"SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ"
~ ONCE UPON A TIME IN YUGOSLAVIA ~
written by ADAM YAMEY
Travels through a 'lost' country 1973-1990
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Some brief excerpts from
"Scrabble with Slivovitz"
"... Dragan, became a close friend of mine. When I first knew him, he was working in a bank, his knowledge of German (and also English) being of particular use to his employers. He was very bright and had (and no doubt still has) a wonderfully mischievous sense of humour. On one occasion, he was talking to some West German visitors to his bank, and said,
“Yugoslavia has two airlines today: JAT and Aviogenex. West Germany used to have two, but now that the Luftwaffe is out of service, you only have one.”
He told me that once some Japanese businessmen had visited his bank. At the end of their visit, one of them bowed to him, and said,
I would love to have seen his manager’s face when Dragan bowed to the guest, and then responded solemnly by saying,
(This, the Serbian word for mayonnaise, would have been pronounced ‘my-on-nay-z’.)
Dragan was a first-class chess player, and played in the bank’s chess team in matches all over the country; each chess engagement involved at least a day away from the office on full pay."
"Our next stop was Medveđa, a small town 15 Km southwest of Caričin Grad. When we visited it, the place consisted of one long main street and little else. Raša told me that he had heard that it was becoming rapidly infiltrated with Albanians from Kosovo, whose border was a mere 13 Km to the west. Between Medveđa and the small spa town of Sijarinska Banja south of it, there was a police surveillance post on the road. It was manned day and night by armed officers because the road, along which we were driving, continued westwards across the hills into Kosovo from where trouble was daily expected.
We discovered that the rooms in the only hotel in Sijarinska Banja were under restoration, and unusable. We were directed to a villa, which we reached by crossing a swinging suspension bridge that straddled the fast flowing stream that ran through the tiny town. The villa had some long-term lodgers, some workmen employed by the government on a local geothermal project. There were also two Turkish lorry drivers staying there. Our room had two beds separated by a small wooden table on which we set up the Scrabble board so that it would be ready to use after dinner. After driving back to Medveđa for our evening meal, we returned to our villa with the intention of spending yet another long night playing games of Scrabble. Barely had we begun our first game when we were plunged into darkness. The remaining light bulb in our room had expired. All of the others had failed long ago and had never been replaced. Raša was disappointed, but at least we were able to have a good night’s sleep."
"An overnight international train carried me into Yugoslavia. I disembarked at the Macedonian city of Skopje. I had not planned to stay there because I had been led to believe that it had been totally destroyed in a great earthquake a few years earlier. I discovered, during the few hours that I spent there whilst waiting in transit, that the old town had been largely spared by the earthquake and was worthy of exploration. However, I had already bought my onward ticket, and reserved a seat on a particular bus bound for Prizren.
On boarding the bus, I was shocked to see that many of my fellow passengers looked pale and unhealthy compared with the Greeks whom I had seen whilst staying in Platamon. It took two or three hours to cross the hills between Skopje and Prizren, a small town in the part of Serbia known as the ‘Autonomous Province of Kosovo’. Throughout the journey, loudspeakers filled the bus with the strains of folksongs and other traditional music. Almost every long-distance bus in Yugoslavia serenaded its passengers with an endless sequence of this sort of music. Perhaps, it was to prevent passengers from becoming anxious as the bus rounded precarious hair-pin bends, below which the mangled, rusting wrecks of vehicles that had suffered in accidents lay rotting. Or, maybe the music was played just to help the time pass more pleasantly. Whatever its purpose, I fell in love with Yugoslav folk music during my travels on these vehicles. Wherever I stayed, I used to buy recordings of it on gramophone records (‘LPs’) and cassettes - the era of compact discs had yet to begin. I amassed a large collection of recorded Yugoslav folk music over the years.
When I stepped off the bus at Prizren with my old-fashioned, metal framed, canvas and leather rucksack on my back, I was surrounded by young men, mostly teenagers. A few of them spoke a bit of English. Both those who could speak it and also their friends, who could not, were keen to know one thing only. It was not which country I came from, nor where I was going, nor even what I was doing in their town. They wanted to discover my name. When they learned that it was Adam, they were keen to know whether I was, like many of them were, Moslem. They did not seem to care that I was not. When I asked them about hotels, they led me to a campsite, where I hired a little wooden chalet. Clearly, they did not think that a hotel was a suitable place for a casually dressed foreigner carrying a rucksack."
"My new companion led me through Travnik and out into the surrounding countryside. We walked along a lane, and soon arrived at a small single-storied cottage with a steeply pitched roof. It was surrounded by a small patch of land filled with flowers and vegetables. The building consisted of not much more than two rooms. We entered, and were greeted by an old lady dressed in folk costume. My friend introduced me to her, his grandmother, and she showed me the many framed sepia photographs that competed for the limited amount of space on her walls. She told me about them in her language, and her grandson translated for me. Many of the pictures looked as if they had been taken before the First World War.
Our next port of call was my new companion’s family home, an apartment on the first floor of an unremarkable modern building in a new part of the town. My friend introduced me to his mother and then to his younger brother, who was labouring over some schoolwork. I noticed that amongst the things on the boy’s work table there was a textbook on the English language. I picked it up and saw that its first chapter was headed ‘The Black Country’. Its first words were,
“Where there’s muck, there’s brass.”
I still wonder how much sense that would have made to a young Bosnian lad, or even his teacher."
"When the concert was over, we walked to Skadarlija. We strolled from one end to the other, disapproving of restaurants as we passed them. One was too commercial; another too expensive; the next too crowded; another not authentic enough; and yet another without music. In the end, we entered the one, which we had first looked at, the Zlatni Bokal (Golden Kettle). It was not a fancy joint, but it was crowded. A group of people were singing, led by a professional chanteuse and accompanied by an accordionist with two guitarists. There was a sad-looking young woman sipping mineral water sitting alone at one table and at another a couple of girls, who offered to share their table with us.
Soon after we began eating, we saw that the melancholic girl was kneeling on the floor with her hands raised as if praying, and the professional singer had begun dancing on a chair. The assembled multitude grew livelier, and in a short time everyone including me was dancing the ‘kolo’ (a Serbian folk dance)."