually lined with apple trees. So much more prac­tical than poplars or planes as shade-makers, they were heavily laden with fruit. I wondered how long they would have remained thus in rural England.

The mountain country of eastern Yugoslavia is really wild. Cultivation near the villages is intensive, but between communi­ties we rode through remote moorlands and craggy peaks, with only wild birds, cattle, and sheep as our companions. We could look towards every horizon and see nothing but virgin landscape, rugged but green.

We camped in some lovely spots, almost always finding a fresh, babbling stream and soft mosses on which to lay our sleeping ­bags. I managed to get a fair amount of shooting and for a while we practically gave up tinned food as the dixie was usually full of game for the evening meal. But however remote the surround­ings, after sunset we never managed to be alone. Magically, it seemed, we would find ourselves with company. Sometimes an individual would introduce himself, chat by miming, and gener­ally make himself comfortable. But if the guests were in a party they often confined their visit, which sometimes lasted for as much as three hours, to silent, bovine stares. Very disconcerting. One night a shepherd boy-who was, I suspect, leading contender for the title of Village Idiot-stayed all night, sleeping just outside the tent flap. He spoke one word which he repeated hopefully at opportune intervals: 'Cigaretten.' He was still mumbling his Ger­man vocabulary as I fell asleep with one hand on the rifle, just in case.

On we went through the desolate, attractive mountains, wind­ing our tiny way through gigantic gashes in the hills, up to the beginning of the majestic, barren Dragoman Pass, and on along the narrow path that led across the natural barrier between Yugo­slavia and Bulgaria. We camped on top of a bare, windswept peak. Ahead in the valley below lay more of the unknown, which in a few hours would be revealed to us. The evening sky, a delicate, pastel pink towards the west, held promise of a fine day for the morrow. A good omen.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Pink Sky at Night (Chapter 3 - Zagreb, Yugoslavia)

That night drive from Ljubljana to Zagreb was an experience indeed. We awoke from our nap at about eight o'clock, fortified ourselves with more tea, and mounted to do battle. For about a hundred yards we progressed very well, then hit a yawning pot­hole that would be better described as a pit, promptly wobbled out of control, lost balance, and fell off. Travelling slowly, there was no damage done, but the incident was a caution. At an even slower pace, after a futile dusting down, we resumed. This time there was an improvement and we covered about a mile before repeating the performance. Those pot-holes were demoralizing brutes. There was absolutely no method of avoiding all the chasms; we had to take them in our stride. It was almost im­possible to discern just where they lay, for the headlight was dazzling on the white surface and we were in trouble before it could be prevented.

Sometimes we managed to scud along for as many as two or three miles with barely a dent to be felt, then, suddenly there were craters everywhere. Luckily these seemed to con­form to a regular pattern and as our anxious peering eyes spotted the first of a new series, Nita would shout (just in case I hadn't seen them) 'More!' and we could take evasive action. This consisted simply of attacking the pitted area in first gear, weaving our way over what was left of the original surface. The Prima took the severe punishment well. There was a nice floating action from the hydraulically damped rear suspension (which worked to the limits of its travel due to the overweight), and although the passage was extremely choppy, there were no worrying noises from any part of the machine save for an occasional 'clunk' as the front-wheel springing bottomed. I began to enjoy that ride. We were overcoming the first hurdle. It was a lovely night, moon­less, but with plenty of stars and quite warm. Unlike our journey so far, for the first time there were no twinkling lights on either side and the few small villages we passed through were in total darkness, except for the inns. At one of these we sampled the potent slivovitz. One glass is more than enough to keep out the chill night air and two are a guaranteed anaesthetic. With the red-hot coals smouldering in our stomachs we left the bar which was austere, womanless, but lively in a rural way; a medley of tobacco smoke, sawdust, cloth caps, and boots and a burble of animated chatter of which I could decipher but one word, 'da' (yes).

Confident now, we attacked again and, surprisingly, had no more spills that night. We hastened slowly, stopping every hour to stretch our legs and smoke a cigarette, refuelling from the re­serve tank once; and so, as the hours passed, the miles of tortuous track passed with them.

At three o'clock in the morning we suddenly ran on to heavenly metalled road again, the beginning of the 'Autoput' which, accord­ing to the map, would take us through Zagreb and, blessedly, right on to Belgrade. Dead tired, we pulled off the road -the real road- made a rough camp, and in twenty minutes were falling into a deep, dreamless sleep. Night driving in Yugoslavia would cure the most advanced case of insomnia.

The tramp of marching feet awakened me, and across the top of my dew-soaked sleeping-bag I could see a host of white-clad figures passing. Rubbing my eyes and staring with disbelief at a watch that said five a.m., I looked again at the phantom army marching through the billowing dawn mist. They were women, despite the clump of their boots. Peasants in Sunday attire of stiff white dresses and starched bonnets, ornate with traditional decora­tions, on their way to the market at Zagreb. Laughing and chattering among themselves, carrying huge baskets of produce on their heads, these sturdy countrywomen politely looked straight ahead as they passed the parked scooter and the two cocoons huddled side by side on the grass verge. There was a lull of a few minutes between groups, so during the slack period in this pedes­trian traffic we hastily shed our sleeping-bags and got dressed.

While Nita brewed up on the Primus, I watched another batch go past. Strong, healthy women with a glow in their cheeks, wholesome people who live close to the earth, these were no Com­munists, Titoists, or any other 'ists'. They were Croats, doing much the same as they had done for centuries. I felt certain, watching them stride past, that their lives had remained un­touched through Turkish rule, German domination, or their cur­rent choice; untouched, that is, so far as loyalties went. The peasant was dictated to only by the earth; the land, that com­mands more devotion than any human being, a hard master at times, but one which rarely repays confidence with empty promises.

In Zagreb on that Sunday morning, we met an Englishman. Among shops with no display windows and weird names (which of course were unreadable to us), we were searching as usual for a food shop. Nita really wanted a butcher. It was time, she said, that we had another quota of fresh meat. We rolled along slowly, peering through narrow, gloomy doorways, some of which were open, despite the strong Catholic influence in that part of Yugo­slavia. Behind us a car-horn blew and I looked around to see a man in a new Austin waving to us. I tried to recollect whom we knew in Zagreb, could think of no one and decided to stop any­way. The driver pulled in behind us and got out.

'How do,' he said by way of introduction. 'You're a bit off the beaten track, aren't you?'

'We were last night,' I agreed.

'Ah, then you'll have come from "Lubli", will you?'

'That's right.'

'A real cruel bit 0' road is that; still, you're on a good thing from 'ere to Belgrade. What they call the "Autoput", y'know.' I nodded.

'Course, I know this country backwards by now; come out every year and stay about three months. Do a little bit 0' business 'ere and there.' Here he winked knowingly at Nita. She smiled back at him non-committally, and I visualized all sorts of illegal dealings covered by his 'bit 0' business'.

'We'd really like to find a butcher,' I said. 'You wouldn't happen to know of one hereabouts, would you?' He laughed.

'You'll have to keep your eyes open 'ere, lad; what's that be'ind you?' I turned round and there, not twenty paces away, was a tell-tale sawdust trail from a narrow doorway.

'Oh, yes,' I said, somewhat ungraciously. 'Thanks.'

Our fellow countryman looked over the scooter and told us that his daughter back home' ran one 0' them'. 'But you're bein' a bit ambitious, ain't you?'

'We are if the Yugoslav money exchange is a sample of the countries ahead,' I told him. Our friend eyed us with a shrewd look, then decided to take us into his confidence.

'Look' ere,' he said with a hasty glance round the near-empty street, 'have you changed much since you've been 'ere?' We told him we hadn't.

'Good, then I'll give you a tip; I've got a pal in Belgrade­Yugo, but he's O.K.-goes by the name 0' Brodski. He's nearly always in the Hotel Moscow; fat fella wi' crinkly hair. Now then, have a word with 'im and say Tom Briggs sent you. He'll fix you up wi' a cracking bit of exchange. Don't have no truck with travel agencies if you take my advice.'

We said we'd think about it and thanked him for the informa­tion.

'S'nothin', glad to 'elp.' He glanced at his watch. 'Well, must get back into harness. Gotta see a chap at half-past ten, not 'ere for me 'ealth, y'know. Might see somethin' of you in Belgrade, I'm always popping in and out.'

'Right,' we said, 'And thanks again.' We waved as the Austin disappeared round a corner. Trooping into the butcher's shop, we bought two pieces of prime steak, got the butcher to fill our new water bottles, and without further ado drove out on to the Autoput and settled down to cover the two hundred and fifty miles to Belgrade.