All the reward I wished for was that you
With me a poet’s timeless fame might share,
That native songs our poignant tale might bear,
That all Slovenes should waken and that true
Content and joy might come. Despite my care,
Frail growth these blossoms had, so sad and few.
Francè Prešeren, “A Wreath of Sonnets”
I could steal a line from the introduction to Lure of the Labrador Wild: “As with so many adventures, this story begins with a map.” And it ends with a map too, with a map that shows me that Ljubljana is in a country called Slovenia, just as it was when Prešeren wrote and drank there, that Skopje is in Macedonia and only Belgrade is still in Yugoslavia. But in 1987, when Andrea met me at Orly airport in Paris and told me she had made some changes to our itinerary, all those cities were in one country. It was called Yugoslavia, and on Andrea’s Interrail map it was white, like most of Western Europe, though the rest of the Eastern Bloc countries were shaded a forbidding grey.
Having the wrong map and the wrong rail pass was the key to everything, I suppose. Andrea and I were both twenty-one and qualified for the Eurail Youthpass–four weeks of third-class travel. But we could only get to Europe for two weeks, and it was actually cheaper to get a first-class pass for two weeks than a third-class pass for four. So for much of our journey we rode in first-class carriages and created an uneasy social division between ourselves and our natural peers: the hordes of English, German, American and Canadian young people with backpacks almost as large as themselves. On one train an English university student was holding court on a pile of backpacks on the floor of the train, ready to teach a large weary group all the lyrics to “Alice’s Restaurant.” When Andrea came to tell me she had found a seat for us in first class, the Englishman said, “Ooh, first class? Too bloody good fer us, are you, Canadian girls?”
But that was later, in Italy. Andrea met me at the airport in Paris clutching the well-worn Interrail map she had used when she lived in Europe two years before; she had mapped out our planned route on it and that was why we never unfolded the Eurail map I had gotten when I bought my pass. We would travel to Venice, then across the border to Yugoslavia and through that mysterious Communist country into Greece.
Venice was golden and glorious like the poets promised, rather than dirty and smelly as other tourists had warned, and I was still reeling from it when we boarded the train that would carry us into Yugoslavia. The thought of entering the East made me a little fainthearted, but I was determined not to say so.
We met communism first-hand when two young men came into our carriage laughing about some girls they had met who were wearing three pairs of jeans each–jeans they had bought in Italy and were hoping to get across the border. After two days on the trains we were already tired of overly friendly young men with broken English, and we waved goodbye with no regrets when the conductor checked their tickets and banished them to second class.
The two middle-aged ladies who got on at the next station were stiff and disdainful of our sweat-stained T-shirts and backpacks. As soon as they were seated they each lit a cigarette. Andrea and I looked through the acrid air at them, at each other, at the universally recognizable red symbol on the window with the cigarette and the slashed circle. We tried saying “No Smoking” in English and French. We opened the window. We pointed at the sign. We tried to pronounce the phrase underneath it–a phrase I remember as “Za Nepushatze!” although I can now find no such equivalent for “No Smoking” in a Serbo-Croatian-English dictionary. The two women smiled tight little smiles and shook their heads.
“We’ll point it out to the conductor when he comes around again,” I assured Andrea, and we waited, savouring our future victory over the Yugoslavian ladies.
It was almost dark when we crossed the border at Trieste and stopped to have our passports stamped. I shivered a little as I imagined the Iron Curtain parting slightly to let us through, then falling heavily shut behind us. We were taking night trains from place to place so we could sleep on the train and avoid paying for hostels. A heavy indigo dusk slipped over the train as we rode into Yugoslavia. From that moment on I was always afraid, afraid as I have been in no other place I have travelled except New York City, and for the same reason: a mythology larger than the place itself. We were now in A Communist Country. “Is there even a Canadian embassy here?” I asked Andrea over and over in the next twenty-seven hours.
Shortly after the border, the conductor came again to take our tickets. Tricia and I handed him our Eurail passes, ready to explain about the smoking ladies. He shook his head at our passes and handed them back to us. “No good,” he said.
“No good?” Andrea echoed.
He shook his head and gestured at the first-class tickets the smokers were holding. “Ticket. Pass–no good.”
Andrea and I erupted in explanations, but he waved them away. His English was limited to those few essential phrases.
“Oh,” said Andrea.
She unfolded the map we had been using. “This is an Interrail map. It includes Yugoslavia. Get out your Eurail map.”
I dug out the map from the bottom of my backpack. Just as on Andrea’s map, all of Eastern Europe was shaded gray, but on this map Yugoslavia was included in the gray zone. Eurail passes were not valid in gray countries.
Our protests silenced, we looked dumbly at the conductor. “What do we do?”
“Ticket,” the conductor said.
He sat down and began scratching on the stub of an old ticket. Dinars piled upon dinars. Andrea and I had not yet spent any dinars. We looked at the rapidly expanding figures blankly. By our best calculations, we would have to spend $150 each to get through Yugoslavia to our eventual destination in Greece.
“We need a translator,” I said, sinking back onto the green velveteen seats.
“What about those guys–the guys who were in here before? They spoke English,” Andrea said.
To say that Zoki and Trace spoke English was generous. They grinned broadly as they squeezed in between us and the smoking ladies. The nodded happily as we explained. The conductor was still holding onto our Eurail passes, without which we could not travel anywhere. “No problem! No problem,” said Trace, the more vocal of the two.
The train rattled through the Yugoslavian night. The conductor yelled at Trace; Trace yelled at the conductor and waved his arms. Andrea and I explained our extreme poverty to Zoki and Trace and begged to know whether we should return to Italy. Trace and Zoki said “No problem! Is no problem!” The compartment grew hotter. The ladies stubbed out their cigarettes, lit new ones, and smiled.
We finally elicited the information that we would have to leave the train at the next station, which was called Ljubljana, and buy tickets either back into Italy or through Yugoslavia and into Greece.
“And if we go on to Greece it’ll cost a hundred and fifty dollars?!!?”
Trace shrugged. “Don’t worry. Is no problem.”
Trace was short, slim and muscular, with a dark tan, mischievous brown eyes, curly black hair and a grin marred by a missing front tooth. Zoki was taller, heavyset, with a plump smiling face and thick dark eyebrows. Instinctively I knew they were the European men we had been told to beware of. Now they were our only means of communicating with a hostile Communist official who refused to return our Eurail passes.
“How long do we stop in Ljubljana?” I asked Trace. “Long enough to buy tickets?” I still cherished the hope that our dinars-to-dollars conversion was hopelessly wrong and we could afford to continue on through Yugoslavia.
“Is half hour,” said Trace, after yelling at the conductor again.
But the train, like every train we travelled on in southern Europe, was running late. It was supposed to arrive at Ljubljana at midnight and leave at 12:30, but near midnight it showed no sign of stopping. The conductor left without returning our passes and Zoki and Trace stayed.
They were mountain climbers, they told us–no, no, mountain guides–coming back from the Alps. Switzerland. It was Trace who explained this, supplementing his few words of English with vivid pantomime.
Midnight passed. The later the train arrived in Ljubljana, I thought, the less time we would have to try to buy tickets. At twelve-twenty we began slowing to a stop. Andrea and I took our backpacks, our bag of stale French bread, our bottles of Evian water, and our maps. It seemed like a bad idea to leave them on this train we might never ride again.
When the train stopped, Andrea and I, Zoki and Trace tore out of the carriage. The ladies stayed, smoking and smiling. Out on the platform, Trace ordered us to pile all our luggage around Zoki, who would watch it while Trace came with us to the ticket office.
This was the moment I’d been waiting for, when the mysterious strangers convinced us to leave our luggage so they could a) steal it, or b) plant drugs in it. But contrasted with the danger of a malevolent railway conductor riding out of Ljubljana with our Eurail passes, it seemed worth the risk.
We raced across the dark, nearly empty platform, down a flight of stairs to a single brightly lit room where one man stood behind the counter. Trace rushed up to him and began pouring out a torrent of agitated Serbo-Croatian. Then came the moment of purest, simplest happiness I have ever known. The man behind the counter looked past Trace to Andrea and me and said in a clear, unaccented voice, “English or German?”
“English,” Andrea managed to gasp.
“Good, you don’t need a lawyer, I can help.” He waved Trace away and beckoned us towards a map of the Yugoslavian railway system. “First, the guard has no right to keep your passes. Tell him he must give them back. Second, he is trying to cheat you. Because you want to go over the border into Greece, he wants to charge you international rate for the whole trip.” His fingertip traced the long line of railroad track that snaked from Ljubljana to the Greek border. “What you can do is buy a ticket from here to Skopje, you see, just before Greece. It will cost you about twenty dollars U.S. Then in Skopje you buy a ticket across the border to Greece, see, so you only pay international rate on a short trip.”
“Only twenty dollars?” I repeated.
“So if we tell this to the man, he’ll give back our passes?” Andrea said.
“Yes. He must. You don’t have time to buy tickets now, your train is leaving in five minutes. Go up and get your passes back, then come down here and buy a ticket for the next train.”
“Wonderful! Thank you!” Andrea and I ran towards the door. In the doorway Andrea turned to me. “How are we going to explain this to the conductor?”
We shouted back at the ticket agent, pointing at Trace. “Tell him what you just told us!”
Another flood of Serbo-Croatian; another mad dash upstairs and across the platform. The train’s whistle was blowing and the conductor was yelling at Zoki, who, to my surprise, was still guarding our luggage. Trace broke in, gesticulating and shouting. The whistle blew again. With a glare of contempt and an obvious curse, the conductor handed over our passes and stalked toward the train.
It was beginning to move. “Quickly! Quickly!” we yelled at Zoki and Trace. “Thank you so much! You must go! The train will leave without you!” They were going on to Skopje.
“Don’t worry, is no problem!” Trace smiled, shaking his head. “No problem! We stay here with you.”
“With you!” echoed Zoki.
I looked longingly at the moving train. “No really you can’t you shouldn’t….”
“No problem,” said Trace.
Here we were. Alone on the subway station at half-past midnight. In a Communist country. Robbed, raped, and then strangled. We had walked right into it.
“I have friend here,” said Trace. “We stay with him.”
“It might be a bit late to go knocking up your friend,” said a young Englishman.
There had been no young Englishman on the platform when we got off the train. He was Phil, another friend Zoki and Trace had made since getting on the train in Venice, and he was catching a train to Pula at three-thirty a.m.
“Let’s go get our tickets,” said Andrea.
With the tickets safely in hand and our train not leaving till five a.m., we sat down on two benches facing each other. Trace went to buy everyone a drink. Andrea and I convinced him with difficulty that we were non-drinkers and he eventually returned with three beers and two Cokes.
I started to relax and, at the same time, to get excited and giggly. Thrown off a train in Yugoslavia at midnight! Rescued by Mediterranean mountain climbers who hadn’t killed us yet! We had left Toronto’s Pearson airport only the day before yesterday.
“You want to see town?” Trace said.
“Oh I don’t know really if…” We were safe at the railway station under the lights. But Trace assured us he knew the city well. “I was here, two years, the army.”
“You did your military service here?” Andrea asked as we left the platform and headed into the empty streets. “Is that compulsory?”
I lagged behind with Phil as Andrea and Trace tried to break the language barrier and Zoki walked beside them, bursting into little snatches of song and dance. I felt safer with Phil, though that was clearly racist. Why should I fear being robbed and raped by two swarthy Yugoslavians and not by a young Englishman who had just graduated with a degree in International Relations but didn’t want to get into foreign relations because he disagreed with the Thatcher government’s foreign policy? Phil was travelling around Europe now. He was on his way to Pula to lie on beaches and swim in the Adriatic.
We peered in store windows. “They’re quite well-stocked,” said Phil. “Compared to the U.S.S.R. I’ve just been there.” He was interested in seeing the Communist countries. I didn’t know, and Phil with his degree in International Relations didn’t tell me, that his chance to see the Communist countries was running out. We didn’t know, as we looked at rows of glass bottles and decided the shop was a drugstore (to me) or a chemist’s (to Phil), that the world was going to change. That the country we were standing in would dissolve and this little piece of it would be Slovenia again. That the next time we saw Ljubljana it would be on the evening news.
We talked and laughed and danced a little down the streets where, in the 1830s, Francè Prešeren got drunk and wrote poetry and fell in love over and over and applied five times, unsuccessfully, for a license to practise law. I didn’t know about Prešeren then of course; I was about to hear his name for the first time.
A river ran through Ljubljana, and next to a bridge was a square with trees and benches. A statue of a plain stocky man, lit by a single streetlight, stood in the centre.
The others piled their backpacks on a bench in front of the statue. I quietly hung onto mine, still expecting the dream to turn into nightmare. We walked down to the bridge and looked out at the river, talked some more, walked back up to the statue. I read out the name below it–“Prešeren.”
“Who is this statue of?” Anrdrea asked.
“Poet,” said Trace. “Very famous. We all learn his poems in school.”
I know now that Prešeren was the greatest poet of the Slovene language. His tiny impoverished country was tucked into the Austrian Empire; the Slovenes were isolated from other Slavic-speaking groups, especially the neighbouring Croats. As for the man himself, his English biographer wrote that he “lived an insipid, indeed on occasion a sordid life…, a peasant’s son with thoroughly bourgeois aspirations, relatively little drive, somewhat questionable sexual tastes, and an overaffection for the bottle.” His life was one of “unremitting sorrows compounded of frustration, depression, despair and alcohol.” A year before his death, he tried to commit suicide and failed even at that. But he almost single-handedly created the Slovene literary language, and Trace had studied his poems in school.
In what language, I wonder now? Surely Slovenian was a different language from Serbo-Croation, and Zoki and Trace carried a Serbo-Croatian-English phrasebook. We did not ask if they were Slovenes or Serbs or Croats. In fact they lived in Stip, near Skopje, so today they would be Macedonians. Perhaps they were Macedonians even then. We only knew we were in Yugoslavia, home of Zoki and Trace and Prešeren.
“Do you know any of his poems?” asked Andrea.
“Yes! Many!” said Trace.
“Can you say one?”
And Trace stood back a little from the statue, in the same circle of lamplight that lit Prešeren, and recited two verses of poetry in an unknown tongue. We all clapped and laughed afterwards, but he was serious while he recited, his voice clear amid tree-rustle and warm night air, his hand on his heart, eyes fixed on Prešeren’s face.
Of course I don’t know what he recited, but now I like to believe, I choose to believe, that he recited Prešeren’s lines from “The Toast.”
Edinost, sre a, sprava,
k nam nazaj se vrnejo;
otrok, kar ima slava
vsi naj si v róke se ejo.
ivé naj vsi naródi,
ki hrepené do akat’ dan,ko,
koder sonce hodi,
prépir iz sveta bo pregnan,ko rojak prost bovsak
ne vrag, le soset bo mejak!
Let peace, glad conciliation
Come back to us throughout the land!
Toward their destination
Let Slavs henceforth go hand in hand!
God’s blessings on all nations
Who long and work for that bright day,
When o’er earth’s habitations
No war, no strife shall hold its sway;
Who long to see That all men free
No more shall foes, but neighbours be.
We walked back to the station in time for Phil to catch his three-thirty train; we said goodbye to him and then tried to fall asleep on benches until our own train left at five.
We spent the entire day after that in the same second-class railway carriage. At first the four of us had it to ourselves, and we settled on the hard narrow vinyl-covered seats to get some sleep. When the conductor came in to check our tickets and demanded we pay a transit fee, another loud argument broke out. “You’ll find as you travel Europe,” Phil had told me, “that the farther south you go, the louder the arguments get.” This time Andrea and I were only spectators, Andrea trying ineffectually to pay the conductor the fee, I trembling lest we be thrown off yet another train and left to rot in a Yugoslavian jail.
Much as I liked Zoki and Trace and owed them a lifelong debt of gratitude, I still did not trust them. For all I knew, Prešeren might have been a famous botanist and Trace might have been reciting his own grocery list. Perhaps Zoki and Trace weren’t mountain climbers, but unemployed gas-station attendants. But if so, they at least had the props to back up their assumed identity. After the conductor finally left, Zoki pulled from his backpack the most compact stove imaginable, set it up and, while singing what Trace assured us were tender love songs, proceeded to cook a tin of soup.
We were still ravenous and agreed that at Belgrade, about noon, we would get off and buy some food. Once again the train was late arriving and the stop was shortened; only Zoki and Trace risked getting off while Andrea and I stayed to hold their places. We spread baggage out over all the seats and when people came and looked into the carriage, we said, “Sorry. All full.”
Zoki and Trace returned just before the train left. They were not empty-handed. They brought two loaves of bread, four bottles of water, some slabs of cheese, two Englishwomen, a Chinese exchange student and a young man named Marcos from Switzerland.
Our heroic efforts to save the carriage for just us four seemed futile now that there were eight of us, but while our compartment became more crowded it was also now much more interesting. The two English girls were teachers on their summer holidays, as Andrea and I were. Tony was from Hong Kong and had a British passport, which he showed us. He had been studying in England. Marcos was mainly decorative–he was six-foot two, blue-eyed and blond, but he spoke only French and German so nobody but Andrea, whose French was good, could talk to him.
Someone pulled out a pack of cards and several things became clear. Four people knew how to play poker and four didn’t. Among the eight of us we spoke five languages, but there was no one common tongue, no lingua franca in which we could all learn to play poker. The non-poker players went out into the corridor and sat on the floor where the English girls, Hartley and Maeve, taught Tony and me a ridiculously easy card game called Shit.
Passengers came up and down the corridor and stepped over us. One carriage at the end was full of soldiers in olive drab uniforms, carrying guns. I remembered that I was in a Communist country and was nervous, but not too nervous to join Hartley and Maeve in rating the soldiers, back view and front, on a scale of one to ten. The average was well above eight. My college roommate had been Yugoslavian, and I had once asked her to teach me a phrase in her language in case I ever went to Europe. She told me that “Ya volim tvoy maleh dupeh,” meant “I love your cute little ass.” Despite Hartley’s and Maeve’s encouragement I did not say this to any of the soldiers, though it would have been entirely accurate in most cases.
Eventually we went back into the carriage with the others. We amused ourselves with the Serbo-Croatian-English phrasebook, especially the “Compliments” section, where Yugoslavians could learn to impress English speakers with such phrases as “Your eyes are very bright and deep.” Afternoon turned to evening; we were nearing Skopje, where Zoki and Trace would leave, where Andrea and I would buy our tickets to Greece. The others were going to Athens but we were going to Thessaloniki to visit the family of a guy Andrea had met in the train station in Rome two years before. Zoki and Trace urged us to come to Skopje for a few days with them. Hartley and Maeve invited us to come on to Athens–along with Tony and Marcos, who seemed to have joined them. Andrea said Jordan and his family would be expecting us, but now she seemed to be getting along brilliantly with Marcos. Staying with a family in Thessaloniki, we would see more of Greek culture than we would as tourists. But I was anxious to learn this other culture, this world of young people who met and played cards and travelled together knowing no more than each other’s first names.
We were not surprised when the train was late arriving in Skopje and we had to race to get our tickets. Once again Andrea and I took all our baggage off the train, explaining that we might not make it back before the train left. Again we raced behind Zoki and Trace down to the ticket booth and bought our tickets.
We said goodbye and thank you several times to Zoki and Trace, who were still begging us to stay with them. As we ran up the stairs we saw that not only was our train still there but Hartley, Maeve, Tony and Marcos were hanging out a window, waving and cheering. “They’ve got the tickets!” Hartley yelled. “Come on!”
We squeezed back into our compartment as the train rolled out of Skopje, away from Zoki and Trace. We talked for awhile, ate bread and cheese, and settled ourselves to try to sleep. Tony, Maeve and Hartley sprawled on one seat, across from me, Andrea and Marcos, all our feet up on the seats opposite. My bum was trapped between Tony’s feet and Maeve’s. Andrea’s head was on Marcos’ shoulder; they were listening to his Walkman through a shared set of earphones.
I awoke from a short uncomfortable nap to find that everyone else was asleep except for Andrea and Marcos, who were kissing. It seemed like an inopportune moment to wake up, so I half-closed my eyes and watched until they paused to whisper to each other. Then I yawned and stretched, stood up and picked my way through the tangle of legs to stand in the corridor.
I leaned against the window, swaying with the rhythm of the train, and watched the dark featureless landscape slide by. A handsome young Yugoslavian–I hadn’t seen an ugly one yet–came by and started to talk to me. I shook my head. “Only English.”
He made a sad face. “No English,” he said. Then he slapped his chest. “Skenda!” he said, and pointed to me.
“Trudy,” I said, slapping my own chest.
Skenda. Trudy. Yugoslavia. Canada. He pointed to the dining car and mimed drinking. I shook my head. Conversation lagged. I thought of saying “Ya volim tvoy maleh dupeh.” Perhaps he would respond: “Your eyes are very bright and deep.” I stood beside Skenda looking out the window till I saw signs for the Greek border and the train ground to a stop.
Yugoslavia was behind us and Greece lay ahead. I still didn’t know if we were getting off at Thessaloniki or going to Athens. But everyone we knew had stories about travelling in Greece. Only Andrea and I had a Yugoslavian story. For the rest of our lives we would be able to say, “I got thrown off a train in Yugoslavia in the middle of the night,” and be assured of instant attention from our listeners.
Twenty-seven hours in a Communist country–a country that for me, even now, crystallizes into two young mountain climbers, one row of shops, one streetlight, one statue, one poem. Perhaps your image of a place must necessarily be precise and limited if you are to feel anything when its names and faces and tanks roll across your TV screen. Of all the strange moments in our twenty-seven hours, none now seems as strange to me as the fact that three years later, as the Berlin Wall fell (with Andrea there, pulled up onto the Wall by exuberant German boys while I taught my classes back home), when Communist governments around Eastern Europe tumbled, my most frequent thought was, “Now I can go back to Yugoslavia. Go back and visit properly–see the beaches at Pula, find out who Prešeren was, see more of Belgrade than the train station, visit Zoki and Trace in Stip, outside Skopje. Now I can go back–now that it’s safe.”
We exchanged addresses with everyone, of course, and at Christmas 1987 I carefully copied out Trace’s address on an envelope and wrote a brief note on a card. In return I got a postcard. HAY MORGAN! GREATEST FROM STIP! ZOKI AND TRAJCE. The only message ever, though of course I never heard the name Skopje on the news without thinking of them.
Later in our European tour, in Greece, Andrea and I were occupying the only space we could find on a sweltering Greek train–the floor outside the washroom. Andrea said, “I know now why they don’t sell these passes to people over twenty-six–nobody that old could survive this kind of travel!” A comment I find funny now, at twenty-nine, but I haven’t tried it since, so who knows? She may have been right. Prešeren was twenty-nine when he wrote in his most famous poem, “Farewell to Youth”:
Of my days the better half
Oh years of my youth, you have quickly, quickly passed.
Copyright Trudy J. Morgan-Cole, 1995. Prešeren’s poetry, translations and biographical notes are quoted from Francè Prešeren, by Henry Ronald Cooper, Jr. Twayne Publishers: Boston, 1981.