On a Two-Seater Scooter to Yugoslavia (1961)
One of my favorite tunes that I often played and still play on my harmonica was the popular scout song about the Adriatic Sea. So that was where Klaus and I were heading in the summer of 1961. Klaus had just passed his driver’s license test and had acquired a used scooter that was going to carry us via Austria and Northern Italy into Yugoslavia, which later on after the death of communist leader General Tito broke apart into half a dozen small countries due to strife and ethnic tension. Yugoslavia was just opening up its borders to attract tourists to their beautiful rugged coastline.
I remember very little about our journey to the southeastern part of Europe, partly because we kept no journal, but also because sitting on the back seat of a scooter does not offer as much opportunity for human contact as you would have traveling by car or train.
After a smooth ride on the newly built super-strada from Trieste to the border of this immense Balkan country, we were quite a bit disappointed by the shabby look of towns and villages we were passing through. Dilapidated houses in various stages of neglect and decay, communist slogans crudely written on house walls, the red star painted on any bare surface, dusty streets gave us the impressions as if we had traveled back in time. I cannot remember how far we traveled south along the Adriatic coast.
Our aim was to find a secluded beach at the rugged coastline away from this eerie state-dominated world. When we had finally found such a place, which would be overcrowded by sun seekers from Northern Europe today, we pitched our tent not more than 10 m from the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea. We stayed there, until our food ran out, perhaps 2 or 3 days.
One event will stand out forever in my mind. On our way home we were held up for several days in a small Austrian town, where the old scooter had broken down with engine problems and needed a major repair job. It was the morning of August 13th. On our walk from the campground to the repair shop, we noticed that the usually tranquil, almost sleepy ambience had drastically changed overnight. An ominous gloom hung over this little Alpine resort. In front of shops, restaurants and cafés, on the market square, everywhere groups of people huddled together, some talking in subdued tones, others shouting angrily. Nobody paid any attention to us. It was eerie. Seeing so many people out on the street and not knowing what they were discussing instilled in us the uncanny feeling of imminent doom. Here and there we snatched up phrases from some of the more vociferous voices: There will be war. World War III. We are not going to fight another war. Austria is neutral. She will not be sucked into another conflict. What on earth had happened, we wondered, that made the people in this remote mountain town so excited?
As we found out later, troops in East Germany, in flagrant violation of East-West agreements, had sealed the border between East and West Berlin, shutting off the last remaining escape route. The soldiers had put up barbed wire fences during the night, and Berliners woke to find they were living in a divided city. The fences were just the first step in a sequence of desperate measures to stem the flow of thousands of refugees. Train services between the two sectors had been cut off, and road traffic across the border came to a sudden halt. In the weeks that followed, work crews replaced the temporary fence by building the infamous Berlin Wall. If Klaus and I had heard the news over the radio or read the headlines in the papers, the impact of this momentous event in modern history would not have been as powerful on us as our witnessing of the passionate reaction of common people to such blatant attack on human liberty.