I can hear you now, Albania? Well, Albania is in the news lately. It is slowly becoming a part of "The Real World", and I am remembering my first 'contact' with Albania.
It was in 1964 - 47 years ago - I was on my honeymoon with Julia, 'The Girl Of My Dreams', as she was then, and still is now.
We had gone to Budva in what was then Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was under the control of Tito at the time. He was what I would have called then a Benevolent Communist, he had control of the country, he was in fact a Dictator, but the country worked, and it was open to the West.
Anyway, we were on our honeymoon, Budva had been a good choice, it was a beautiful country, and Budva was a charming, small, walled town with friendly "natives", wonderful weather, beaches and food. And it was an 'adventure'. In spite of being "open" to the west, it was still a mysterious and backward country.
Even getting to Yugoslavia had been an adventure to us. We flew there, on our first air flight. The plane was a DC-5 - I think - ancient even then! The interior of the plane was bare metal with thousands of rivets visible, every one of which was loose! The 'windows' which were even smaller than those on today's planes, if that is possible, were covered with metal mesh, I hate to say chicken wire, but that's pretty much what it was. The noise from the old engines, the loose rivets and the wire on the windows was so loud that conversation was difficult. But we barely noticed - did I mention that we were on our honeymoon, our first flight and an adventure?
Our arrival in Yugoslavia was not on time. We were in fact about 12 hours late. After waiting at Gatwick "Airport" - think of today's Gatwick, one of the world's busiest airports and then think of a field with a small building on it. That was Gatwick in 1964. The flight was at first late, then delayed, then had not yet left Yugoslavia!
We were bused to Brighton, to the Grand Hotel. Yep, the very same one where an attempt was made on Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's life 15 years later, in 1979. Interestingly enough, exactly 15 years to the day after we stayed there on September 19th 1964 the Assassinee (What is the title for an attempted assassin?) checked in, on September 19th 1979. He dug a hole in the wall of his room, planted a gelignite bomb, covered it so well that no one noticed it, maybe in our old room? and it went off 22 days later on October 11th when Margaret Thatcher was there - at 2.45 am - it did not kill her, but it did kill 5 other people.
So, we stayed there for the night. Well not really, we arrived at about 1.00am, the porters etc came out and got our bags, they had obviously just got out of bed! They then got us up again at 4.00am to be taken back to the airport! When we opened our bags in the room - at 1.00 am - it was to find it stuffed with confetti, which promptly fell out all over the floor! For some reason or other we picked it all up. Why, I will never know, what did we care if they knew we were just married? But we did. Imagine us, on our hands and knees on the floor of our hotel room at 1.30am, picking up confetti on our first night! I could say we were tired, and I think we were, but we were young. And we should have been tired, after an early rise, to get ready for our wedding. A drive, for me, with my best man, Den Lee, a stop at a pub for a "quick one", then a stop at Julia's house, oops you are not supposed to see the bride before the wedding, where a large glass of whiskey was pushed into my hand by Julia's mother with the admonition, "Go away". Then the wedding, I don't remember much about it, except she looked fantastic, oh yes and the heel on one of her gold shoes broke off as she entered the church. She managed to 'walk' down the aisle without anyone noticing. The offending shoes were removed in the taxi cab after the ceremony. They had very high stiletto heels. (And the shoe store would not replace the brand new shoes, worn once for about 50 feet!) Gold, you are saying? Yes, something you probably already know about Julia is that she is different. The wedding dress, a true work of art, made by one of the Queens Dressmakers, was of gold brocade and she had gold accessories. Stunning is the Understatement of the Year.
When she arrived and stood next to me, she looked at me, and could apparently tell that I had been drinking - I had promised not to - I blurted out, "Your mother gave it to me." This seemed to satisfy her, although I didn't relish hearing what she would say to her mother later, and the ceremony continued. Whew, a close call.
Where was I? Oh yes, back to the airport and our ancient plane, which delivered us safely to Yugoslavia.
Our bags recovered, they put us onto a coach, also ancient, but not as ancient as the plane. We left Dubrovnik airport on a new four lane highway. After about 1/2 a mile, or maybe only a 1/4 of a mile, the coach slowed down and bumped off of the highway onto a dirt road. Oh, we thought, they haven't finished it, there must be a space before it begins again. One hundred miles later, well maybe it was only 60 or 70 miles, we reached Budva!
But what a ride! The scenery and the ride were breathtaking. The road went along the coast in places and across mountains in other places. We saw unfamiliar trees, bushes, plants, flowers, birds and animals and dust, lots of dust! The edge of the road was never very far away, sometimes you could not see the edge of the road, it was somewhere under the bus. Then we arrived at a river - with no bridge - what to do now? Had the bridge been washed away? Were we lost? The bus stopped and waited. Then a raft appeared. A raft? Well, it was a big raft. We were all told to get off of the bus. The bus was driven onto the raft, and we all got onto the raft. But not onto the bus!
After more dusty miles and more adventures we arrived in Budva. At the Hotel Avala. (Which incidentally is still there, although much bigger now. We saw it just last year, on our first return trip there, in 2010, 46 years later.) The difference in the country - - - -, well another story for another day. if you want to hear it, ask me. It was dark, The Hotel staff welcomed us with trays of Slivovich - a local alcoholic drink - in small, very small, glasses. We were hot, dry, dusty and very thirsty. we reached for the welcome beverage, wanting to slake our thirst, and tossed it down. Have you ever tried Slivovich? No need to go out and buy some, use a small quantity of gasoline mixed 50/50 with rubbing alcohol to get a rough idea!
The next morning, and all the other mornings in Budva were like being in Paradise. Did I mention that we were on our honeymoon? The hotel was great. I was not very familiar with hotels, but in today's parlance I would call it a 4 or 5 star hotel, adjusting for the year. There was a wonderful beach right outside of the Hotel, a 30 second walk from the entrance of the hotel to the water. A walk of a few hundred yards along a path carved out of the cliff led to another, hidden beach. The walk went along the edge of the sea with waves breaking over the rocks that had come from cutting the walkway into the cliff. The town of Budva was a two minute walk, or less, and looked the same as it must have looked centuries ago. Open sewers ran along the middle of the "Roads", which were 10 to 20 foot wide, there were a few shops, an occasional market that sold local fruits, vegetables and meats. There were no stalls the wares were on the ground and the 'Shopkeepers" were women dressed in all black head to toe robes. The wares were not at all appetizing looking.
We wandered the streets. Some of the gardens had laundry hanging up, and there were the womens black robes drying in the sun alongside brightly colored underwear! Red Bras, slips, stockings and underpants. Looking into the dirt floored houses we could see children sitting on the floors watching TV.
Some evenings were spent in the underground nightclub under the watchful eye of "The Commissar" as we called him. Especially after he insisted that one of our number pay for a glass that he accidentally dropped onto the floor! Or we had parties on the beach or at one of the rooms that some of the guests had in small cabins up on the hill above the hotel. I lost most of one day after I discovered that one of my favorite liquors at the time -rum - could be had for about $1 for a large bottle. Sure it was a local brew, but how different could it be? Well I don't know if it was the quality or the quantity, but lets just say I was unwell for a day or so!
Another day we sat on the cliff at a Cafe and ordered coffee. Have you ever had Yugoslavian coffee? Don't bother, it is a very strong 'coffee', in a very small cup. Approximately half is 'coffee', the other half, in the bottom of the cup, is a sort of mud. Anyway, language was a difficulty. I took seven years of French in school and spoke about seven words of French, really. Julia's French was a little better, but she also spoke some German and a little Dutch - which was of no use at all. The other couple with us were similarly language inhibited. We got together and put together a sentence which I delivered. It was partly in French and partly in German, they seemed to speak some of each, but not much English. The sentence went something like this, "Quatra Cafe, deux mit milch and deux mit out milch", This produced gales of laughter from us, which lasted for several minutes, but no reaction from our waiter. The Mit Out was the part that had us almost rolling on the ground. Mit was OK - with. But how to say without? Anyway, the coffee did arrive.
On yet another day we borrowed a rowing boat, no need to rent, just ask! And we rowed out to a small Island off of the coast. It was too far to swim, about a 1/2 mile, but ideal for a small row boat. The Island of maybe 20 acres or so had a beach at one end, the end we were going to, and rose steadily to a height of maybe 150 to 200 feet at the other end. We reached the beach and "Explored", there was a tiny chapel on the beach. It was about 10 foot square and contained nothing. Outside were a number of cactus plants, they were everywhere in Yugoslavia, some had fruits on them. We carefully removed some ripe ones and cut them open, they were surprisingly tasty. Back to the mainland.
Snorkeling, our new friends Margaret and Ed had a snorkel and face mask. We took it in turns to explore a New World. Right off the beach in front of the hotel was a whole New World! We were fascinated, and have since snorkeled in many parts of the world. There were fish swimming around right where we were swimming.
Got to finish up. I hope someone has stayed for the punch line - Albania.
Albania, there were trips from Budva, we took one one day to Lake Scutari which is on the border of Yugoslavia and Albania. The day was grey, Lake Scutari was grey, Albania was grey, and definitely CLOSED. We were happy to not go there! There was a lonely French lady on the small boat with us and no other French people. Julia and I pooled our very limited French and composed a short sentence - "La nage sur la montagne". I spoke in my halting "French" as I pointed at the mountain with the snow on it! (For those of you as limited in the French language as we are, "The snow on the mountain" - I think!) The French ladies eyes lit up and she started spouting French at an incredible rate. It was apparent to her that we did not understand. We said "Un peau", "Un petit peau", which I think means "A little", "A very little." She went off again, a little slower, but we could not follow, it was like trying to follow a Nascar on a bicycle, we were hopelessly out paced. After a while she gave up and slumped back into her depressed mode.
The rest of the vacation was as wonderful as the first. We returned to our new home. I carried Julia over the threshold and continued on into My Life With Julia.
And what a Life! If it comes to an end soon, it has been a great one. I have been blessed with a beautiful, amazing wife, a host of wonderful friends, an adventure of a life, and two loving, clever, superior parents who raised me and taught me right.