We drove around hair pin bends in that beaten up old car and at times, I worried.
Then we hit a short, straight stretch in the road, where Raiko pulled over at a small shop.
The shop was old, made of stone and mortar.
It stood on its own. There was a large area of ground in front of it which was stony, barren – cars pulled up there and the local buses used it as a stop.
At the front of the ship was a veranda and under it, against the wall, a long bench seat.
Behind the shop was a wide sweep of bush, dark green, and a few kilometres distant, a line of high mountains, their craggy peaks dusted with snow.
Raiko and I went inside.
There wasn’t a great deal there. Chips, cool drinks, biscuits, a few tins and packets, some old, withered looking vegetables. Raiko bought a coke and I bought a Sprite. We went back outside where Raiko sat on the bench seat, lit a cigarette, and whipped out a smart phone and proceeded to dial up a long succession of people. In the case of each person he phoned, the conversation was short, sometimes no more than a few words.
‘Students!’ he offered at one point.
I left the veranda and walked outside and stared at the mountains.
The time passed, Raiko kept phoning his students, and my irritation rose steadily. I began to regret my decision that morning of accepting his offer of a lift – especially when I saw the bus I had intended on catching driving past. For lack of things to do, I sauntered over to Raiko’s car and took a close look at it.
There was a name on the grill: ‘Zastava’.
I’d never heard of ‘Zastava’.
Not that it mattered much.
You could see these communist-era cars all over Eastern Europe (the Trabant from the former Eastern Germany being one of the best known of them) and there was precious little difference between them. All of them could have come from the same factory. All of them were built according to the same socialist functionalist mould: metal boxes on wheels. In their manufacture there was no hint of any concession to design or styling – such concepts belonged to the capitalist system with its endemic logic of appealing to the most irrational side of human nature – and selling cars. Communist made cars were rational cars, they were made to meet a basic need.
I mulled over this idea: a car manufactured without any attempt to promote it, to advertise it; a car which appeared out of a factory and transported to a warehouse where it was bought by the customer and driven away.
A society without advertising!
Well, I had no problem with that. If there was one ‘industry’ which needed regulating, this was it.
The advertising industry stopped at nothing to convince people to buy and consume -and, to go into debt in the process. It was a kind of brainwashing system. People were bombarded by advertising every minute of the day and from every kind of media. Buy this, buy that. The people shown in the advertisements were invariably happy, even delirious, because they had bought the right car, deodorant, shampoo, phone, shoes, clothes etc. – or because they shopped at the right supermarket or regularly went to McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and so on. It was psychological engineering alright, shameless, aggressive and invasive – in its own way it was no different to the propaganda system which had been an inherent part of the communist regimes, except that its goal was economic rather than political. (I was reminded of Raiko’s comment that every system ran on its own kind of propaganda).
Apologists for capitalism said that it served the needs of the consumer – quite overlooking that the whole point of the advertising industry was to create the needs in the first place: the needs which no one knew they had. It created ‘the need’and then ‘offered’ to meet that need.
What a shame that the idea of an alternative system to western capitalism had proved to be such a disaster. It was the great and in many ways defining tragedy for all the hopes and ideals of my baby boomer generation.
Communist functionalism represented the other extreme to aggressive hard sell capitalism. Looking at Raiko’s beaten old Zastava it was impossible for me to cherish any illusions about a system which had reduced ‘human needs’ to a dull equation – to an officially designated goal which was never achieved because the system outlawed private initiative and the profit motive.
As I took a close look at Raiko’s Zastava, many conflicting thoughts went through my mind.
One, however, kept nagging at me: why was he driving around in this wreck?
To be sure, there were still quite a few of these mechanical dinosaurs on the roads in Eastern Europe because their owners couldn’t afford to buy a new western/Japanese manufactured car (even when they were stolen from Western European nations and sold on the black market). But Raiko was hardly in this category.
What was going on here?
Eventually, I went back to the shop and sat at the end of the bench seat whilst Raiko kept dialling and talking.
Then he put his phone away.
There was a short silence.
I asked him about it: why did he drive around in that…er….Zastava?’
You in a hurry?
‘Not any more’ I said rather pointedly.
‘You can stay at our place tonight and I’ll take you to the bus station tomorrow’.
The Zastava, he explained, was manufactured by an automobile factory run by the former communist Yugoslavian government in order to turn out cars which were affordable for the average working person.
The factory was located in what later became Serbia.
Raiko wasn’t happy about using that word:
‘There wasn’t any ‘Serbia’ in those days’ he said, ‘the Zastava was a car made in Yugoslavia for Yugoslavians…the Zastava factory also made arms, everything from pistols to machine guns, from grenades to rocket launchers…’
‘Weapons!’ I thought to myself: the one commodity which communism had been able to produce both in terms of quality and quantity.
Raiko, however, saw the link between Zastava and weapons in a different light:
‘When I did my national service, we used Zastava weapons. There were two big threats to Yugoslavia in those days. In the west was Albania. It was allied with Mao’s communist China and governed by a madman named Enver Hoxha. In the East was the Soviet bloc. Yugoslavia pursued its own socialist course and would have nothing to do with the Soviets. The Russians saw us as a threat because we were pursuing our own kind of system.
So for us, Zastava was a part of what it meant to be a Yugoslavian…to defend ourselves against our enemies…. ‘
We discussed the collapse of communism in 1990.
The wave of popular revolt which swept across Eastern Europe finally reached Yugoslavia in 1991 – only in this case with catastrophic results. A decade of savage civil war ensued, with atrocities being committed by all the participants. In the late 20th century, in the former Yugoslavia, Europe’s long past of ethnic and religious hatred suddenly surfaced like a monster from the deep.
‘It went so quickly. The communist regime vanished and in its place came ethnic cleansing…
Zastava! …once it was a factory which we were proud of….it meant security for all of us Yugoslavians……overnight it went to being a Serbian factory which supplied the weapons the Serbs used to shoot down innocent civilians in Sarajevo, to commit the most horrible atrocities…it became a factory associated with the worst kind of crimes against humanity..’
For a while, we talked about the collapse of Yugoslavia and the ensuing years of savagery, of murder and rape and torture. Raiko made the point that for people living in this part of the world stability and security was everything. Communism had brought that along with rising living standards. Capitalism and ‘freedom’ had brought a storm of hate and violence, of ethnic cleansing, followed by a society rent by corruption and inequality.
‘Call that progress?’ he asked rhetorically.
We got in the Zastava and continued our journey to Orhid.
And slowly I began to understand why Raiko insisted on driving that old wreck.
It was a relic from a time when the Zastava factory, the manufacturer of arms and motor cars, was not Serbian but instead Yugoslavian; when the very word ‘Zastava’ stood symbol for an era when Macedonia didn’t exist. And Raiko felt no particular enthusiasm for being a Macedonian any more than he did for being in any way associated with Serbia.
In his heart, he was still a Yugoslavian.
The old car went hand in hand with his memories of a system under which in his view, most people were better off than they were two decades later.
Yet there was more to it. There was another dimension to his ingrained stubbornness to move with the times – as his younger wife had done – and buy a new car.
I asked him how old the Zastava was:
‘Hmm…father bought it in 1988 and it was 5 years old then…that would make it 30 years old …new, the Zastava was cheap but second-hand it was very cheap. Father worked in a factory. My parents never had much money. It was a proud day for them when they bought that car….’
He chuckled to himself and continued:
‘My younger brother and sister and I went with them to finalize the deal….they were so excited, like children….I remember the first trip we did in that car, that was when we went back to our village. It was the first time my parents went there after leaving it in 1971…’
I asked him about that.
He pulled over, retrieved his smart phone, turned it on, tapped it, and handed the phone to me.
On the screen was a photo of village houses nestled on a high plane set against mountain slopes. An image of the mountains behind the shop flashed through my mind.
He motioned for me to touch screen the following images.
The village was evidently deserted.
Some of the village houses were perfectly intact.
They were rectangular, two-story buildings made of rocks and mortar; they had small balconies and windows and were topped by roofs of red tiles. Some of the houses had fallen down; there were a couple of walls still standing amidst piles of rocks and dust.
In between the houses, both complete and in ruins, were big old trees.
‘Up until the 1960’s, there were over 200 people living in our village. By the time we left, there were maybe 100 people left and since then it has steadily decreased…….
Our village was very old. People had lived there for centuries. It was established by nomadic shepherds who wanted somewhere permanent to live during the winters. The nomads became settled, more or less. They built houses and cleared fields and planted trees. They planted barley and wheat and gathered nuts and fruits from the trees. The nomad life didn’t disappear completely, though. Every spring, the men took their herds of goats and sheep up into the high mountain pastures. My father and his brother took turns in taking the goats and sheep up into the mountains. They lived away from home for months and it could get cold up there….it was a hard life… but it was the life they were used to …they were very religious…it was the life they knew and when it was time to leave, it was too late for them…’
‘The communist government encouraged the people to move to the big towns. The technocrats in Belgrade decided that this kind of agriculture was something Yugoslavia could do without. It was subsistence agriculture, it didn’t produce a surplus. The plan for the future was a plan which meant big cities and high-rise apartment blocks. There was none of the forced evacuations and mass murder like you had in Russia or China. It wasn’t as if the villagers were forcibly moved or killed. The government invested in the cities. That’s where the jobs and the services were. There was no future in the villages. My parents didn’t want to leave their village. But they wanted a better future for their children. Everyone left. Today maybe there are 10 people living there. If you go there you can still see people living the old life; shepherds still taking flocks up to the mountain pastures and bringing down loads of wood on donkeys; women picking berries and nuts. They’re old people who refuse to change their ways.’
As we drove further, I looked at photos of his wife, his son and daughter whilst on a visit to the village. The white Mercedes SUV was in the background. It made a strange contrast with the old, abandoned traditional houses behind it. His wife was short, a bit overweight, blond and wearing jeans and shirt. His son was blond but looked like Raiko; his younger daughter was dark but looked like her mother.
I commented on this and he chuckled: ‘we weren’t very good in mixing up the genes!’
In passing, I also asked him how often he visited the village.
Not that often, he told me with regret in his voice.
‘I’m the only one in the family who likes to go there. My wife and kids, you know, they’re not so interested.’
‘So why don’t you go on your own?’ I asked.
‘The road up to the village is bad; steep and rocky, it’s never been upgraded …and this car is too old now for that sort of thing. The only alternative would be to walk up there but I don’t really have the time to do that!’
He mentioned that his village was in the mountains further along the road to Orhid. This gave me an idea. I wondered whether it would be possible for me to stay in one of the small tourist towns along the road, facing the lake, and the following day walk up to Raiko’s village and take a look around. His photos had made me curious. I was interested in seeing an abandoned traditional village, a well-preserved example of the past just sitting there, untouched, and who knew for how much longer that would be. The modern age had a habit of wiping out all before it.
‘You like walking?’Raiko asked.
When I indicated that I was, he began talking about the trails in the area of his village.
Some of the old trails used by the villages and shepherds were still intact, he said.
‘There’s some good walking there, to the village and over the mountains too.’
He told me about a town on the edge of the lake which we were about to drive through.
It was called Pestani.
There was accommodation there, he told me. I could stay the night there and the next day follow a trail which ascended directly behind the town and after an hour or two, levelled off, followed the side of the mountains, and eventually reached the village – ‘my village’ he called it. I could look around the village and then descend and reach the main road to Orhid in the afternoon; from there I could hitch to Orhid, which was only an hour or so away.
It sounded like a good plan.
We came to a bend, where the road ran close to the lake, and slowed down.
The sun was low on the horizon of the lake. A breeze blew across the water, whipping up small waves. On a beach of fine gravel, there were fishing boats lying upturned, their symmetrical hulls shining in the late afternoon sun. There was an old concrete jetty where men were fishing.
Pestani was on the other side of the road. Behind it was a mountain side. It consisted of a few small hotels and restaurants and a small supermarket facing the lake and behind these, maybe twenty houses.
We got out of the Zastava and Raiko asked around for a place for me to stay.
I got a room above the kitchen in a narrow hotel with a bar and restaurant. It was pretty cheap and so it should have been.
Raiko led me down a backstreet and showed me a graveyard. It was the surrounded by houses and, a small orthodox church. Looking up at the steep mountain side behind the church, he said: ‘The trail starts here’.
We went back to the hotel where I was booked to stay a night and sat in the bar and drank a beer and talked.
‘I have many memories of my childhood in the village. One memory though, is still very strong. We had a dog and I loved him. My father took him along when he went into the mountains with his the goats and sheep. You can’t take a dog like that to a big city, to go and live in an apartment. He’d lived all his life in the mountains, in the open. So my father had no choice. One day, just before we left, he walked outside with his old rifle and called the dog over. I can still see it, I will never forget it. The dog comes up, tail wagging, and then looks at my father puzzled, not knowing why my father is pointing the rifle at him – and then bang!
I wish I could forget that but I can’t.
That dog was a good dog, he had served us faithfully but he didn’t fit in with the times anymore….so…
My parents had no more chance of adapting to life in the city than our village dog.
They did their best. It was hard for them. There was food, running water, electricity, free doctors and medicines. They were better off, physically. My father worked in a factory making cardboard boxes. Every day the same work. Exactly the same. The sound of machines, crash, crash.
My brother and sister and I adapted to life in the city. We grabbed the opportunities. No one looked down on us even though we came from a poor, backward village. We mixed in fine. That’s how it goes, the parents sacrifice their lives for the sake of their children…
When I finished my degree at university, I felt indebted to the system which had made this possible. Of course, I knew that you couldn’t criticise the government and I accepted that. It was a small price to pay for the right to teach at a university, to use my brain instead of sweating all day inside a factory or living in a village in the mountains.
I still feel indebted you know, even though the system that made me what I am has disappeared……..
After my father died, I inherited his car.
It still goes. I don’t care about it being old and I don’t care what my students think when they see me in this car. It means something to me.’
Raiko and I shook hand and said goodbye.
My plans had changed, changed completely thanks to meeting Raiko.
This was what was travelling was all about.