Pamela Thomas

Hardly anybody went to Yugoslavia in 1954. The roads were bad, there wasn’t much food and it was almost impossible to get more than a transit visa. A few intrepid sorts went to Dubrovnik and stayed in designated hotels, but that was all. So my father, William Woods, decided we should go. He was struggling to finish his novel Manuela (later made into a film, with Trevor Howard in the lead), and we were very short of cash. I suspect that he was also being pressed by several creditors. What better way to deal with all these problems than to sublet the wing of the large house we were renting, and move to Yugoslavia for three months?

We managed somehow to get visas, bought a 1937 Chevrolet, piled the roof-rack high with pots and pans and borrowed tents, and put my father’s typewriter on top under the tarpaulin. Then my parents, my two sisters and I set off at dawn one summer morning, each with one change of shorts and aertex shirt, and one outfit ‘for best’. As we creaked slowly down the drive under our uneven load, my father recited with cheerful energy Archibald MacLeish’s poem ‘Not Marble nor the Gilded Monuments’, which has a line about ‘the face in the Istrian sun’.

I remember only vignettes of the journey: filling our canvas water bucket at the stream the first night in Ostend, and discovering that it leaked; the smell of fresh hay when we camped in fields, and of wet concrete when we were put up in barns; the smell of leaking paraffin as the primus stove was lit each evening, and the nasty little pricker with which we had to unclog the holes before it would work; being held hostage (we thought for ever) in a subterranean lavatory in Heidelberg when our mother got lost going back to the car for small enough change to pay the dragon in charge. One night in Germany the mayor of a small town took us under his wing and found us a barn to stay in. He turned out to be a great admirer of Hitler, and he and my father shouted and argued into the night, drinking bottle after bottle of wine. Every now and then when we thought they were about to come to blows, the mayor would laugh and say: ‘Ja, aber der Wein ist gut.’ ‘Ja,’ my father would agree, ‘der Wein ist gut,’ and there would be a pause while they thoughtfully drank a bit more.

We drove for days through forests, down motorways, beside vast rivers we could hardly see the other side of, through villages with chickens and pigs blocking the road. Every now and then the car would protest and die, and we would spend a few hours at a garage while mechanics looked under the bonnet and shook their heads doubtfully.

We crossed from Austria into Yugoslavia one evening during a thunderstorm. Nearly everybody spoke German but we learned quickly to start speaking in English before changing to German, so people would realise we weren’t German ourselves.

Our father’s criteria for a place where he could work were: a lake to swim in, a wood to walk in, a good camping spot, a nearby hotel where we could eat occasionally, and peace and quiet. We eventually found them all by Lake Bohinj, near Bled, in Slovenia. We rented a one-room shack in a field, and fixed up a kitchen alongside from the tarpaulin that had covered our roof-rack. We three slept in tents, our parents slept in the shack, and the lake became the centre of our lives. We swam in it. We washed our clothes in it. We embedded our tin plates in the pebbles after meals, and the fish came and nibbled the food off – even if it had burned onto the pans – leaving them sparkling. We had polenta for breakfast, polenta with bacon for lunch, and polenta pancakes for supper. Yugoslavia was very poor, there wasn’t much choice of food, and polenta didn’t go off in the heat. So polenta it was, or sour but rather delicious yoghurt in small glass jars. On our way home through Switzerland three months later, we stayed with some friends in Lugano, who said that in our honour they had baked the local speciality – a polenta cake.

For several hours a day the sporadic clatter of my father’s typewriter keys could be heard coming from the shack. But when we had visitors he would stop with relief and come out with a bottle of wine and a warm welcome. There were several regulars, of various ethnicities. There was Jovo, a Montenegrin with a huge black moustache. There was Paul, a Serb, who had been a partisan and had a long scar on his cheek. There was a Slovenian hunter who wore a Tyrolean jacket and played the accordion. My mother would rustle up something to eat, and everybody would sit around the Tilley lamp and talk – about German atrocities, about the war, about the partisans – until the early hours of the morning.

Once a week or so my father would announce that we were going to the Hotel Zlatorog, ten minutes’ walk away, where they had a ping-pong table and delicious chocolate cake, and hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. One day we found a small crowd outside the hotel, and a few motorbikes parked under the trees. There were also a lot of police guarding a shining Rolls-Royce waiting outside the entrance. Marshal Tito was stopping off for a coffee. We clearly weren’t going to get our chocolate cake, but this was far more exciting. We joined the crowd, which was being gently held back by the police. There was no drama, no shouting, no pushing or shoving – just curiosity. My father went up to the most senior-looking official, and said he wanted to arrange an appointment to interview Tito.

‘Make an application through the foreign office,’ he was told.

He explained that he was an author, writing independently about Yugoslavia, and he really wanted to meet Tito.

We watched, darting back and forth between the people in the crowd, as he was moved up to more and more senior functionaries, until at last he reached the grandest of them all, a tall man wearing a lot of medals, with a grey-green officer’s coat flung over his shoulders. He was smoking a Tito pipe (a small pipe in which a cigarette could be stuck upright and smoked) and looked extremely bored. He said he would see what he could do and went inside. The crowd was getting agitated because a rumour had gone round that Tito was about to appear. Then the tall, bored man returned and told my father to be at Brdo at 7 a.m. in two days’ time.

‘That’s excellent, but I want to bring my wife and daughters too,’ my father said.

The general was amazed. Why on earth did he want to do that? My father told us later that he could not think what to say, but he knew that if he had left us behind we would never have forgiven him. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘I am an American, and I want to be able to tell my fellow Americans that my daughters could go to see the Communist ogre, and come out alive.’

The general laughed and went back inside. Then there was a murmur that rose to a roar, and the motorbike outriders around the Rolls-Royce adjusted their goggles and gunned their engines. Marshal Tito emerged from the hotel, surrounded by bodyguards, and disappeared into the Rolls. As he jumped onto the running board, the general looked round, caught my father’s eye, and shouted: ‘Wife and daughters too, at Brdo. Be at the Hotel Europa at 7 a.m., the day after tomorrow. Ask for Vanjo.’ And they were gone.

No time for cake. No time for hot chocolate. We ran back to our camp to prepare. The outfits we had brought ‘for best’ had languished for a month in a corner of the tent and were taken out and hung on the trees because we didn’t have an iron. We boiled water to wash our hair. We went for a swim because we didn’t have a bath.

Brdo, one of Tito’s residences, wasn’t far from the small town of Kranj, which was shabby, deserted, dark and drab. Its once elegant Habsburg façades were crumbling and neglected, and weeds were coming up between the paving stones. When we got to the Hotel Europa the evening before the meeting, my father mentioned Vanjo, and a hush fell in the room. Vanjo, it seemed, was the head of the local secret police. There were no vacant rooms at the Hotel Europa, we were told. Somebody found an old woman who agreed to put us up in her one-room flat, which smelled of fresh concrete and was lit by a 40-watt bulb covered with cobwebs. By this time I was feeling tired and homesick and didn’t want this adventure any more. My older sister, Sue, and I went head to foot on a sofa, and Kate, the smallest, was put to bed in a drawer, while our parents were given the old woman’s bed. I don’t know where she slept. Once we were in bed our parents went out to look round the town, and the old woman stayed in the room telling us terrible stories in broken German about the miserable deaths suffered by members of her family, until we were ready to howl.

At 7 o’clock sharp the following morning, in the middle of our breakfast at the Hotel Europa, Vanjo appeared: a young man with curly brown hair, a guileless smile and a friendly, open face. He told us to follow the Mercedes which was waiting outside.

The soldier at the palace gates saluted as we went through. We drove down a long avenue of trees, at the end of which stood a small manor house with a tiled roof, and a flag with a red star flying over the entrance. There was a sound of fountains splashing, and the footsteps of an occasional flunkey hurrying by, but otherwise all was silent. We waited in a small room. Kate announced that she had to go to the loo, right now. Our father took her by the hand and went up to a man in an elegant suit who was standing at the far end of the colonnade, ostentatiously not watching us. He bowed, took Kate’s hand and led her off as she looked back in terror. They had hardly returned when we were summoned.

Standing up straight and keeping our hands behind our backs, as we had been told to do, we followed our parents into a large elegant room with windows reaching from floor to ceiling, framed by red velvet curtains. A few of the windows were open, and a breeze was making the long, brilliantly white net curtains billow. Tito walked forward to greet us: stocky, with iron grey hair, a deep tan, a cream suit without lapels and openwork shoes. I knew what he would look like: his picture hung on the wall of every shop we had been in. It hung over the bar in the Hotel Zlatorog. But the photographs had not shown him smiling, which he now was, displaying a few gold teeth, and holding out his hand in greeting. He was light on his feet, a picture of health, with sharp eyes that took us in at a glance.

‘All girls, eh?’ he said in English as he shook hands with us one by one.

A suave photographer in a dark suit, who spoke fluent French, took pictures of us all, and disappeared. Tito invited us to sit round a small gilt and marble table, and coffee and dainty cakes were served, with juice for us and some kind of cocktail for the adults. Kate was nervous and excited, and accidentally knocked over her glass, which fell to the ground and broke. Tito, without pausing in his conversation, swept his own glass off as well: an old-fashioned courtesy that turned Kate’s terror at what she had done into gratitude. Tito offered us the little cakes, and then got buried in talk and forgot about us. Breakfast had been very early indeed, and we eyed the cakes longingly, but did not dare to help ourselves, as the conversation swirled around us in German. They spoke so fast that we were lost almost at once. We caught the words ‘Stalin’ and ‘Djilas’ and ‘America’ and every so often there was a burst of laughter. Then, after about half an hour, Tito stood up. The interview was over. He shook hands with everybody, and we were ushered out.

Back in Bohinj everybody wanted to know what had happened, what had been said, what it had been like, down to the smallest detail. We had to tell our story over and over again, and it was several days before everybody calmed down. A few days after that the postman, his cycle bumping over the grassy hillocks, arrived at our little camp with a brown envelope containing photographs of the meeting. My father had given as our address: Natsov’s Stan (Natsov’s Hut), near the Hotel Zlatorog, Lake Bohinj. The package had taken only 24 hours to find us.