When my speaking-tour bookers at Foggy Bottom (as we insiders term the State Department) told me what my next port of call would be, in my world-girdling pilgrimage in the attempt to make foreigners like the U.S.A. better than their own daily papers did, it was Yugoslavia.
That didn’t thrill me as much as you might have thought it would. One of the reasons I jumped, as I usually did when the State Department said “frog!” was that I was trying to beat my friend Jack Gillespie’s record of number of countries any Futurian had set foot in. (His lead was unfair. During the War, he had been Merchant Marine, serving mostly in little freighters that cruised up and down the coasts of both Americas.) Against the odds, though, this time I had already been there.
When we went across the Italian border into Yugoslavia, to tell the truth, the border guards of both nations were more interested in the American comic books they were puzzling over than in what terrorist, regicide or cigarette smuggler was sneaking past them. There was a fair quantity of traffic going through, which led me to make the first of my dumb-headed remarks for that day.
I said, “This ocean drive must be really beautiful to get all these cars driving it.” To which a Foggia-bound Italian fan, who had hitched a ride to his home with us, said, “Not for the beautifulness, no. Is for cheap shopping.”
And the second one was when I said, “There must be a lot of Yugoslavians named Zimmer, because half those little houses have a sign that has their name on it.” Which produced another of those little giggles from the back seat, and then the comment, “In German language the word ‘zimmer’ means ‘room.’ They wish you to stay with them, for money.”
I won’t deny, though, that that drive down the coast road was indeed spectacular, with the broadening blue Adriatic on one side and that mountain range, getting taller and taller, on the other. So, when the man from State had said “Yugoslavia,” my first thought was, “But I’ve seen the mountains and the sea, what’s the point in seeing them over again?”
That would have been my third dumb-headed remark if I’d said it to those two easily amused passengers. Fortunately I didn’t say it to anyone but myself. Because, you see, that vanished nation of Yugoslavia didn’t have any “over again.” At every point it betrayed its origin as a clutch of sovereign states; go one way and you’re among the ski lifts in the mountains, go another and you’re sailing among the gorgeous Adriatic islands. Sometimes you’re in a city, sometimes in hectare after hectare of farmland or pasture.
Well, you say, doesn’t almost every country have that same sort of variety? You’re missing the point, I say. Yugoslavia’s variation was extreme. Go up to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It’s a Saturday night and the city square is filled with two concentric rings of strollers, one going clockwise — those are all young men — and the other, walking the other way, young women. You’ll see that in almost every Macedonian town, for young men and young women must somehow meet, or else the race dies out, and there only a certain few approved ways to do it.
And you glance up at the clock on the tallest building. It says 11:15 and you say to your English-speaking companion, “Oh, look at the time!”
And he laughs sand says, “The correct time is a little past eight-thirty. So you know what the time eleven fifteen means? No? Eleven-fifteen is the time when the great Yugoslavian earthquake struck. It caused much damage, so much that our then President declared an emergency and required every other province to send food, vehicles, building materials and money to Skopje. The drive was a great success. So much so that other provinces in Yugoslavia — ” he winks — “begged couldn’t they please have an earthquake of their own.”
You recognize that is a joke, so you just say, “So the earthquake rolled in at eleven-fifteen and stopped the clock. Was there much — ” You were going to ask him about panic, but he’s sighing. You ask if something is the matter.
“Not exactly — well, yes. That story was not entirely correct. Yes, the earthquake struck at eleven-fifteen, but it didn’t stop the clock. The clock had already stopped years before, when something broke and wasn’t fixed. After the earthquake one of the people who worked in that building got a ladder and reset the hands to eleven-fifteen. Which is where they have been ever since.”
I don’t want to give the impression that Macedonia was the only part of the old Yugoslavia worth visiting, especially when what I’m trying to say is that was hardly a part of it that was not worth the trip. You could have visited Dubrovnik, for instance, an ancient city built on a spur of solid rock extending out into the Adriatic Sea. It remained intact, when other cities its age had long since been fought over, converted largely to rubble and then rebuilt.
Dubrovnik was preserved intact because it’s really hard for an attacking army to attack, conquer and demolish a walled city on top of a great big rock. This siting had an odd effect on the city’s hotels, or at least in the only hotel I’ve ever stayed at there. The lobby is at street level. The streets, however, lie on the top of the rock, and when you’ve signed in you take the elevator down to the guest rooms carved out of the side of the rock.
(More about Yugoslavia coming to you shortly after I write it.)