A break from talking about the Iran nuclear deal
July 16, 2015 by Thomas Wictor
I’m taking a break from fighting people about the Iran nuclear deal. Here’s a giant post to make everyone go away.
A Memory of Belgrade
During the 1999 NATO air war against the former Yugoslavia, I watched a news report about how the Serbian Interior Ministry in Belgrade was blown up by a cruise missile. I hadn’t seen that building in almost twenty years, but I recognized the monstrous façade and portentous stairs right away. The place hadn’t changed at all—except for the flames and piles of rubble.
On June 15, 1980, I underwent a grueling, five-hour interrogation there, accused by the State Security Administration (Uprava državne bezbednosti or UDBA)—the secret police—of entering the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia without a passport. I was seventeen, on my way to Greece after graduating from high school in Stavanger, Norway, the week before. My four friends and I were crossing Yugoslavia by rail because it was the cheapest way to get to the Pella Inn in Athens, a youth hostel that let people sleep on the roof for only eighty drachmas a night. The brochure said that the inn was managed by “The Brothers Tsiaktanis, John and Thomas,” and there was “Lively Atmosphere, Good Music, Friendly People, No Curfew, Low Price Bar, and Free HOT showers DAY AND NIGHT!”
Not mentioned were the Greek beaches, where girls frolicked naked and proud. The prospect almost drove me out of my mind. I didn’t know if I’d be able to go through with naked-girl watching, much less take off my clothes in their midst. What if I got an erection? What if I didn’t?
The theme of the trip had been established on the ferry out of Norway: Get Plastered! My four pals drank across the Skagerrak into Denmark, drank down Germany, and drank into Austria while I sulked. Since I still had a few years to go before I turned into a full-blown alcoholic, I wasn’t interested in being drunk for a whole month. I wanted to see castles and cathedrals, not the interiors of bars in red-light districts. This caused enough friction that when we crossed into Yugoslavia from Salzberg on June 13, I was no longer on speaking terms with my friends.
It was a legendary, apocryphally horrible train ride, fifty-six hours long. We’d been told that it would make us wish we’d never been born. At the first stop, hordes of Yugoslavians avalanched in through the doors. They were extremely loud, extremely hostile, and extremely unhygienic. It was as if we had blundered into a mass evacuation of very angry refugees. They had tons of luggage, they hawked and spat on the floors, they hawked and spat on the windows for some reason, they smoked cigarettes that smelled like burning plastic and wet dogs, they dropped garbage everywhere, and they did unspeakable things to the bathrooms. I used the bathroom only once in twelve hours. When I was done, I had to put my right foot into the sink to rinse off my shoe, step halfway out into the corridor, and do the yoga warrior III pose to get my left leg back in to rinse my other shoe.
The worst part was that there was no way to escape the glowering faces. Every seat was taken, and the aisles were crammed. Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians, Slovenes, Slovaks, Romanians, and Hungarians—they all hated us. We were in our own compartment with our backpacks piled at our feet, and I had a seat next to the sliding door. During the first night, somebody slit my shirt while I slept and took the denim pouch I wore around my neck, relieving me of passport, money, and Inter-Rail Pass. I discovered this sometime before dawn and woke my friends, who groaned and went back to sleep. They were already distancing themselves from me and my upcoming doom.
I searched the compartment over and over, looking under the seats and going through my backpack as if my shirt weren’t sliced open from collar to waist, as if maybe I’d only dropped my pouch or absentmindedly tucked it away. It was good to keep busy because it distracted me from the ashy, freezing panic. When the conductor appeared at around eight, I asked if he spoke English.
“My ticket, my passport, and my money have been stolen,” I said, pointing to my slashed shirt.
“Ticket,” he answered, holding out his hand.
“Wait: Do you speak English?”
“No ticket,” I said, folding my arms.
Yugoslavian trains carried armed policemen. I found this out when the conductor went and got one.
“Ticket,” the officer said, patting his AK-47.
“Do you speak English?”
It didn’t seem like the right time to say, “Sorry. No ticket.”
As the cop started to unsling his rifle, a passenger in the aisle asked if I spoke German. One of my friends did; he had already proven himself a godsend by talking our way out of confrontations with German bikers, German whores, German pimps, and German merchant seamen. He explained to the passenger what had happened, and the passenger told the policeman. The cop relaxed and sat next to me, suddenly all smiles. After writing a brief report with the German-speaking passenger’s help, he ordered me to get off at Belgrade, the nation’s capital. Beograd, he called it. I had to go to the American embassy for a new passport immediately, or I’d be arrested.
Belgrade was an Eastern-bloc dump, a brooding, forbidding, grim, gray, half-demolished caricature with clouds of cement dust blowing down the wide, dreary streets. It was exactly the way I imagined it would be, like the backdrop of a Cold War spy thriller in which the main characters all die in the end.
I knew I was in the worst trouble of my life.
Citizens tramped past in a parade of Communist chic: young men in rayon shirts and hideously tight jeans; young women in rayon blouses and hideously tight jeans; youngish men in greasy, sacklike suits; youngish women in sleeveless polyester tunics and knee-length polyester skirts; middle-aged to old men in white shirts, black vests, and round caps; middle-aged to old women in iron-colored shawls and Baba Yaga kerchiefs; young to middle-aged men in green army uniforms and flat, backward-sloping hats that made it look like the tops of their heads had been cut off.
Everybody had enormous shoes, like Disney characters, the seldom-seen ones who are force-fed lemon juice and bile. Ragey, Glummo, Miserabella, Malignant Sue, and Crab. The train cop had helpfully written the address of the American embassy on a slip of paper. In Cyrillic. We tried asking passersby, but they ignored us or made deep growling noises. One of my friends finally said, “I’m going to do it like a Yugoslavian.” He stepped in front of a man, shoved the paper into his face, and grunted, “Beh?” The rest of us surrounded them, blocking the man’s escape.
After a couple of futile lunges, the man sagged and gave us directions in fluent English. His English was good because he was an American, a member of the embassy staff. The embassy was just a few yards away. At first, my countrymen at the embassy refused to help. They said that they couldn’t issue me a new passport because I had no way to prove who I was. I might not even be American. Instead of arguing, I just asked over and over what they thought would happen to me in a Communist country without money or identification. They eventually gave in. As they drew up the paperwork, they told us that I was lucky to have slept through the taking of my pouch; if I ‘d awoken, the thief might have sliced my throat too. It was a tradition dating back to the Serbian highwaymen, the folk heroes of centuries ago.
Foreign tourists with cut throats were found in the hills every summer, where they’d been hiking by themselves. It was a major problem. Train thieves were getting a lot more sophisticated, though. They’d started using a knock-out gas of Soviet origin. I’d probably been unconscious, not asleep, in which case my throat would’ve been okay.
My four friends were asked to swear oaths and sign affidavits that I was exactly who I said I was, and then I was sent to a nearby studio to have my photo taken by an eighteen-year-old photographer with a one-hundred-fifty-year-old camera, the kind used to take daguerreotypes. I had to hold still for almost a minute after she uncovered the shutter.
While she developed the sheet of silver-plated copper, I called my parents from a post office several blocks away and had them wire money to the embassy. By dusk, I had a new passport. The embassy staff told me that I must go to the Interior Ministry the next day for an entrance visa, which I would need to exit the country. I didn’t ask for an explanation.
As the sun set, my companions went on to Greece and the rest of their lives. I was sorry to see them go because I knew we weren’t friends anymore. Months later a mutual acquaintance said that both the cop on the train and the embassy staff had told my friends that they would never see me again. So many foreign tourists were selling their passports to Yugoslavians that the secret police was crackling down. I’d be thrown in prison and forgotten, or I’d be summarily executed. My friends really meant it when they said goodbye.
Not wanting to sample the Belgrade night life, I took a taxi to an empty campground recommended by the embassy. The proprietor—a young guy in a tiny wooden kiosk—spoke perfect English. He listened to my story, gave me a pack of Yugoslavian cigarettes that tasted like toilet paper, and let me stay for free. I lay awake all night in the three-foot-high grass, smoking and moaning, my sleeping bag soaking up the dew.
In the morning, the proprietor offered me an apple and noticed my paperback copy of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. I told him that I hated it because every time I tried to read it, I felt like I was going crazy. He obviously thought that I’d already gone crazy, but he nodded and asked five or six times if I wanted to go to the Interior Ministry. I insisted on going, I was adamant, I ordered him to help me get there. He sighed and picked up the phone.
When the cab rolled up half an hour later, the campground proprietor went out and had a ten-minute argument with the driver. I smoked and watched them yell and slice the air with their hands until the proprietor waved me over. The driver flung open the rear passenger door of the Yugo and spit into the grass, avoiding my eyes. As we drove off, the proprietor stood by his kiosk like a sentry. I’ve never seen a more guilt-stricken face.
The rattling, wheezing cab took me into the heart of the city, where more and more blue-shirted, assault rifle-toting policemen appeared on the streets. They all had thick black mustaches and huge round white captains’ hats. I started laughing because I was so afraid and because the cops who wore their hats normally looked like Venetian gondoliers, and the ones who wore them tipped back looked like Catholic saints.
The taxi driver turned around and shushed me. Two blocks from the Ministry, he pulled over and gestured for me to get out. When I fumbled with the unfamiliar money, he yelled “Ah-na-na-na-na,” snatched one bill out of my hand, and sped away. There were no civilians on the sidewalks now, just hundreds of policemen. They stared at me, their heads turning slowly as I walked past. Two cops stopped me on the front steps of the Interior Ministry. I showed them a letter in Serbo-Croatian provided by the US embassy; they grabbed my upper arms and marched me inside. My passport and backpack were taken away, and I was led down two flights of stairs to a small, dark, windowless room with bare walls painted glossy battleship gray to match the gray linoleum floor.
The only furniture was what appeared to be a wooden electric chair in the center of the room and a gray metal desk in the corner, positioned so that whoever sat behind it could look at whoever was in the electric chair. A goose-necked lamp and a black manual typewriter sat on the desk like film noir props. The cops plunked me into the electric chair and left. I was happy to see that the chair didn’t have any wrist or ankle straps, but I was worried about the way everything had been coated with smooth paint and varnish. That was so the room would be easier to clean. I closed my eyes and recited Hail Marys.
After an hour, two men in civilian clothes came in. The older one was fat and bald, with thick glasses and rubbery lips. He sat behind the desk, lit a cigarette, and began typing. I couldn’t look at him because he was so froglike that I pictured him snapping out a six-foot tongue and croaking “Bork!” or suddenly hopping over the desk, his long frog legs kicking out behind him. I almost started giggling again as an insane fantasy unreeled in my head, all about him being a hard-boiled frog investigative reporter at a frog newspaper in the 1950s.
The younger man was blond and muscular, a recruiting-poster Aryan. He switched on the lamp and adjusted it to shine into my eyes, blinding me. I heard the flare of a match and then the tapping of leather-soled shoes as he paced from one side of the room to the other, back and forth. The secret to not giggling, I discovered, was to think about the scene in the The Day of the Jackal, in which the Polish legionnaire sits in a wooden chair in a dark, cigarette smoke-filled room with a light shining into his eyes—right before he’s tortured to death by the French police.
I cleared my throat and said, “Can—”
The Aryan stepped in front of the light and shouted, “How did you get into Yugoslavia without a passport?”
I told him that it had been stolen. He spoke to the frog, who shook his head and flapped his hand, sneering.
The Aryan turned back to me and shouted, “You sold your passport, didn’t you?”
“Why would I sell my passport?”
“Thomas! Do not ask me questions! I will ask the questions, and you will answer!”
They made me explain the whole fiasco—slashed shirt, crazed search, train cop, unhelpful/helpful embassy staff, photos, wired money, friends gone, empty campground, taxi ride, arm-grabbing Ministry cops, march down stairs, electric chair. We went through it at least twenty times, the sweat pouring out of me by the quart. I stank like a lying capitalist. Every time I finished, we started up again.
“Okay! You! Thomas! Tell me! What does this letter from the American embassy say?”
“I don’t know. I can’t read Serbo-Croatian.”
“Shachima vegrimo bucheche od trasnye vizu.”
“Na, na, na.”
“How did you get into Yugoslavia without a passport?”
“I had a passport. It was stolen on the train.”
“Novi vastibro tren pasopriko na laznesta.”
“Na, na, na.”
“Thomas! Did you sell your passport? Did you?”
“No, it was stolen.”
“Stolen? How? Tell me!”
This went on for five hours, and then a uniformed officer brought in my backpack. They’d beaten the hell out it. My clothes and paperbacks were hanging out of the unzipped pockets, and one of the seams was starting to unravel. The Aryan handed me my passport and said that I’d been given an entry visa. It expired at midnight.
“What happens after midnight?” I asked.
“You will be arrested!” he barked. “You must leave Yugoslavia before midnight!”
“Well, how do I get to the train station? I don’t know where I am.”
“Take the bus.”
“Bus Geh. We cannot waste all day with you, Thomas! Go!”
I ran out onto the street. There was nothing that resembled a bus stop anywhere, though of course I didn’t know what a Yugoslavian bus stop looked like. What I took to be a trash barrel could have been a bus stop. The policemen sprawled on the front steps of the Ministry were watching me again, stroking their rifles and chuckling. As I set off in a randomly chosen direction, I remembered that my brother Pat listened to a punk band called Millions of Dead Cops.
Forty-five minutes later, I flagged down a cab and said, “Train station. Statzionen. Choo-choo-choo-choo. Woooooo-woooooo.”
After I got in, the driver made a U-turn and drove back toward the Interior Ministry. I figured that he was an undercover cop, sent because the frog and the Aryan had changed their minds about letting me go, but he turned off on an alley to avoid passing in front of the building. He dropped me off at the station, and I bought a ticket for an express that left at six in the evening. Then I sat on a bench and watched Yugoslavians for almost five hours, reminding myself that this country was touted in the left-wing press as a Communist success story.
Although I couldn’t tell if people were successful or not, I did pick up that they never smiled, and they loved their dictator-president-premier Josip Broz Tito, who had died only a month earlier. His pouty-lipped, double-chinned face was everywhere, even on the T-shirts of the slacker teenage boys. The designs used grainy black-and-white photos and angular graphics, like he was an underground rock star only the ultrahip knew about. He looked more like a movie star to me—Gert Fröbe in Goldfinger.
After a while I noticed that one of the ticket sellers had a five o’clock shadow that went all the way up his cheeks to his eye sockets. It was too painful for him to shave his lower eyelids; I knew this because he had a mustache right below his eyes, two narrow black bars of hair that mirrored his eyebrows.
A short, spherical man in a blue uniform and hat was working by the front entrance. He was a porter, Belgrade-style. As people rushed by, he’d try to snatch the suitcases out of their hands. They always resisted, yanking their bags back without looking at him. He’d mope for a few seconds and then paw at somebody else, and that person would fight him off too. Each encounter was a brief but vicious tug-of-war—a brief but vicious and completely silent tug-of-war. The porter didn’t say anything, and nobody ever told him to get lost. He was still at it when I caught my train.
I had an entire compartment to myself. As soon as the train was out of the station, a young Yugoslavian soldier came in and asked in German if he could hide under the seats. Suddenly I could speak and understand German. He told me that he was going to see his girlfriend but didn’t have enough money for a ticket. I said sure. He lay down on the floor, and I pulled both benches out, forming a compartment-wide mattress. I lay across it and waited for the conductor. When he slid open the door, I expected him to point a gun at me and ask in German why I was hiding a soldier of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under my seat, but he just punched my ticket.
The soldier emerged at the next station, handed me a pack of Turkish cigarettes, and got off. I made it to the Austrian border at 11:50, ten minutes before my visa expired. I wanted to kiss the Austrian passport control officer on his heavy red beard. After he left, I put my passport and money down the front of my pants and went to sleep, rubbing my itchy eyes. I still had the entire compartment to myself.
When I woke up at four in the morning, my left eye felt strange, and my vision was cloudy. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My left eye had swollen into a lumpy, jellied mass that protruded half an inch out of my head. I could close the lid, but there was an unpleasant, full sensation, as if my eyeball had overeaten. It didn’t hurt at all. I went back to my compartment and fell asleep again, resolving to deal with the loss of my eye in the morning.
The next thing I knew, we were pulling into Munich. My left eye wouldn’t open, even when I tried forcing the lids apart with my fingers. I got off the train, went to the men’s room, and gently washed my eye in warm water for five minutes. I didn’t look in the mirror yet. The eyelid came unstuck; I took a deep breath and looked. My eye was fine. It’d resumed its normal size and shape, and I could see perfectly. I went and bought a ticket out of Germany.
On my way back to Norway I shared a train compartment with six people from the Dutch province of Friesland. They were speaking Frisian, a language that sounds like a German parody of English. It’s very disorienting, especially if you’re really tired. I’d already lost my ability to speak and understand German—it only lasted twenty minutes or so—and now it seemed as if I’d lost my ability to speak and understand English. If you hear Frisian long enough, you start thinking that you’ve had a stroke.
The woman who did most of the talking had a drilling, high-pitched, buzzing voice, like a wasp caught in an envelope. It made my skin crawl. I could feel millions of tiny feet scuttling all over my head, into my ears, across my thighs. For about nine hours, I heard So vazumzez on the mzzvorzaz fass iz vat day ad tiz? Yeah, and datzezzum shmoken my vellek zezmn. Or ya could zezrizmem and zavzz vim yeah, okay, but das iz vazmn nemzin should havtez kezfizinmzz, yeah? Then she saz venmn zazviz zemn did slow up saziz vorminzaz and shore zizazbez.
I was sure that I’d died from my eye-thing and gone to hell, and I’d have to spend eternity confused, hot, and exhausted on a train that never arrived, listening to a German wasp that never stopped talking.
A year later, almost to the day, I received a package from the US Department of State. It contained my denim pouch, a letter from an assistant to the assistant to the undersecretary of something, and a letter from the Athens Police. They wanted to let me know that my pouch had been found by the cleaning crew when the train was being hosed down and fumigated at the end of the line. My passport, money, and traveler’s checks were gone, of course, but my journal, pens, Inter-Rail Pass, and wallet were still there. The strap of the pouch had been cut with a blade so sharp that the material hadn’t frayed. Whoever did it had a surgeon’s touch.
I’m grateful for his skill.
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