With no sleeping bags and no village nearby to find a room for the night, Nelson and I were relieved to see the black sedan with Yugoslav plates stopped for us as night fell in a lonely Alpine valley in Austria.

Remember, however, 1968 was the height of the Cold War. Russia had invaded Prague a week or so earlier. Yugoslavia, while not “Russian” was Communist. And we were young and ignorant. What were we getting ourselves into? The driver spoke little English but we got the idea across that we were headed to whatever the first town was. Our imagination was given free reign by the dark winding mountain road, a little erratic driving and mysteriousness of venturing out of the known embrace of Europe to the mysterious beginnings of the Balkans-a word loaded with intrigue, even if I didn’t know what exactly a “Balkan” was.

We survived the drive and made it to some small village that, at almost 8 p.m., was mostly unlit, quiet, little sign of life evident anywhere. But the Tourist Board was open for a few more minutes and after communicating our need for a place to stay and maybe, some food, the not quite comatose official informed us we were out of luck on the second request, but maybe he could find a place for us for the night. Twenty minutes later, a young girl, early teens, invited us with her passable English to follow her. And we set off through dark streets to our fate.

This was passably strange enough that Nelson and I felt a need to communicate privately, but our guide spoke English and we spoke nothing else. But, in an inspired effort to foil any ¬†unfolding Commie plot to waylay two naive Westerners, we started talking to each other in…Pig Latin!

Ancay ouyay elievebay atthey?

After mutually relieving each other of our doubts and fears, we soon found ourselves welcomed into a modest home where our guide and her family made us comfortable and provided a plate of quite agreeable food before showing us to a room with a bed that sported a six inch thick feather filled comforter. And comfortably we did sleep, deep in the dark Communist bosom until dawn and a light breakfast sent us on our way to the local train station and our further journey south. Whew!

I don’t remember much about the train trip south, a foggy morning in Ljubjlana and on towards the even more Red country of Bulgaria, where at least I could try out my rudimentary Russian. But two years later, when Loretta and I were retracing this part of the trip, I shot a picture that has stayed with me as one of my all-time favorites, with a poignancy that grew with time.

My camera case in those days was a re-purposed women’s makeup case, wooden construction, solid, about a foot square and 5 inches deep, Sturdy clasps and a strap I fashioned from a two inch canvas strap of surplus store vintage. Amazingly enough, I still have that case and use it for miscellaneous odds and ends. Because of its durability, I used it for sitting, such as the morning that found us waiting for a train, on a platform with no seats. I was repairing a camera lens (a cheap 28mm, if I remember correctly) that had come loose in its mount, using the jeweler’s screw drive set I carried with me for just such use.

A train was waiting on nearby tracks and these guys got a kick out of watching this hapless American with tiny screws and lens elements spread out in front of him. They waved and mugged for my camera-my 50mm lens was a good Nikkor and still in one piece-and I grabbed this shot and waved back as their train pulled away.

Flash forward a few decades to the terrible times of the war in the Balkans, as Yugoslavia fell apart into the worst kind of sectarian violence. I look at this picture…three friends traveling together. Each of clearly different ethnicities. Where did they stand during the conflict? Across imaginary lines shooting at one another? Did any of them survive that fighting? Would they still know each other? I’ll never know the answers, but they were friends then, in 1970.


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December 2021
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