BELGRADE AND THE ADRIATIC COAST
Belgrade was a complete disappointment. Dad visited the Greek, Turkish and Israeli embassies, where people empathized but could do nothing to help.
To say that we were disappointed and discouraged is to understate the thing significantly. We now had a little more than a week left of our trip, and since our chances of effecting and escape somehow now seemed minimal, we decided to use the remainder of our time in Yugoslavia to have a vacation of sorts. That meant the coastline again.
The trip to the coast took us along some very rough roads. We lost two more tires, but a replacement somehow materialized each time, either from some back-country repair shop or an individual who happened to have one. These purchases did, however, put a large dent in our budget, but not as big as another disaster that lay not far into the future.
At length, we reached the Drina River Valley, continuing generally southwest on a highway along the Drina, through the rugged but stunning Yugoslav countryside. I no longer remember the exact route, but we did pass through Sarajevo. We stopped there for a time to wander a bit and buy some food in a local open-air market. I think it was the first time I saw a minaret in the flesh, but I don’t think we heard a muezzin’s call to prayer. Another notable town along our way was Mostar, a stunning old town on the Neretva River on which Yugoslav partisans fought a major battle against German, Italian and Croatian forces in 1943. Mostar was severely damaged in the wars attending the collapse of Yugoslavia but has now been at least partially rebuilt. We continued down the Neretva River valley, passing through Metković and finally reaching the Adriatic coast at Ploče, about 130 kilometers southeast of the port city and resort town of Split.
At the time, the Yugoslav coastal road (Jadranska magistrala), which we followed from Ploče all the way to Rijeka, was easily the most dangerous drive I have ever seen. Imagine, if you would, the worst sections of the Oregon coast highway, all halfway up the face of a cliff, with a precipice on the landward side and a sheer drop on the seaward side. Now make the road only about half the width of the Oregon coastal highway and imagine it with no shoulders or guardrails. Add man-eating potholes, blind serpentine curves, full-size trucks and buses tearing around those curves without regard to anyone else on the road, and you have an idea of what it was like. If you’ve ever followed the TV series Deadliest Roads, particularly the episodes in which Alaskan truckers are tested to the limit on India’s mountain roads, you’ll get the complete picture of what it felt like to us. The most vivid memory I have of that long drive is a Simca 1000, hanging halfway off the road on the landward side where it was impaled on a rock. I think I have a vague memory of the remains of a bus far down below in the foaming surf at the foot of the cliff, but I could be mistaken. I’m sure the road is much better today, but even today’s travel advisories refer to driving in Croatia as “nerve-wracking,” with special mention of the “two-lane, scenic coastal road where passing on hairpin turns appears to be a national sport.”
But I also remember the beauty of the place, though vaguely. Like the Oregon coast, the Yugoslav coast was absolutely stunning (here’s an amazing 1926 picture). I think we spent a day and a night in beautiful Makarska, an ancient coastal town that is a popular tourist destination.
Then disaster struck, but again gently enough so we weren’t left totally helpless. As we were pulling out of a gas station, a man began to yell for us to stop. When we got out to find out what was the matter, he pointed to a stream of water coming out of the exhaust pipe. That meant that, somehow, engine coolant was leaking into the cylinders and was being expelled through the exhaust system.
Fortunately for us, the man was a mechanic from a car repair shop just a few meters down the road. He had us drive the poor wounded Spartak there. Dad began to talk the problem over with the head of the repair shop, a huge bear of a man who spoke some German and a smattering of Russian. Between Czech, Croatian, German and Russian, the two men were able to understand each other decently enough.
There were three things that could cause the problem: a cracked engine block, a cracked cylinder head or a blown head gasket. The first two options meant that we were finished because repairs would be much too expensive even if Spartak engine parts could be had. (The nearest dealership that sold Czech cars was in Belgrade.) The third option meant that we could possibly go on if we could come up with a head gasket.
The only way to identify the problem was to tear down the engine, which the mechanics proceeded to do. Fortunately, the problem turned out to be the head gasket; and there even existed a faint chance that it might be had locally. Some young man then mounted his moped and took off for the nearest town to find out, while we sat around helplessly, imagining the worst.
The nice young man returned in a few hours, empty-handed. The mechanics tried to jury-rig head gaskets to various Zastavas (Yugoslav license-built Fiats – think Yugo). None would fit, and it simply wasn’t possible for us to continue on with the blown one.
We then remembered the first rule of the competent Czechoslovak driver: never get on the road without as large a stash of spare parts as you can. We jumped up, ran to the highway and began to wave down Spartaks with Czech license plates. Most stopped readily enough and were willing to help, but at first, none carried spare head gaskets except for one; and when the driver found out what happened, his first thought was “what if it happens to me?” and he declined to part with it, even when we offered to pay.
At length, we came across another Spartak driver who had a spare head gasket. He, too, wondered at first what would happen if he blew his; but then waved his hand, said something like “to hell with it, here you go!” and gave it to us, refusing payment. We returned to the repair shop in triumph, bearing the priceless artifact with infinite care. The mechanics installed it, slapped the engine together, tested it, and smiled happily. The Spartak hummed like a new car.
Then came another hard part, namely payment. By now, we were almost as badly off financially as we had been when we visited the Kubíček family in Daruvar, at the beginning of our Yugoslav adventure. The repair shop director quoted us something like fifty thousand dinars. This really wasn’t that much: the dinar then was much like the old-style Italian lira – a dollar was worth a thousand or more. But if we paid that much, there would be virtually nothing left for gasoline, camping fees or food.
“But I don’t have that kind of money,” Dad protested. The director laughed and wanted to know what Dad did for a living. When Dad told him, he burst out laughing and slapped Dad’s back playfully, knocking him around like a stick. “Doktor, i nema dengi?” he howled good-naturedly. (“A doctor, and he has no money?”)
A very brief digression on the degree of nationalization in the various Communist countries. Czechoslovakia, like the USSR, permitted virtually no private enterprise. To my knowledge, in East Germany, you could have a tiny business. The same or slightly better applied to Yugoslavia, where doctors could apparently have private practices.
The Yugoslavs had good sport with us. When they were finally done laughing (while were standing there helplessly, not knowing whether to laugh or cry), the director put a paw around Dad’s shoulder and said: “To hell with it, give me ten thousand.” He then planted a finger in Dad’s chest and said severely, but with a twinkle in his eyes: “If you were German, you’d pay a hundred and fifty thousand.”
As I said before, the Yugoslavs had a fondness for Czechs, and it quite literally gave us a new lease on life. And, like the Czechs, they were always ready to squeeze the krauts, even twenty years after the end of the war. I’m sure the the director did squeeze the very next German to make up the difference – if he cared enough to do so. After all, no one really cared if a government-run shop lost money.
We drove on, ate, camped, drove some more, ate and camped again and even enjoyed ourselves. By the time we reached Rijeka, a major town near the Istrian Peninsula, we only had a few days of vacation left and it was therefore time to start heading toward the Hungarian border.
We camped that night in Opatija, where Dad entertained the rest of us by disappearing to buy bread and returning with three large loaves stuck under his arm. We laughed because Dad was notorious for doing things, especially as regards food, that seemed excessive or downright silly. It wasn’t until much later that I made the (blindingly obvious) connection with the fact that he was a Holocaust survivor, and to him this was a survival situation. Many other things about him also fell into place once I began to view him in that light. This didn’t make life with him that much easier, but I was able to forgive – or at least tolerate – apparent injustices or seeming lack of understanding for me better than before.
But that’s another story. Now, inside the tent again and in the dark of night on the Yugoslav coast, we were faced with the dreadful realization that we had failed, and that we must return to the gray world and the cheerless drudgery of living in a self-styled socialist paradise. Then something clicked in Dad’s head. He mentioned that, while heading for Hungary, we would be passing close to Yugoslavia’s border with Austria. He said that had never seriously considered the “Austrian option” because of his suspicions that the Austrian consul in Zagreb might have reported us. But now it beckoned as one last chance to break out, and we must try it so that, later on, we wouldn’t feel that we did perhaps have a chance but failed to exploit it.
As always, Dad had a plan. The next morning, we rose early and drove as far as Ljubljana, today’s capital of Slovenia. We camped again and prepared for our last try, to be attempted the very next morning, our last day in Yugoslavia.
Of note, I just found an Internet account of a New York family’s 1967 trip through Yugoslavia. Their detailed account and the pictures they took will give you a fair idea of what Yugoslavia was like then, through the eyes of non-desperate people.