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Adventures in Eastern Europe

Yugoslavia

In 1969 I booked a holiday with the Ramblers Association in Yugoslavia. This was only the second time I had been into what we then called the Iron Curtain countries. (My first visit of course was to Russia itself.) Yugoslavia under Tito was a united country, and one that resisted Soviet domination. I flew to Dubrovnik, and entered another world. I found the old city stunning, its walls intact, and a central street running through with white pavement so clean that you could eat your lunch off it - old churches, courtyards, cobbled side streets, friendly cafes and bars everywhere. I walked right round the walls, looking at the pan-tiled roofs and little courtyards down below. At school opening and closing times, the street was filled with chattering children. The atmosphere was welcoming and very civilised. The holiday I had booked was a cruise along the Dalmatian coast in a three- masted schooner. The ship lay neatly moored in the harbour, looking like the old Hispaniola described in Treasure Island. I went aboard in the afternoon and met our courier, a Croatian university student, and my travelling companions, some of whom, I had seen coming over on the plane. I can’t remember their names after all these years, but there was a friendly young man with whom I shared a crowded cabin, with upper and lower bunks and only room for one on the floor at once. There were two girls we got to know – an actress from London (Rosalind) and an Australian lady architect, two Americans and an assortment of people from all over the UK.   For two weeks, I enjoyed an idyllic cruise. When the wind was blowing in the right direction, we were invited to help the crew hoist the sails, but most of the time we were treated with the courtesy of passengers. The weather was glorious, and I have a memory of tall white cliffs, the white Roman ruins at Zadar, the tranquil seaside towns such as Hersegnova, and the islands of Hvar and Korcula where in the cool of the evenings, we were invited to join the locals in traditional circle dances under the starlit sky. Several years later, I flew back to Yugoslavia –this time to Ljubljana, where we were introduced to the wonderful lakes and deep caverns of Slovenia, and later were taken by coach to the port of Rijeka, where we joined the same ship, with the same jovial captain for a cruise along the northern stretch of coast.  This time the tourists were different. We were joined by a group of lively young Germans, who tumbled each other off quaysides, even including me on one occasion, which I took as a compliment. Along the coast, the atmosphere was still peaceful. We visited the hill town of Mostar, where an old bridge spanned the river, linking the Christian and the muslim settlements. (When that bridge was bombed, after the death of Tito two few years later, harmony was disrupted for years.) My third visit was in 1982, the year after the dictator died and this time I thought I would like to see something of the interior of the country. I had decided to attend the annual conference of The International Association of Careers Advisors, which was affiliated to the Institute of Careers Officers. It was to be held that year in Dubrovnik, and some of my Scottish friends were also going to be there. I decided to fly to Belgrade to see the capital city, a week in advance and then take a long scenic train route to Budva, before travelling by bus along the coast to my favourite town of Dubrovnik. The plans worked well. I found Belgrade to be a rather sombre place. I stayed in a smallish hotel in the city centre, and visited Tito’s mansion house, which was now a state museum, where grey uniformed soldiers stood as sentries by the door. The parliament building looked austere and the Serbian people appeared to be stolid and serious, quite unlike the light-hearted Croatians I had met before. The transition in the government, though, appeared to have been orderly and well managed. I noticed a soldier guarding the train before I boarded it at the main railway station. My compartment was full of Yugoslavs. One man nodded and smiled at me. The others simply stared and I became conscious of my foreign status. The long journey was most spectacular. It took us over mountain passes and through dark tunnels, which led to fertile valleys and limpid lakes. The man who had smiled at me, spoke in broken English, asking me where I came from. He said he had guessed that I was from England, and he began to tell me of his war-time exploits when he had been a partisan in these very mountains fighting against the Nazi occupation. This interested me because I had recently read a book about these events. I told him this, and he translated what I said to all our travelling companions. Over the next hour we conversed together. The man had been one of those who objected to King Paul’s surrender to Adolf Hitler and joined the rebels under the command of Generalisimo Tito to fight the Nazis and aim for a Communist state. They had hidden in caves in these very mountains we were travelling through. I told him about a book I’d read, written by the Scots adventurer, Fitzroy Maclean, who had been dropped by parachute by the British to meet the partisans and try to talk to Tito. I explained to him how Winston Churchill was unsure whether it was appropriate for the British to assist them because the young King Peter of Yugoslavia and his contingent of soldiers were guests of the British Royal Family at the time. All this my friend translated back to the other passengers who nodded and smiled at me with interest. After a while, I decided to film some of the wonderful scenery and stepped out into the corridor to get a better view. I was in the middle of taking some cinefilm, when I was abruptly challenged by a soldier with a rifle. He spoke to me angrily in Serbo-croat and confiscated my camera. Disgruntled, I returned to my seat and told my friend what had happened. He went out to confront the soldier and after a long argument, the soldier came in and returned the camera to me. “How did you do that?” I asked my friend. He smiled and replied “ I told him that you are a good comrade, a friend of Yugoslavia and also of important people in the West like Winston Churchill and Fitzroy Maclean.” He translated this to the whole compartment, and everyone clapped. A few weeks later, the balloon went up when civil war broke out in Yugoslavia, with Serbs killing Croats, and fighting across Bosnia. The united country, which Tito had maintained so delicately, shattered into warring factions and the bridge  spanning the River Mostar was blown up. Suddenly, I understood why the soldiers had been told to watch out for spies and for people with cameras filming river bridges which could be mined by those so inclined. The innocence had been lost and my eyes were opened.

Hungary    

Around 1980, I went on a UNA study tour to Paris and Vienna, where we stayed in the same youth hostel that I had first visited in 1950. It scarcely seemed to have changed at all.  At the end of the tram-line out of the city, it lay on the edge of the Vienna Woods. I spent a week there in the company of several students and some older UNA members like Algar Reid, who I had shared a room with in 1969. The group, which was led by a young school teacher, David Barrs, went to the Vienna offices of the UN for talks and discussions. We had some free days at the end of the trip and I decided to take the train across the border into Hungary. It was an interesting journey. I found myself sharing the compartment with two older ladies, both Hungarians by birth by speaking in English with light American accents. I discovered that they were now living in the States and returning to their homeland on a visit, which they occasionally did. They were able to be objective about the regime there, which they found tolerable, if not to their taste. The younger of the two ladies told me that I would know about the son of the other one, because he was a famous man. I made several wrong guesses, but later, it transpired that his name was Uri Geller, and he was famous for his mystical powers. I was’nt quite sure about him, but his mother was a charming lady. The older one told me that she had come from a rich family and had been regarded as a princess in her youth. I think Hungarian princesses were quite numerous before the revolution, rather like the girls in England who used to be presented at court, but I did’nt make that comment, since she had offered to show me round Budapest on the following day. I stayed that night in a medium-sized hotel, which I managed to book at the information office in the main railway station. In the morning, I went round the main shopping area, which was surprisingly smart. A wander up a side-street though, quickly revealed a drab food market, where poorer locals queued. I met “the princess” by the river bridge at twelve o’clock as arranged, and we had lunch together in a small café. Then we went across the river to the old town of Pest, which was a fascinating contrast. We left modernity behind and explored cobbled streets, ornate old churches and bars where artists painted customers as they sipped red wine. This was a showplace quarter, restored for the tourist, but relaxed and content with itself. When I went back to Vienna the next day, I had a story to tell of a gem of a city further up the Danube, where time seemed suspended. 

East Germany

My membership of the International Association of Careers Advisors gave me the opportunity to make contact with colleagues in different countries, and I found that there was much to learn from them about varied ways of doing our work. All this, of course was done in my own time, of course, and at my own expense, but as a bachelor, this was possible, and in my fifties I attended international conferences in Italy, Yugoslavia and France. It was when in France that I started to organise some overseas exchanges. One was done with the Careers Officers in Paris, one with careers teachers in Holland and another with careers teachers in Sweden. In return we hosted some French advisers in our own homes and arranged a programme for them in Nottinghamshire. Dutch and Swedish counsellors were hosted in other parts of the UK. The most unusual of these visits, however occurred when I received an invitation to go to the German Democratic Republic. The year was 1987 – two years before the fall of the Berlin wall, which then separated the west from the communist eastern    block.
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