ON TO BELGRADE
No, this is not a reference to the heady days of 1914 when Austro-Hungarian armies expected an easy victory over the Serbs. Nor does this refer to the equally heady days of 1995 when the Serbs, unjustly blamed for all the troubles in the South Slav lands, were subjected to a Clinton-originated NATO bombing campaign. (The Serbs did cause plenty of trouble, but not all of it.) It is simply a reference to our next destination, Yugoslavia’s capital, with all the foreign embassies, certain of which Dad now resolved to visit.
In those days, the only decent road in Yugoslavia that we knew of was the four-lane concrete link between Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade (today’s E70). When we first arrived in Yugoslavia we would, because of the tires, routinely ask about the condition of the roads we were about to travel. But the Yugoslavs had different ideas about this subject; their response would generally be something like “dobra kamenna cesta,” which means “good stone road.” Unfortunately, we quickly found out that it really meant “passable dirt road with big stones on it,” and our speed of travel on such roads was therefore very slow. But now, on decent concrete at last, we cranked the Spartak up to the previously unimaginable speed of one hundred kilometers per hour. Never having traveled at such breakneck speed, I was at first apprehensive, with goose bumps all over, then, as I got used to it, I found myself in hog heaven. (Years later, while stationed in West Germany, this would often come to mind as I would tear along the autobahn at more that 130 mph.)
Still, it took time to get from Istria to this magistrala (arterial road); and even when we did, Belgrade was still over 500 kilometers distant. We drove as far as we could under lowering skies; with no campgrounds in evidence, we decided to take a chance and camp “in the wild.” We stopped on the shoulder of the road, near a likely looking copse of trees that stood about twenty meters to the side of the road and that would provide decent cover. We gingerly coaxed the car down the steep shoulder, across the elementary ditch and through a plowed field until we reached the trees. We pitched the tent, Mom got dinner going and the rest of us got busy filling the tent with sleeping bags, blankets and other nocturnal necessities.
Throughout the early evening, locals would come by periodically, simply standing and staring from a distance. We were sure that one of them would turn us in, but we finally had to stop worrying about them if we were going to get any sleep at all.
In the morning, we were relieved to find that no police were waiting for us. On the other hand, there was a man sitting on a tractor at some distance, gawking harmlessly. But apart from this, the morning was a disaster. It had rained heavily during the night, and the plowed field was now a semi-liquid pool of brown soil. If you put your foot in it, you would sink in to above your ankles; and once you managed to retrieve your foot again (by no means a certainty, it seemed), you would end up with a huge ball of brown mud on it that would stubbornly resist removal. After a period of excited discussion (which I’m sure contained numerous reference to the process of defecation and associated organs), we decided that getting the car back on the road was out number one priority. We left the campsite set up, stripped down to swim suits, Dad got behind the wheel (complete with two huge brown balls of mud instead of feet) and we began to push.
It was a long, hard push. The engine roared, the tires threw mud all over, the car slipped and slid, knocking us all over the place like ninepins. We alternately pushed and picked ourselves up from the mud. Dad screamed like a banshee, using every anatomical analogue to (our) stupidity and uselessness that he could think of (and remember, he was a surgeon!). But we finally got the car out of the field and next to the steep shoulder which the car had to climb to get on the roadway.
At first, it went easily enough. The front wheels made it up, but then the rear wheels began to slip sideways, throwing mud again and keeping the car perpendicular to the roadway. This went on for some time until the rear wheels finally obliged us by catching on something solid. Then the good old Spartak hopped onto the roadway like an eager colt.
Dad parked on the solid portion of the shoulder, got out and we all trekked back to the campsite. It took a lot of washing before enough of the dark brown goo came off to satisfy us that we were actually from eastern Europe and not, say, Melanesia. I’m not sure any more if we ate breakfast there or if we simply decided to gather our things and get on the road. In any case, we packed up the dripping tent and everything else and made several trips to the car, getting moderately muddy again, to stow it all.
More perfunctory washing, then getting dressed (“all you guys turn around, I have to change!”), cleaning out the mud from inside the car; and off we finally went, already exhausted, toward Belgrade.