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The International Writers Magazine: Yugo Memories

Yugoslavia Remembered
David Russell

The year was 1985 and Yugoslavia was still an undivided country.Having left the enchanting fortress city of Dubrovnik two hours earlier, our rented Yugo was winding down the spectacular sea coast road as my wife and I headed for Mostar, to see its famous 500 year-old arched stone "Stari-Most" bridge, connecting that combined mosque and church city. After an hour of taking the mandatory pictures of the bridge with and without local kids diving into the Neretva River below, admiring Mostar’s magnificent white marble mosques, doing the tourist shops, we lit out for our day’s final destination, the Olympic city of Sarajevo.

Driving along, we noticed that most roadside Tavernas had rotating spits out front, roasting what looked like goat. Curious and hungry, we eased our Yugo to a stop in front of one. Motioning to the owner that we wanted some of what he had on his spit, we watched as his wife rushed over, took her husband’s knife and cut for us what seemed to be extremely generous portions with neither bone nor fat. Then she invited us into her kitchen to proudly show vegetables picked from her backyard garden and to help make a salad.

While we were eating, the wife and husband brought to the table a bottle of wine pouring us each a glass, before raising theirs in a shared toast.The lamb was delicious; crisp, moist and spiced just right. Add to it the overall warm, wonderful shared experience, prompted adding a tip to the cost of lunch, in a country where no one tipped; the total coming to the equivalent of an embarrassing ten U.S. dollars. Before we left, momma hugged us both, while poppa smiled and shook our hands. All the above with not one spoken word understood between us. Just smiles.

The continuing drive, on the road that Tito had built for the 1984 Yugoslav hosted Winter Olympics, was spectacular, tunneling through mountains that dared reach the road. Imagine, a 30-mile stretch, actually a gentle, rolling ribbon of a road, constructed inside a gorge, with a running river below on the right, mountains reaching great heights to the left and the road bound by the golden leaves of aspens at their Fall prettiest. Never, anywhere, not even in my New England love affair at leaf turn time, could I recall experiencing the euphoria of those 30 Yugoslavian miles. Neither my wife or I uttered a word; nothing said could compare to what we were seeing and feeling. A half hour later, we motored into Sarajevo, a city with a coexistence of cultures; austere buildings from the Austrian occupation paralleling secular overhanging balconied Turkish houses.

Walking the centuries old cobblestones, we reached our dinner pick restaurant. With no English spoken, but with the waiter’s indulgence, we solved our communication block with pidgin German. The result of our limited chatter being delicious lamb kabobs, rice and veggies, plus a bottle of Rose Bibich, a touch of sweetness, sweetening our dinner. Afterwards, window shopping the bazaar with its gigantic mosque, we wandered the winding alleys of 12 foot wide, by 30 feet deep shops, offering jewelry, leather, household goods and more Hookah water pipe variations than one could imagine.

That Sarajevo visit ended next day with a stop to see the former Olympic village, before heading for the airport and a flight to Zagreb, It was in Zagreb that we experienced a most magic moment, on our last night there, our last in Yugoslavia. Dressed down in slacks and shirt with light-wear jackets, we walked passed the majestic Zagreb Opera House. A Russian Ballet was scheduled for the next night so we weren’t completely surprised to see people milling about as if waiting for a cheap-seat rehearsal performance. However, as we drew closer, we realized these were entire families with children, all dressed in their fineries. A young usher who spoke English, explained, "tonight is a once-a-year, traditional children’s night show."

"Darn", I said, "we would have loved to see it. Especially since this is our last night in Yugoslavia. In the morning we fly to L.A."
"L.A.", he almost shouted, "I Love L.A. Someday, I hope to go there."
Then, he whispered, "Would you like to go inside?"
"Yes, of course.", we whispered back.
Pointing to the mezzanine, he said, "wait till all the theatre doors close, then meet me up there."

As instructed, when the lobby was empty and doors closed, we walked up the broad marble stairway, meeting him at the top, where he led us to a door he opened with a key. Inside was an extremely large, empty box. "Sit in the back out of sight," he cautioned. We noted that the chairs were beautifully brocaded and the box was center theatre, just above the stage. The musical was a charming "Hansel & Gretel" take off. We enjoyed it thoroughly. Our friendly usher had instructed us not to leave until he opened the door, which he did after the theatre had emptied, Obviously, we thanked him with great enthusiasm for both the play and the wonderful seats. Laughingly, he said, pointing to the Crest-of-Arms on the wall behind us, "these should be wonderful seats, this is our President’s box.". Taken aback, we offered him a thank you gratuity. His reply was an eye-tearing, "No please! Thank you for visiting our country. We Yugoslavian’s love Americans."
Memories of a Yugoslavia that, sadly, may never be again.

© David Russell <

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