More Yugoslavia

In the villages of Yugoslavia almost all the houses had red roofs and many of the structures were of brick. The rolling foothills reminded me of Alberta, Canada.


Although the photo doesn’t show it, many houses had huge skeins of red peppers hanging from the windows or roofs to dry. The countryside had the natural beauty of agricultural land.

When we came to the city, it was a different story. Everything seemed gray and dull, especially the expression on people’s faces. In no other country have I ever seen so many unsmiling people. The dour expressions on the faces of pedestrians in the city told of depression, sadness, pain, worry, or resignation. It’s normal to see one or two sad people in crowd, but here, gloom blanketed the whole city. A happy person would have stood out as an oddity. The city of Nis remains embedded in my memory as being the saddest, grayest city I have ever seen, inhabited by desperately unhappy people.

We drove on through more rural areas and found smiling people riding in an ox-cart. They waved and seemed happy enough. But during our drive through Yugoslavia, the smiles only came from country folks.

On one short section the highway was widened and newly paved. All the workers wore blue pants and shirts or coveralls. Most of them worked with hand tools; not machinery as we’ve come to expect in North America. Since traffic sometimes had to stop for construction,  it was a convenient  place for a police road check.

A barrel-chested military type with a huge head stopped us and asked to see our passports. He studied them and then looked at the licence plate. With a sneer of disgust, he flicked a finger at my husband and snarled, “GETT OWTT!” At the back of the van he asked him more questions about his Canadian passport. I realized then that we must have seemed suspicious and I worried about what was going on behind the van. It was just the time when police across Europe were looking for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a German terrorist group who two months earlier had killed Juergen Ponto,the manager of a Dresden bank, and made their getaway in a van. Only a week earlier another violent kidnapping took place and the manhunt was on for factions of the terrorist group. My Canadian passport said I was born in Germany and we were driving a van with Dutch plates. It was an odd combination. I sweated a bit before the big guy decided that we were no threat, and wished us a good day.

Back on the narrow highway, it was miles before we found a rare pullout to stop for a lunch break. Vineyards covered many acres of land next to the road in this region. I heard a man yelling and realized it was directed at my husband who had gotten out to stretch his legs. He had helped himself to some of the millions of grapes that hung over the fence next to the road. The man wore the standard blue pants and shirt. He waved his rifle, yelled something we couldn’t understand and pointed at the grapes in my husband’s hand.

“Okay, okay.” My husband reached for his wallet. “How about I pay for the grapes?”

The man waved him away and threatened him with the rifle again. When he pulled out a 50 dinar note ($3),  the rifle was lowered. Putting on a sheepish face, the man took the money and then said something in a friendlier tone.

Shaking his hand, my husband asked the man if we could take his picture.

Definitely not! He shook his head and waved his arms madly as if trying to erase us from the face of the earth.

“Okay fine. No pictures.”

The man in blue walked across the street and I snapped his picture. I had repacked our lunch fixings in a hurry to be eaten later. Instead we would have to snack on freshly picked grapes. We started the van and eased it back onto the road. As we drove away slowly, we saw the man in blue duck behind a bunch of grapevines and crouch down to hide. In the rear view mirror I saw another vehicle, looking for a rare pullout spot, roll into his trap.


Later that evening, we crossed the Austrian border and in the rest area a short distance beyond the border checkpoint, we crawled into the back of the van to try to sleep.

About half an hour later, a vehicle pulled in next to ours and we heard the rowdy voices of several young men speaking German. They bumped against the van and I heard one commenting on the Dutch licence plates (we had bought the van in Amsterdam). They shouted obscenities and made comments about soccer players. One jumped on the rear bumper and bounced the van up and down while the others pushed it, rocking it back and forth. Someone yelled, “Bloede Hollaender” (Stupid Dutchmen). Inside, in the dark we clung to each other and held our breath. My husband whispered, “I think they’re still fighting last year’s soccer cup.” What a relief it was to hear them get back into their car and drive away.

We knew then it wasn’t safe to stay there for the night so we kept going another 10 miles to the Austrian town of Leibnitz. I was driving and hit an owl that flew across my path. I felt sick at having killed such a beautiful animal. We were both tired and irritable and I was near tears of frustration. We found the campsite at Leibnitz and thought how nice it would be to have the place to ourselves because most of the tourists would have gone home. But the last laugh was on us. The sign by the entrance read, “Closed for the Season.”

It wasn’t locked so we slept there anyway.

33 thoughts on “More Yugoslavia

    • Yes, he was bad, but there were a bazillion grapes and thousands of them were on our side of the fence. No washing that day. Straight off the vine was pretty clean. What’s a bit of road dust?


    • We were at a definite disadvantage in every way. At the time we didn’t realize that the country was on the brink of a major breakup and civil war. Just a few years later the whole country was a mess of war. You’re right. The faces told it all.


    • It WAS a different century!! Those years just before the war that broke up Yugoslavia must have been hard on the people. I’m not sure it’s all that easy even now. Those Eastern Block countries still don’t have it as good as we do in the West. So much corruption and military power in their government.


  1. Former Eastern Block countries developed very differently. In some of them you can´t even feel- or see the past while in others it takes longer to become a country of “our” century. I think in most of them the military has nothing to “say” anymore. What an experience you had that time! When we came for a visit here in 1992 it was still Czechoslovakia. My first impression of this country then was: “Let’s get the hell out of this country – and quick.” Comming from Switzerland, then living in Canada – for me it was a shock!
    Now we are living here and all seems like the rest of Europe – friendly, clean and colourful (with happy faces). But still, I miss Canada
    so much.


  2. The two of you were very brave to travel on those countries with their unstable governments. However I would probably have done the same if Ken had been an adventuresome traveler.


  3. Yes, the roofs are red and walls are still white, I will say staying near a window. I live in Rovinj now, the former part of Yugoslavia, now it is one of the cities of beautiful republic of Croatia. Adventures like yours are not possible here today 🙂


  4. Your husband is a great negotiator!! 🙂

    Re the depressed faces on the city people – that really got me. I would so, so be questioning the meaning of life, being alive. That sounds so awful, to think this places is out there so damned low spirited. Wow. What are we doing???


  5. I hate to say it, but you are all wrong about Yugoslavia. If you spent more than a little time there, and actually lived there you would see that it was not a repressed environment at all. We were completely opened to the west and east. My grandparents imported a brand new Chrysler Imperial back in the 70s to YU, while my uncle drove a Russian Lada. We weren’t like Czechoslovakia or East Germany. To draw such a comparison is absurd. Tito kept us open to the west. While our neighbors were stuck under harsh dictators like Ceausescu, we had a great leader who didn’t oppress us. The only reason the country fell apart was the ethnic tensions that began to show after Tito died in ’80. The American CIA placed politicians that were of Croatian, Bosnian Muslim, and Slovene nationalist backgrounds in the government and with the economic crisis of the mid 80s on top of that, our nation quickly fell apart, and the west reaped the benefits.


    • As you say, I haven’t spent more than a little time there. These are only my impressions as we drove through the country in 1977.I didn’t understand the politics then and I’m not sure I understand them now. All I could say was that the people in the cities were not smiling while the people out in the country seemed very friendly and happy. I don’t think I compared Yugoslavia to Czechoslovakia or East Germany. Only that the people in the city looked unhappy and perhaps I read too much into their dour expressions, I’m glad to hear that it wasn’t all bad even in the cities. You are most likely correct in saying that the ethnic tensions tore the country apart. That kind of thing is still going on today in many countries. Thank you for your insight and for sharing your comment. You really have to live in a country to know what is really going on. Mine were the impressions of one just travelling through.


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