SINCE EARLY CHILDHOOD, I have had a certain perception of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Not because I showed particular interest in politics and the military instead of soccer, cowboys and Indians, but for the simple fact of geography. My maternal grandparents lived in the plains on the border between Tito's Yugoslavia, which steered away from Moscow's rule in 1948, the year before I was born, and Hungary. The latter, during my boyhood and youth, was a loyal member of the Warsaw Pact and more or less an obedient follower of the Soviet Union. That loyalty, I would learn years later, was extorted by Soviets after their tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956.
My mother was from a village where life appeared in slow motion, except for the hard work in the fields. About eight hundred households stretched in a geometrical shape, occupying the northern tip of Yugoslavia. There, the railway would end abruptly, and my laidback summer holidays would start gently.
The railway station, a simple white two-room building with a stork's nest on the chimney, was almost a kilometre from the first houses and orchards, and at least two kilometres from my grandparents' home. The name Djala appeared in huge black letters in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets above the doors for departing and arriving passengers.
MY UNCLE LÁSZLÓ, sitting on the cart drawn by a horse, would wait in the shadow of a huge acacia tree for an early afternoon train bringing my mother, sister and me from the southern region of Yugoslavia, where my family settled when my father decided to leave the military and start a career as an accountant. The trip took twenty-four hours.
I admired László, my mother's youngest brother, because he knew everything about horses, dogs and hunting, and he played soccer for a local team appropriately named Border Guard. I hated the first moment of our encounters, when he would give me his strong bear hug and an awkward kiss which made my cheeks prickle, as he only shaved once a week, usually on Sundays before the soccer match. ‘You are much taller than last summer, Mickey,' he would say, smiling, before taking from his shirt pocket a cheap, strong cigarette made of dark tobacco.
With hasty movements, he would arrange our luggage on the back of the cart and direct me next to him on the timber bench at the front. After handing me the reins and giving orders to a quiet chestnut mare, he would start the usual conversation with my mother, informing her about things he couldn't write about in his rare letters.
As we took off, the cart would leave a cloud of mustard-coloured dust behind us. On my right side, the watchtowers of the Yugoslav border guards punctured the flat horizon of sky and golden crops of grain and green fields of corn.
Over that strictly observed borderline, between the microcosms of my childhood summers and the big unknown on the other side, there was a long invisible strip of no man's land, and there were young Hungarian soldiers with their binoculars and machine-gun nests atop their timber watchtowers.
‘They have camouflaged tranches, bunkers, artillery positions, tanks and arsenals. But we are not scared, are we, Mickey?' my uncle asked, stretching his right arm towards the Hungarian territory. Sensing my hesitation, he continued, more to himself: ‘In the worst-case scenario, the Americans will help us. They can't afford one more domino falling into a Soviet lap.'
At age eight, I could only begin to imagine what would become of my summer-holiday oasis if the Kremlin ordered an invasion of Yugoslavia to end its status as a buffer zone between East and West, NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
Many summers have passed since those days, but I still vividly remember how religiously my grandfather István would listen to the Voice of America on his radio set that featured a huge compass-like display with a half-blue, half-red needle pointing to the various stations and a loudspeaker hidden behind cream-coloured rough canvas. The Kosmaj radio set (named for the mountain in Serbia famous for the intensive guerrilla operations of Tito's partisans during World War II) was a proud product of the Yugoslav electronics industry, and the most valuable item in the humble household of my grandparents. No wonder Grandpa would turn off the radio at the tiniest sign of a summer storm. To be absolutely sure, he would even disconnect the radio from the power socket.
‘The lamps will burn out if lightning strikes,' Grandpa would explain in the voice of a surgeon ready to perform a complicated operation. Mind you, he was a cobbler. He just knew that the radio provided him with the most important insight into Cold War politics.
Although he didn't have any idea about propaganda and biased reporting, he would regularly tune in to Kossuth Radio Budapest and Radio Belgrade to be informed about the most recent directives of the Hungarian and Yugoslav leaders.
‘Kossuth Radio plays my favourite Hungarian folk songs,' he would say after being glued to the radio for more than an hour, during which the only music was a minute or so of a signature tune borrowed from some traditional Hungarian song. He considered it his patriotic duty to listen to Radio Belgrade, so he didn't bother to offer any explanation for listening to it.
MY GRANDPARENTS' HOUSE, an old structure of washed-out yellow brick and mud, with two white-framed windows facing the street, mulberry trees and brick pedestrian path, was close to an abandoned cemetery. The wide wooden gate led to the front yard, a path lined with roses and a water pump. In the backyard there was a barn and a spacious vegetable garden with two small sour-cherry trees, a big apricot tree and a chestnut tree.
As we drew closer to my grandparents' place, the mare would instinctively hasten her pace. From a distance I would recognise a tall, slim figure. My grandmother Ethel, with her white hair, tortoiseshell glasses and worn cotton dress, was waiting at the doorstep to embrace me, her eldest grandchild who, as she often solemnly declared, would go a long way and never have to work on the land and depend on nature's kindness or the mercy of the communist bureaucracy.
Grandpa István was a corporal of the Austro-Hungarian military in his youth, and never gave up his commanding attitude. I could not say which was shorter, his stature or his fuse. He was never there to greet me upon my arrival, always inventing the most unlikely excuses to avoid that first encounter when he should show some care and tenderness.
‘Did you get good marks in school?' he would ask, coming out from nowhere to take the head at the dinner table. ‘He got excellent marks,' my mother would say, coming to my rescue. But Grandpa didn't seem impressed at all. ‘From tomorrow, you'll fetch water twice a day; as for the other chores, ask Uncle László and Grandma. And keep away from Jana's grandsons,' he warned, knowing very well that I would do the opposite.
Our neighbour's grandsons, Aleksandar and Petar, my cousin Andor and I would spend long worriless summer hours playing soccer or marbles, making model planes, flying kites, hunting birds with slingshots or bows and arrows with no success, or taking long rides on battered bikes over the vast plains of Vojvodina, the northern province of Serbia.
Evenings were reserved for politics after a hard day in the fields. The neighbours, mainly men, would strategically position their miniature three-legged wooden chairs in front of their houses, smoke and discuss the latest news bulletins from Radio Belgrade, Kossuth Radio Budapest, Radio Moscow, BBC London, Voice of America...I would listen, half asleep, without understanding much except that the Russians and the Americans had terrifying weapons at their disposal, weapons that could obliterate the entire planet in no time. The smoke from their cigarettes and pipes would assault my lungs, but it was an excellent mosquito repellent. Like everything else in the fertile fields of Vojvodina, mosquitoes grew bigger and more aggressive than normal.
THE WATERSHED EVENT would occur in the second or third week of July. The wheat was harvested from the faraway fields. It would be bundled and stocked in the backyard, waiting for the thresher. The owner of the only thresher in the village was the father-in-law of Uncle Gyula, my mother's middle brother. This meant easier negotiations about the threshing date.
The process required a huge amount of labour, skill, military-like logistics and perfect timing. Lajos, my mother's oldest brother, would come from Novi Sad to lead a team of a dozen neighbours and relatives. Early in the morning, as soon as the wooden threshing machine, powered by a steam tractor, started making an unbearable noise, my mother would join her brothers in standing on top of the mountain of wheat and pitching down the grain bundles into the threshing machine's bundle feeder.
My cousin Andor and I would run around as if we were the most important workers in the line. Early in the afternoon, when the job was close to finished, Grandpa would count the bags of wheat and jot down numbers. The bigger part of the harvest would be delivered to the local baker, Ivan, in exchange for bread supplies during the year. The remaining grain was to be sold at state-controlled (and usually very low) prices.
Ivan, a former wrestler, came to Djala from Croatia in his early forties. His best friend was Hector, a well-trained hound. After the morning rush, Ivan would shout: ‘Hector, go get my paper!' A quarter of an hour later, the four-legged courier would return with the latest edition of Politika between his teeth. Ivan was proud of his dog and passionate about his trade. He baked three-kilo cobs of bread with three-millimetre-thick brown shiny crusts. Andor and I would often watch him knead the dough with his strong arms. Coming from the city, where you could only buy a loaf of bread or a half, I watched with interest how skilfully Ivan would cut his wheel-sized breads into thirds, quarters or even smaller, depending on the customer.
WHILE OFFERING A small glass of mulberry or plum brandy to the workers waiting their turn to wash their hands and faces, Grandpa would whinge about another average season. Everyone was waiting for Aunt Terez to appear and announce that lunch was ready. This was the moment Andor and I had been waiting for since the early morning. The threshing-day lunch was special, a festival to celebrate the harvest, the gathering of family and good food.
With my grandma as an agile assistant, Aunt Terez would prepare meals that could be served in the best restaurants of Belgrade or Budapest. Homegrown vegetable soup with carrots, kohlrabi, cauliflower, potatoes, cumin, pepper and sour cream were a natural start to one of the most significant lunches of the season. Fried chicken and pork cutlets with stewed green beans or baby peas with a touch of dill would be the main course.
For years after the war, food was scarce in many regions of Yugoslavia, but not in Vojvodina, which had some of the best soil in Europe. Hard-working farmers were producing more than they needed. The communist system forced them to sell the surplus at ridiculous prices. For that reason, Grandpa eventually gave up his notes and figures to get beer and white wine.
At the same time Aunt Terez, with a Napoleonic talent for commanding, would observe the field, making sure everyone got enough to eat and drink. At some point, passing by the table where Andor, my sister Anica, cousin Marika and I would sit, she would suggest we save room for the best, which was still to come. Cooking from the early morning, she still didn't have time to prepare apple or walnut strudel, or baked pancakes filled with ricotta-like cheese, sugar and cinnamon or apricot jam. Instead, a huge steaming bowl of fettuccine mixed with ground poppy seeds and fine sugar would land on the table, making even the meat lovers think twice.
For the few who didn't care much for poppy-seed fettuccini, ice-cold quinces and sour cherries preserved in sugar syrup would neutralise the heavy taste of fried chicken and pork. The long and rich culinary tradition of the plains involved much knowledge about the fine balance of various ingredients. Fertile soil and diligent work provided families with top-quality vegetables, fruits, meat and diary products. They were never treated fairly by the state. The only reward they could enjoy was the wonderful food they produced.
LATE IN AUGUST, Grandma would usually invite me to join her in her brother's vineyard: four lines of vine running down the slope, only a hundred and fifty metres from the border. The grapes were still several weeks from being ripe, but on three or four plants, early grapes were ready for consumption.
Light green in colour and the size of a pea, the grapes looked unspectacular – but the taste was so fresh, so delicate, unique. Sitting on the back veranda, overlooking the vineyard and the border, I would devour the first grapes of the season imagining that some crazy explorer brought the fruit to this part of the world directly from Shangri-la. The delicate harmony of tastes – the acidity of gooseberry, the strength of sugar, the smooth freshness of kiwi – made those grapes heavenly. Half a century later, I am still searching for the fruits of my childhood and longing for my summer oasis.
Sometimes in my dreams, I hear my grandmother speaking softly in Hungarian: ‘Wake up, my boy, the holidays are over, you have a long journey ahead.'
With heavy eyelids and a sleepy mind I would mix the buttons and holes on my shirt, my left and right shoe. I would try to swallow a piece of Ivan's tasty bread and Aunt Terez's apricot jam, wrapping my hands around a mug of hot milk. I would hear my grandpa coughing in his bed, and Uncle László hitching a horse to a cart, loading our suitcases and opening the wooden gates.
The last stars would be fading as we were leaving my grandparents' home. As on my arrival, Grandma would be standing at the door, her hair tied and tucked under a grey headscarf. The flickering light from the lamppost on the street didn't allow me to see her face, but I knew she was crying. Uncle László was silent, with the reins in his hands, my mother and sister weeping. As the cart was getting closer to the train station, a tiny ring of red sun appeared on a greying horizon. On the watchtowers of the Yugoslav and Hungarian guards, the lights were still on. Those young soldiers were sleepy and tired, fed up with the military drill and generals, and homesick, I thought. Unlike me, they probably hated their summer on the border in the middle of the Pannonian plains.
ON A FREEZING February day in 1991, I was in Budapest preparing a documentary for Television Sarajevo about the sweeping changes in Hungary. While waiting to interview an expert in a hotel on the banks of the Danube, I observed Soviet generals and high-ranking officers marching through the halls of the luxurious edifice. They were negotiating the final arrangements for the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Ironically, this took place in Hungary's capital, where Soviet tanks and troops had in the name of the alliance squashed the 1956 anti-communist revolt.
I witnessed the last gasp of the Cold War. Somehow, I didn't feel any relief or joy. Memories of my happy summers were still stronger than any feeling about the end of the time of danger called the Cold War.