Yesterday I mentioned the family photo albums which my grandchildren enjoy looking through.
Browsing through the albums some photos seem much more significant than others, especially in retrospect.
In 1959 at the age of seventeen I went abroad for the first time in my life. Until then holidays were spent with relatives or friends in London, Bournemouth, Welwyn-Garden-City and Kent. Although both my brothers had served in Germany in the early 50's, none of my immediate family had been abroad since 1930.
That exciting world on the other side of the English channel was out of bounds for me until July 1959 when I set off with a group of other teenagers on a long and exhausting journey by ferry and train to Belgrade in Yugoslavia.
On arrival we were greeted by the families that would be hosting us for the next month. My 'family' consisted of father, mother and two daughters (Nadja and Svetlana) Though the day I arrived, only the father and Svetlana were at home. Nadja, who was about my age, was in Dubrovnik attending a pioneer youth camp and the mother was permanently away on business. Although they greeted me warmly and hospitably, neither Svetlana or her father spoke English or French and I spoke neither Serbo-croat or Russian. We found that finger-language was better than nothing. When Nadja came home a few days later communication was easier, because she spoke basic English.Did it occur to me that I should try to learn their language? No, because at that time foreign language-learning did not interest me and Nadja and other people I met wanted to learn English.
It was one of the most intense months of my life. It is difficult for me to express my impressions, because where should I start? If you have ever seen the commercial on BBC world about a young back-packer in India, you will know what I mean. His experiences are so new and overwhelming that all he can write on a postcard is: 'India, incredible India!'
Belgrade, 1959, incredible; everything was different.
Nadja and her family lived in an appartment building near a market. Every morning I woke up to the sound of horse-drawn carts rattling over the cobble-stoned street on the way to the market. The family shopped there too of course and brought home juicy yellow peaches, enormous tomatoes, vegetables I had never seen before, such as peppers and aubergines. One day the father came back with a squawking chicken, which a few hours later he served up for lunch.
Nadja on the left. Me on the right.
In the evenings we strolled through Kalamegdan or along a walking-street and afterwards listened to folksongs in cafes where we drank fresh lemonade through real straws, not plastic ones.
What impressed me most of all was that people in general seemed so proudly enthusiastic about their country and the progress they were making. Apart from showing me monuments and taking me to museums I remember especially a department store with a brand new escalator; people were going up and down, up and down it, because it was the first one in the country and they were immensely proud of it.
The first day I met Nadja she gave me one of the most truly generous gifts I have ever received; this signed photo of Marshal Tito.
Nadja as a Pioneer was an avid supporter of Tito. Just before returning home she had met him by chance on the beach in Dubrovnik. He stopped to talk to her and gave her his photo as a momento.
One of the highlights of my stay was a two to three-day boat-trip on the Danube to the Rumanien border where we visited the Iron Gate
The following year Nadja visited me for a month. By that time she spoke English fluently and later studied it at university.
The family invited me to visit them again in Belgrade, and although I would have loved to have accepted their invitation, I never did. Nadja and I corresponded for some years.
She married in 1962.
A few years later she gave birth to a daughter, Jelena.
After that we lost touch with each other.
In 1987 I started learning Serbo-Croat and in 1989 I attended a language course at the University of Belgrade. Before going I tried unsuccessfully to trace Nadja and her family. I would have loved to have told them how much I appreciated their warm and generous hospitality; especially in retrospect.
Nowadays it is easier to find long-lost friends and relatives. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and all the other 21st century wizards have helped us make miracles happen.
Some time ago I got a truly amazing twit:
'Do you remember me? We met in Calcutta in the early 80s, when I was 12'.
I certainly did and what is more I am going to visit him and his wife and son later on this year in Bangkok.