A Different Lifetime: Stepping Back in Time in the Former Yugoslavia

Different Lifetime
back in time in the former Yugoslavia
Martin Radford

























copyright © 2012 Martin Radford

Rights Reserved


Travel, adventure, and money thrown
Sounds like an excellent idea!


Why A Different Lifetime
you might ask. Well, A Different Lifetime describes the feeling I experienced
of travelling to a remote area of Europe that was not only a journey of
distance, but also a journey in time. I was fortunate enough to visit a small part
of Eastern Europe that had yet to become westernised. Life there continued just
as it had done in the early part of the twentieth century. It is sometimes hard
to conceive how ways of life so different can exist simultaneously but also
separately. My experience of life in the little community of Novaginja can be
likened to experiencing Shangri-La. It is a place where crime seems not to
exist, where people have no need of locking their doors, where there is no
great need for money because the cost of everything is minimal, and because it
is a community where all people know and care about one another. It is also
fairly remote from the world: no easy way to leave the community or to
communicate with the outside. Why Novaginja? Well as you might deduce there is
no such place, it is a pseudonym, as are the names of the characters contained
herein. One of my first recollections of walking through the streets of the
community was hearing people calling out to each other:


This I was to discover means
something along the lines of “goodbye,” “see you later.” But it stuck in my
mind as a reminder of the people and their culture, so I combined this with the
real name for the town and Novaginja is the result.          

As you will learn, it
wasn’t always smooth sailing: there were the various confrontations with Arkom,
my employer, about money, or should I say the lack of it. I was promised €300 a
month, something that I never received. To the rest of the world this seems a
miserable salary, but here it is something of a lavish income. Even so, when
you know you will be leaving in the not so distant future, you need to save
every penny so that you can afford to leave and get to your next destination,
and survive for whatever period of time is necessary until you encounter a new
source of income: this is the downfall of working for short periods of time in
a foreign country. As for Arkom, I believe he was driven by his own problems. I
later learned that the Internet is littered with horror stories of people who
have travelled to all parts of the world to teach English:  my experience is
far more of a joy.

I had the prospect of four
months waiting around for graduation; I’d just completed university for the
second time. It was suggested to me that one productive way in which I might
pass this time would be to teach English. I liked this idea; it would eliminate
every single impending problem I could think of: not only would this make good
use of my time, but it would provide something of an income and somewhere to
live: I was expected to vacate my room on campus within a couple of weeks. And
as an added bonus teaching English would include travel!

I was ready to go.
Thankfully my sister offered to store all of my belongings in her attic, and I
headed to the airport with the minimum of belongings that I thought I would
need to survive several months abroad. I wasn’t sure how long I would be gone,
but then when one knows exactly what lies ahead, it is hardly an adventure.

And so it was that I
slipped away from the quiet Warwickshire countryside in the early hours of a
late summer’s morning: or at least that was my plan. I had waited for a taxi,
under the preconception that two hours would be more than sufficient travelling
time, given that it was early morning and there would be little traffic.
However, the taxi driver had gotten it wrong; the taxi arrived one hour late,
leaving just one hour to make the deadline for checking in at Heathrow. So I
spent what was to be a nerve-racking hour, wondering whether I would ever make
it in time to catch my plane. Thankfully, the taxi driver was able to deposited
me in front of terminal one with two minutes left before the cut-off time; just
enough time to grab my luggage and run into the terminal; of course by now
there were no queues, which was a stroke of luck; everyone had departed from
the ticket counter long ago. But I made it to the plane in ample time, and so
finally I was on my way to Vienna, where I would be changing planes for
Belgrade, the next leg on my journey to Vojvodina, one of the autonomous
provinces of the former Yugoslavia.

Different Lifetime
Chapter 1
Into the Unknown



The Tyrolean Airlines
Fokker 100 rumbled its way through the skies. It was a typical, fairly short,
uneventful flight; the plane was half-f, the passengers mostly consisting of
natives of our destination country, the former Yugoslavia, making their way home.
When the flight attendant made her way down the aisle pushing the refreshment
trolley before her, my neighbour insisted on buying me a drink.

“Don’t drink the coffee on
this airline,” he confided. “Have a beer,” said he.

And I replied that a beer
would be agreeable. And yes, the local brew was not bad, not bad at all in
fact. My new friend proceeded to enlighten me on some of the places I might
like to visit in his country. He highly recommended the mountains and the
coast, and said I would be sure to enjoy the capital city, Belgrade.

“Everyone there speaks
English,” he told me.

However, disappointingly,
my plans did not include time to see the capital, and the mountains and the
coastline were in the opposite direction to my destination. But if this
encounter was anything to go by, I considered that the local people must be
particularly friendly and hospitable, which could only be a positive factor for
someone travelling to unfamiliar territory.

By this time, the fasten
seatbelts light had been illuminated; and as I looked out of my window, I could
see the sprawling capital city, Belgrade, before me. Its magnificence was
something I had not expected; below me I could clearly see the buildings and
the streets of a huge city that straddled the banks of a river. What might have
been a truly beautiful city was, however, marred by monstrous concrete effigies
encircling its perimeter.

“Prison blocks! No surely
not!” I thought.

As they came closer into
view, I could see that these grey, square, towering edifices were in fact
apartment blocks: some low cost structures designed to pay homage to the
Bauhaus vision of architecture, while providing adequate accommodation for the
seeming millions who inhabited the metropolis. I looked hopefully around me,
hoping to catch some glimpse of some magnificent historical structure, any
beautiful piece of architecture, but before I knew it, the plane had begun its
descent and we were soon touching down on what for me was unfamiliar soil.

The airport was small by
international airport standards. I made my way effortlessly through immigration
and to the baggage carousels in minutes. The baggage hall was quite small and
plain; there were few people, just the passengers from my flight, and some
military style security officers clad in khaki. By now I was feeling quite
hungry, since no food had been served on the flight. I’d been separated from my
sandwich right at the start of the journey when I arrived at the check-in desk
and was told that I would need to check in my carry-on bag. So when my bag
arrived on the carousal, I immediately opened it, retrieved my sandwich, and
quickly began to eat; this brought enquiring stares from the military types,
who began to observe me with some measure of curiosity. But with my sandwich eaten,
I passed without incident through customs; the military gentlemen had obviously
soon found my actions to be of little interest to them.

As I entered the small,
plain arrival concourse, I immediately spotted my host, Arkom, waiting
patiently for my arrival; I recognised him at once because he was holding a
large piece of cardboard on which he had written my name. With him was one of
the community’s eminent doctors, who was going to drive us to our destination.
Am I really this important?

I was greeted with
handshakes and we left the concourse together through the single exit door and
proceeded to push my luggage up a roughly constructed incline to the airport’s
small car park. We made our way to the doctor’s bright green Volvo, and once we
had arranged the luggage and ourselves inside, we were on our way; or rather we
would have been, had not everyone else decided to leave at the same time. We
waited patiently for around fifteen minutes, while gradually making our way to
the only exit, where we waited again to pay the parking fee. But it was a
beautiful day; the sun shone brightly and it was warm enough to open all of the
car windows. It was mid-afternoon, and the temperature was twenty-eight
degrees; there was a first hint of autumn in the trees, whose colours had begun
to change from green to gold and red. And once we had left the airport behind,
we found ourselves driving along clear roads which appeared to accommodate
little traffic.

We entered the motorway
and began to talk about what I could expect to find at our destination. They
were at first somewhat concerned that I might be worried about entering into
some war torn unstable environment, but I said that I was expecting to discover
a peaceful lifestyle typical of a small country town. They appeared relieved
and confided that my expectations would be fulfilled. Arkom also appeared to
have some reservations about whether I would like the local food, and we
entered into some discussion about what I liked to eat; the object of which was
to discover whether I liked pork, as pork was the main source of sustenance for
the community. Apparently, at some point in time, natives from one of the neighbouring
countries had absconded with most of the nation’s cattle. But having now
completed these difficult enquiries, and having found that I would have no
problems with the local way of life, we were now able to enter into some
lighter conversation.

“Why don’t you show him
the money,” suggested the doctor, and Arkom pulled a handful of brightly
coloured, monopoly style, notes from his wallet.

The notes were of various
denominations, some quite large, and each bore a picture of someone who had
made some great contribution to the Republic.

“He invented the
telephone,” exclaimed the doctor, pointing to one of the bills. “Well he didn’t
really, they just think he did,” he added.

We proceeded to talk a
little about the community and its people; about the languages and the
nationalities who had made it their home. By now, the city was far behind us
and the motorway that had accommodated some measure of light traffic had now
turned into a partially constructed road with virtually no traffic at all.
Looking out of the window I discovered that we had entered into a large valley;
I could see literally for miles, there was not one single hill in sight.

“At one time, all of this
area formed the bed of a sea,” I was told in explanation of the terrain.

All that I could see was
mile upon mile of dry, dusty, agricultural land that had been divided into
large fields; and occasionally in the distance I could make out the existence
of tiny villages, marked only by their ornate domed church towers. The air was
dry and I could feel the dust burning the back of my throat and in my nose. We
continued for some time with virtually no change in outlook or terrain until
the monotony of the landscape was broken by the appearance of a solitary toll
booth, which positioned in a spot miles from anywhere, appeared to attract
little business. There were certainly no other vehicles in sight. There was,
however, one solitary old man, draped in the Serbian flag and standing alone in
the middle of the road, waiting patiently for the opportunity to sell a CD of
some local celebrity to some motorist that might perchance to pass this way.
With no queue for the booth, we paid our toll and quickly continued on our way
without delay.

After just a few more
miles we reached the final border, the entry point into the land of my
destination. A large sign at the side of the road proclaimed in three languages
and two alphabets that I was now entering into Vojvodina, one of the former
Yugoslavia’s autonomous provinces. This was no secret mountain pass, lost
forever to mankind, that marked my entry point into Shangri-La; but it might as
well have been, for it marked the beginning of my isolation from the outside
world. Once inside Vojvodina, the remnants of the motorway disappeared and
became a narrow two lane road. Dotted along either side of the road lay tiny
peasant cottages, each with a small measure of land on which they grew food and
grazed a few animals, and a farmyard smell that wafted in through the open
windows as we passed. Approaching the river, there were many tiny brick and
wooden shacks dotted along its banks: summer homes belonging to prosperous
members of the community.

“This is where we come to
in the summer when it’s really hot and have barbecues,” said Arkom, bringing
these apparently prestigious properties to my attention.

“And this is the Channel,”
he continued. “We built this to divert water from the river, and stop the river
from flooding the town.”

And as we crossed the
bridge over the Channel, we entered the quiet streets of a small town:
Novaginja. The streets were lined with small brick built houses, each with a
distinctive bright red tiled roof. The centre of the town was marked by two
churches, one bearing a dark red dome on its tower and the other grey. A few
small shops surrounded the churches and more shops continued along the street
as far as the building where I was going to be living. We unloaded my luggage
outside of the building, and the doctor took his leave. By now, I was feeling
exhausted, my head was aching and my mouth was dry from the dust. We entered
the building, but before settling in, I must first meet my hostess and
employer, Lenna. Lenna was a young, dark, outgoing and clear spoken woman; her
appearance and dark hair were typical features of the Novaginjian woman. But
what was different about Lenna, was her almost native command of English. She
had been afforded the rare opportunity to leave the community and spend some
time abroad. She had in fact, spent a year living in England, but strangely,
while doing so, she had managed to acquire the speech and accent of an
American. Anyway, my first introduction to Novaginjian hospitality was to go
for dinner at Lenna’s parent’s apartment. So, I found myself seated with Lenna
and Arkom around the tiny dining table; Lenna’s parents, who spoke little
English, remained in the living room. Dinner consisted of potato salad, red
peppers cooked in garlic, sausage and chicken. Soon after we sat down, Lenna’s
father entered the dining room carrying a bottle and offered me a drink; the
bottle contained a clear liquid, which he proceeded to pour into a small shot

“Firewater,” he exclaimed.

I proceeded to consume the
firewater with my food in small sips. We talked a little about Novaginja and
about my job; well I think Lenna did most of the talking.  As dinner
progressed, Arkom offered me a bottle of the local beer, which I gladly
accepted.  After dinner, it was time for Lenna and Arkom to show me to my
apartment, which so happened to be on the top floor of the same building. There
was much apologising about the lack of lifts as we made our way up the five
steep flights of stairs. However, I was not disconcerted by the stairs. I
considered that climbing up and down five flights of stairs, several times a
day, might prove to be good exercise. So we made our way to the top, Arkom went
on ahead with my case, and I followed with my bags. My apartment was small but
adequate. The door led into a small hallway, from which the bathroom and
kitchen were to the left. Straight ahead was the combined living room and
bedroom. This main room contained adequate storage facilities, a television, a
sofa that converted into a bed, and a coffee table. This room also contained my
only window from which I had a panoramic view looking out over the red rooftops
of Novaginja. Having viewed my apartment, my hosts enquired as to whether I
would like to rest for a while before they showed me the local area and their
school; but I replied that I was fine and ready to continue whenever they were,
to which they appeared relieved.

We stepped out from the
apartment building and turned left towards some shops. It was evident from the
appearance of some of the crumbling buildings that although there had been a
determined effort made with the upkeep of Novaginja, there was trouble in
paradise. It was painfully obvious that the community was in the middle of some
economic crisis. We continued to walk towards the row of small shops. Lenna
brought my particular attention to the grocer’s shop, the greengrocer’s and the
baker’s; most of which were in the ownership of her cousin, where I was told
that I would be able to buy most of what I needed. Also, I was shown the small
kiosks to the right that line the entrance to the small park; these sold
newspapers, magazines, beer, tobacco etc., the kind of things you would expect
to find in the average newsagent’s shop. We proceeded through the park, passed
the large café on the corner, passed the abandoned building that once housed
the cinema, and up the steps to the esplanade. The walls of the cinema and
those lining the once elegant walkways of the esplanade bore the autographs of
the community’s youth, brilliantly inscribed in a range of colours. There was a
general sense of economic failure that manifested itself in the condition of
the area surrounding the park: what had once been popular activities for the
local community had fallen into disrepair. Few cars, no modern shops, economic
depression: had I stepped back in time and arrived here in the 1930s? My
attention was drawn to the war memorial that took pride of place above the
steps that led up to the esplanade: not a memorial to Novaginja’s dead, but to
those of a former power, the Soviet Union, that once exerted some measure of
influence here.

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