in the most obscure course in the Yale College
curriculum: "The Great Powers and Eastern Europe, 1878-1968,"
taught by Polish émigré, Professor Piotr S. Wandycz. My friend Richard and I
relished this course our junior year as we plunged ever deeper into conflicts that we then thought maybe even the Balkans
had forgotten. "Who's ever heard of Teschen?"
Those infamous words were those of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George at the peace conference following World
War I, thus displaying his ignorance of contested areas that were all important to the countries involved. Well, we had heard of Teschen (divided between Poland and Czechoslovakia), and Dobrudja
(contested between Bulgaria and Romania), the famous
Banat (divided between Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia) and the Sanjak
of Novi Pazar (straddling the border of Serbia and Montenegro, with influences
from Kosovo and Bosnia). A reference to Macedonia
was enough to throw us into contortions, the area had been the subject of so many claims, so many lectures, so many exam questions. Somehow, some way, we would visit Eastern Europe,
despite the fact that the Iron Curtain had fallen over the region and everything had supposedly had changed. Or had it?
We met in London to plot our travel. In those days, getting a visa sometimes meant relinquishing
your passport for days or weeks at a time to various embassies. This
required many meetings in London and calls on embassies that were under constant
surveillance. Emerging without our passport from the embassy of a country like
Romania seemed reckless, but we had no choice. Every visa was required to be scheduled precisely for arrival and departure dates. When we figured out that we would be back in Czechoslovakia when our train from Poland
crossed through that country on its way to Hungary, we asked the Czech embassy about it.
"Your papers are not in order. You need a double-entry visa.
You have a single-entry visa. Please give it to us again, and you will get it
in the mail in a few weeks." In the end, we lined up visas from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary,
Romania and Bulgaria. We were assured that Yugoslavia, with its
reputation for being the one communist country that was open to the West, did not require one.
Albania was a non-starter for Americans. Even without
Albania, our friends thought we were crazy.
At some point, we were thrilled to learn that a third friend, Don, would join us.
He had not had the direct benefit of the famous Wandycz course, but we had inflicted our stories on him. He wanted to come anyway. This took real courage on his part
because he was a survivor of a brain tumor during our senior year in college. He
undoubtedly would tire easily and there always was a risk of a recurrence. I
cannot even imagine what his parents back in Calgary must have thought about this
trip, but as far as I know, they offered no objection.
We converged, where else? in Vienna, one of the capitals of the old Astro-Hungarian
Empire, center of culture and melting pot. The city of Strauss, Mozart's
unmarked grave and Serbian Bean Soup. Don,
by the way, was able to secure all his visas in Vienna in just a few days!
We stopped at a currency exchange to buy some Czech crowns. We boarded
the train to Prague. Off to
Note: links to the various chapters are below. Each chapter also has
a link to the chapter that follows:
Black Sea Riviera
Skopje, Belgrade, and Sarajevo
Croatia and Slovenia