Monday, June 11, 2012

A stark contrast

What I miss about Yugoslavia  We were speaking English with a mix of German. While hitchhiking through Europe forty years ago, I caught a ride with a professor from Prague who was headed home to visit his wife and parents in Spielfeld, Austria. Stirring as a piece from a Sound of Music puzzle, his family home was at the foot of a gentle mountain turned into a grove of various fruit trees and bushes. Across the unmarked street, at a distance of about one hundred paces, was a castle. “if you’ll renovate it, our government will give it to you,” said my host.

Early the next morning, I climbed out of the shuttered windows and picked berries and grapes and as many other fruits as I could fit in my shirt I’d folded into a bag. Pleased and surprised, the family welcomed my harvest when we shared breakfast.

Following that, the professor took me to see his father where he worked as station master at the train station. We shook hands; in German, as his father said goodbye, he said that I was like a second son, that I must return.

“Danke sehr!” I replied. Thanks so much, I’d said, as I hopped in the professor’s car to go to the highway to hitchhike to Trieste.

Although I did get a ride, I didn’t get one directly to the Italian coast. On that pluperfect day, I said “Why not?” to an offer of a ride to Yugoslavia, to Ljubljana (please see: Ljubljana - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). Very quickly, we left democratic Europe and drove into the jut of mountain land that separated southern Austria from northeastern Italy.

Along both sides of that uncrowded two lane highway were Christian icons on poles, once neat and carefully crafted, that had faallen into disrepair. Behind them were fences that bordered wheat fields on mountain sides. Despite the beauty that I saw there, I felt the wither of the culture, rooted in Christianity for more than a thousand years until Communism. Unconcerned, the driver said nothing about the perished history that struck me so directly.

In a sense, that prepared me for what greeted me in Ljubljana. No one there was dressed in peasant costumes; there were no country folk circulating in lederhosen singing folk songs. Peddlars and their carts had no place there.

Instead, I was dropped at the center of town at a bus terminal. “Ticket to Trieste,” the driver said as he pointed to the ticket booth. Throngs of college age travelers were there. So, too, were army officers, servicemen I recognized by their uniforms. One had wings on his shoulders.

I spoke to him. He responded in English, seemed to be friendly.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a helicopter pilot,” he answered, with a smile, as he drew circles in the air with his index finger. “I watch the people,” he told me. “It’s better than working on the ground,” he said.

“Like Big Brother,” I said, wondering whether I was being too bold to make that comparison.

But it didn’t bother him a bit. “Yes,” he answered, “exactly that. Just like Big Brother.”

His, it seemed, was the new face of Yugoslavia. His message made me wish I’d spent a second day in Spielfeld, maybe more.

I left him, eager to buy my ticket to Trieste.

                    B.Koplen  6/11/12

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