A continuing Sunday series. See also: Red Stars, Black Mountains: Mellow Ljubljana (Part 3). Red Stars, Black Mountains: Welcome to Slovenia (Part 2), Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Part 1) and Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Introduction).
In January, 2008, I searched the Internet for the name of Radojko Petkovski and was mildly surprised to see his name surface in a handful of listings, each attesting to his collaboration on fairly recent seismology studies, fully befitting an apparent post-Communist career advancement for a man whose 1987 business card identified him as an earthquake engineer from the city of Skopje, Macedonia.
A conservatively dressed (weren't they all in Communist countries?) and well-groomed man in his forties had been sitting quietly opposite me in a not too terribly crowded second class car on a Yugoslav "express" train from Ljubljana (Slovenia) to Zagreb (Croatia), and when the conductor passed through to check tickets, there was momentary linguistic confusion.
The man smiled and spoke to me in heavily accented English, and then answered the conductor, and as the door shut, enclosing us again in the claustrophobic old-fashioned compartment, I was handed a business card. An elemental conversation ensued, which is to say that Raddy spoke a bit of English, and of course, I spoke none of the local Yugoslav languages. There were to be future implications to the fractured dialogue, but for the moment, it was quite pleasant to engage the mind.
Soon we pulled into one of the intermediate stations, and on a siding adjacent to us was a train filled with dazed young soldiers looking out their windows. I tried to explain the scene at the station in Ljubljana, and Raddy nodded; he'd seen it, too, and proceeded to explain what I'd witnessed, noting that the specimens in question were now being shipped out for basic training, as were the soldiers outside our window.
Soon we had arrived in Zagreb, and Raddy made it a point to invite me to Skopje for a visit. I told him it might not be for a couple of weeks. His card was filed in my pouch, and we said goodbye.
At some juncture, discerning readers will ask a perfectly reasonable question:
Roger, seeing as you were in Yugoslavia in 1987, only four years before the tragic and murderous civil war began, can you tell us all about the rampant warning signs you noticed?
Actually, no. I can't. I was entirely oblivious.
It should have told me something about Yugoslavia that in the 1980's, Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," a survey of travel and history in the region published in 1941, was still considered essential pre-trip reading. I'd read it, and came away from the 1,000+ pages with an image of the Balkans as territory not dissimilar from Appalachia, Hatfields and McCoys.
So, on the one hand, I didn't arrive in Yugoslavia without a passing knowledge of the country's history as a Great War afterthought, a jumble of multi-syllabic Balkan peoples, religions and languages cast together into a "kingdom of South Slavs," and poverty-stricken, turbulent and rent with divisions from the moment of conception.
On the other, apart from the stock hellos, goodbyes and how much, I came utterly without communication skills … and, apart from people like Raddy and a handful of other closer to my age, Yugoslavia in 1987 was not the exact patch of Europe where one could find great numbers of English speakers.
Consequently, although it was always possible to get by, and sometimes even deeper insights could be gleaned, conversations of greater depth with natives were seldom possible. I met other tourists, but when one communicates with another tourist, especially an English speaker, there is a natural tendency to reinforce what already is known, rather than to ask questions and learn the score … and most of us had read from the same elementary tour guide playbook.
Accordingly, we'd all been taught that Marshall Tito had put an end to the bickering, and in many respects he genuinely had, partly through an instinctive understanding of the human terrain in a difficult neighborhood (the Balkans), partly through an aptitude for vicious totalitarian methodology, and partly through the common Communist trick of keeping ordinary people so relentlessly busy in pursuit of the tiniest details of reasonable life that they were too tired to rebel.
But, yes, Tito kept things together for so long as his heart was beating. When it stopped, in the early 80's, the genies began creeping from their prison bottles. Those few short years later, when the country went up in flames, and an unbelievable stream of abuses and horrors unseen since World War II took a crumbling Yugoslavia back to medieval times, I asked myself the question dozens of times: What happened to make these seemingly ordinary people leave their homes and go berserk?
There are hundreds of answers, but the point to me is that when I was there, the question wasn't being asked, and if it was, I didn't hear it.
Shame on me.
The youth hostel in Zagreb had a bunk bed for one night only, after which a school group was coming to fill all the spaces. I recall having a few mugs of cheap lager beer on the patio outside the train station, and watching the commuters at day's end. There was time for a walkabout.
Next morning, I was aboard the train into the interior, out of Croatia and into the rugged mountains of Bosnia. My destination was Sarajevo, and a date with Archduke Franz Ferdinand.