Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Another Country

I visited Yugoslavia way back in 1965. I hadn't taken a vacation since early 1963. I wanted to take some time out to work on a book project and write music. And, after making some inquiries and doing some basic math, I realized that, even factoring in the cost of transportation, I could live much more cheaply in Europe than in New York City -- and I could write music anywhere. My first stop, after an ocean voyage on the Rotterdam (cheaper than flying, believe it or not), was Paris, where a room at the Hotel des Grands Hommes, on the left bank, could be had for the equivalent of about $2.50 a night. (Yes, that's a decimal point between the 2 and the 5 -- the current rate starts at 280 Euros!) But that was still too much for my miserly budget, and anyhow, after a week or so, Paris began to bore me.

A friend had urged me to go to Yugoslavia, showing me a picture of a beautiful bridge in a town called Mostar, which she'd visited and loved.  The exchange rate looked really good: 1,000 dinars to the dollar. Even better, I could make my way to Yugoslavia in style via the legendary Orient Express. To make a long story short I wound up spending about two months in Yugoslavia, staying for the most part in Mostar, with a family that charged me 1,000 dinars (that's one dollar) a night for a room. I also spent some time in Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, and Zagreb.

I didn't notice at first, but after a while it began to dawn on me that Yugoslavia was different from any other country I'd ever lived in. For one thing, there were no beggars! There was an old man who sold little packages of nuts in downtown Mostar. But he was more of a peddler than a beggar. And there was the little boy who approached me for what I thought was a handout. But when I offered him some money, he shook his head and pointed to a group of Gypsies encamped nearby. They had assembled some wood for a campfire. All they needed was a match. He needed a match. Which I didn't have, much to my regret.

Also, there were no homeless people (other than Gypsies, who were allowed to roam freely with no interference) -- and no slums. At least none that I ever noticed, and believe me, I got around. Since Yugoslavia was a "communist" country, I anticipated a certain amount of repression, and reluctance on the part of the people to talk with strangers. But I saw no sign of that. People were open and friendly. I became friends with the family I was staying with in Mostar, especially their beautiful daughter, and would spend a lot of time talking with her and her friends, all of whom were educated and articulate. I asked all sorts of questions about politics, economics, and the policies of President Tito, about whom I was very curious. They answered all my questions openly, with no hesitation and no sign of anxiety. For them Tito was a hero, and it was easy to understand why.

(to be continued . . . )

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