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.