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Eastern Europe: Yugoslavia and Hungary (1987)

Belgrade, Yugoslavia Pictured on the streets of Belgrade, Yugoslavia in February 1987. This was still during the time of Communism, and we were careful to be discreet at all times. We "smuggled" Bibles in the Croatian, and Serbian languages when we entered the country, so we sort of felt the "thrill of a spy novel" as we encountered our missionary brethren, who were young American church workers like ourselves. I am third from left.

Roger in Budapest, Hungary Me pictured in Budapest, Hungary a few days later. We were amazed by the sights of Budapest. The cold and dull winter weather added even more intrigue to our excited imaginations as we drove through the busy streets, and walked around the parliament building. The temptation to photograph everything, including soldiers, was pressing, but, again, discretion was paramount at this time.

Click here for a map of Croatia | Serbia | Hungary | Budapest

This trip took place during an extremely cold February 1987, with up to a foot of snow blanketing our whole round-trip from Vienna, all the way through Yugoslavia, Hungary, and back to Vienna. This was a magical experience for Gene, Randall and myself as we were going on our first trip to the Continent of Europe. We went to visit our friend, and fellow "Project Good News" representative, Myron Schirer, who had been in Vienna already for several years, spoke German fluently, and knew the border crossing routine into Eastern Europe very well.

The four of us rented a Volvo hatchback in Vienna, and drove to visit some missionaries behind the ominous "Iron Curtain" for about five days. The drive from Vienna to the Yugoslavian border was about 125 miles, though we stopped in Graz, Austria for a few hours along the way to visit, and eat lunch. The Austrian autobahn was very nice and scenic as we passed snow-covered hills and valleys. The only trouble we encountered was the windshield wiper fluid-squirters on the Volvo, which kept getting clogged because of ice, and dirty snow.

The border crossing at Yugoslavia was tense, but we were well prepared for it, as Myron had instructed us in advance. The guards were extremely well-trained at looking intimidating, but we were not searched or anything. The fact that we were carrying Bibles in our coats could have made us detained if we had been caught, but luckily nothing happened. We also had to change money at the border, another intimidating process that resulted in our receiving a stack each of tiny notes called Denars. From the border, it was another 75 miles to Zagreb.

The stark contrast between East and West was almost unbelievable, but with each passing hour, and day, the trip grew more interesting and intense. We spent our first night in Zagreb, at the apartment of a Canadian missionary named Andy. Andy's flat was at the top of a three-story building in a residential area; was one bedroom, tidy, and the ceilings slanted upward as if it were formerly an attic space (we slept in sleeping bags on the living room floor). We stayed up late talking and got to know Andy pretty well as he told us all about the work in Yugoslavia, and about his engagement to an American girl he was going to marry. They were keeping up a long distance relationship and he missed her very much. We also briefly popped over to Roger's flat, a young man from Oklahoma, who was a co-worker of Andy's and lived less than a half-mile away on the ground floor of a traditional looking house. We didn't stay long because he was getting over a cold and was not prepared for visitors. However, this was a thoroughly interesting evening, and it was made even more interesting--mildly shocking in fact--when Gene learned that a former girlfriend of his named Anna (who he had secretly never gotten over) had actually been to Zagreb the previous year on a missionary campaign. Gene quizzically asked Andy a lot of questions about everything Anna did while she was there. What a small world!

The next morning Andy cooked us some crepes for breakfast, and took us to see the renovated building where the church met. Andy got a little rattled when Gene and Randall brandished their cameras to take a picture. Andy said that this was not the sort of place to take pictures, because private religious activity was officially frowned upon by the government and he didn't want to draw any unnecessary attention from passers-by. The church was located in row buildings in a semi-residential and commercial area. This was the same church where Mladen Jovanovich, a well-known Yugoslavian university professor--a converted atheist--taught and ministered. It was an honor to meet Mladen and see the church facilities in Zagreb.

After a late lunch at the home of the Jovanovich's, we departed for Belgrade, about a 5-6 hour drive, of which, I drove part of the way. The distance to Belgrade was 230 miles on a highway that was four-lanes for the first quarter of the way and then two-lanes for the rest of the way. Our gray colored Volvo blended into the milieu of Yugos, Skodas, Ladas, Volgas and other Eastern European cars which we became more familiar with as the trip progressed. Our only stop was at a gas station where we stretched our legs and drank coffee in a cold, retro-looking cafe. The difference being, the decore was all original and looked thoroughly used. It had a 1960s-style curved stainless steel counter top bar, and a lot of spartan metal tables and chairs. After sitting there for a while, freezing, and alone, we decamped for the Volvo. Later that night, when we reached Belgrade we got lost and sought the assistance of a taxi driver to help us find the address where we were going to be staying. The taxi driver didn't think we could find it on our own so he insisted on us following him and we did. It turned out that the taxi driver was a Serbian who used to live in Houston, Texas for a while, and was quite friendly.

We were staying with two young, college-aged Americans named John and Dayton, who were spending about two years there, and worked for the church. They had received training at an organization called Adventures In Missions (AIM) located in Lubbock, Texas, and were being supported by churches and individuals in the states, similar to the way Gene, Randall and I were. By the time we reached their flat it was late and we stayed up till about 1:00 a.m., talking about their work in Belgrade, and about life in general. The flat was in an above average residential area with medium-to-large houses, many converted into multiple flats. The parking was very cramped on the street because of cars and piles of snow. The flat was in a neat and tidy condition, just right for two people, so the four travelers slept in the living room on a fold-out couch-bed and sleeping bags on the floor. John and Dayton also had two female co-workers, named Kim and Lisa, who lived in an apartment in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade), which was about 15 minutes away by car. They were all glad to have some fellow Americans visiting, and we admired their courage for being there.

We attended church in Belgrade twice on Sunday, meeting several local brethren, including two African students from Liberia, who spoke English. The church met in an ordinary detached house. We also ate dinner at a large restaurant in downtown Belgrade, traveling by tram and by foot. On the tram, a short old woman surprised me by getting up and offering me her seat as she was about to get off at the next stop. The experience at the restaurant was quite memorable. We couldn't read anything on the menu and depended on John, Dayton, Kim and Lisa to communicate for us. They spoke Serbian well enough to know what was going on; what tasted good and what didn't. This experience was about the only time I can remember, in Eastern Europe, where the waiters were somewhat rude and uncooperative. And this was supposedly a fine Serbian restaurant!

Among other things, we visited an old Serbian Orthodox church, which had no pews or chairs, which is typical among Eastern Orthodox churches for their custom is to stand at all services! We wanted to see more of Belgrade, but our time was limited and we generally had to grimace the extremely cold weather that was clawing central Europe at the time. On Sunday evening, we had a pizza party after church at the Jackson's, an American missionary family, who got the pizza and sodas from the American Embassy commissary. This was a tremendously good night of fellowship, for we got to converse with several Serbian Christians, and got to know people better this evening.

Little did I know then that the Balkans were just a few short years away from political upheaval, and revolution. Some countries achieved independence, and at least a modicum of stability, while Yugoslavia dissolved into war and ethnic hatred. We traveled through what is today Croatia, and Serbia, and from our conversations with missionaries, learned that old cultural animosities ran deep.

We had a great breakfast at Kim and Lisa's apartment, where we were invited on Monday morning. They lived in a fairly new high-rise apartment building. We were in no hurry to leave, but we had to depart Belgrade to drive on to Budapest today. Before we left, Kim had an unusual request. She asked if we could help dispose of their Christmas tree which had been put out on the balcony for several weeks and had withered from the eliments. The resident's of the building who had Christmas trees mostly just chucked them off their balconies and someone at ground level was responsible for taking them away. Kim and Lisa's flat was several floors up, so we made sure we threw the tree far enough out of the way of the balconies below us. It was a funny spectacle to watch, but I guess you had to be there.

On the way to Hungary we made a special stop at Subotica, Yugoslavia, which was near the border, for some gas, and to investigate what kinds of products they had at a typical state-owned grocery store (I drove part of the way from Belgrade to Subotica). We browsed the isles of the store, bought some snacks and a large bottle of "Swing," a local soft drink, and then walked through a bit of Subotica under an overcast sky, past the town hall (which looked a bit garish), a theater and a library, to a large baroque church. After a brief look around the church, which was utterly silent and dark, I bought some postcards at a street kiosk. The atmosphere in Subotica seemed somber, like in a Cold War movie, and curiously empty apart from a few thickly-dressed people walking around, and a deep-throated, guitar-playing busker on the square, singing to the stillness. From here we drove on to Hungary. It was only about 215 miles from Belgrade to Budapest, but it took all day. The border crossing at Hungary was not the least bit crowded, but the officials were stern-faced as ever. The machine gun toting guards were young men, and though not as intimidating as in Yugoslavia, they quickly sussed out that we were Americans and shouted to one-another in Hungarian that "some Americans have just arrived!" They looked as if they wanted to make conversation with us, but of course, they were forbidden to talk to foreigners. Inside we exchanged our Denars for Forints, a slightly more robust currency.

As we approached Budapest, it was an exceptionally dark and fridged night. We drove completely through the center of Budapest, mesmerized by its gothic stillness, hardly meeting any traffic, and went a fairly short distance north because Myron wanted to stay outside of Budapest, in Szentendre, a popular, but authentic village that looked particularly old, located on a bend in the River Danube. Our hotel was just a few miles up the Danube from Central Budapest. The Danube was as icy as could be, without being frozen-over entirely, and flowed right behind our hotel (visible from our window, in fact). What a wintry sight! We checked into Hotel Party, just a short distance out of Szentendre, and found out that we had to leave our passports at the desk until we checked-out. "Don't worry, my wife is an American--we won't lose your passports, I promise," said the man who ran the hotel. We then went back out to find something to eat. That night we shared a pot of tea and some finger food in a darkly-lit, tavern-like establishment in Szentendre. It was an interesting experience, as the low-keyed crowd seemed more or less native to the area. We spoke to one another in hushed tones, and nobody seemed to take much notice of us, but I think we were about the only Westerner's present.

To our surprise, the Hungarian man and his American wife at "Hotel Party," served us a very filling breakfast the next day of eggs, sausage, and bread. The hotel's name, incidentally, was a bit misleading, for it was simply a nice modern hotel, and there was nothing wild about it what-so-ever as far as I could tell. Randall and I stayed in one room and Gene and Myron stayed in another. We slept on single beds that were located up in their own lofts in each individual room. The bathrooms were all plastic and tile with open showers, and the toilets were water efficient with brown toilet paper. After breakfast, we walked around Szentendre for a while, taking note of its generous allotment of fine old baroque buildings, made photographs and visited a souvenir shop. It was a well lived-in village. We even saw some school children through the window of an old elementary school, and walked up a hill to a churchyard with a fine view of the rooftops. A dark-haired lady attendant in the souvenir shop was attractive; spoke English, and showered us with attention. We all liked her, but I think Gene was smitten by her smile and sense of humor the most as he made the effort to flirt a little. I decided to buy a wood carving of an old man sitting on a stool petting a dog. It is one of my favorite souvenirs to this day.

Next, we visited Budapest for a few hours. When we returned to Budapest, we parked the car and walked completely around the somber Parliament building, which has to be one of the most dramatic examples of Eastern Gothic architecture. It looked positively haunted in these snowy conditions! There was snow and ice everywhere. One interesting thing I saw in Parliament Square were kiosks with posters that advertised an upcoming James Brown concert. I don't know why, but it really struck me as funny that James Brown was performing in Budapest! After this, we drove through much of the central area and observed crowds of people bundled up in fur coats as they walked down the main shopping district. Almost everyone had a grim expression of one kind or another. The contrast in atmosphere from Vienna was most palpable! I felt the urge to photograph some soldiers riding in a green army truck as we stoped at traffic light, and I was able to do so without attracting their attention. This was supposed to be a no, no, but I couldn't resist. Continuing our drive, We passed by the Moorish-Byzantine Style Budapest Central Synagogue; the largest in Europe (completed in 1859), a train station, and a lot of monuments. If it hadn't been so cold we would have stayed longer and done more walking around.

Next, Myron had to deliver some biblical material to a Hungarian man at a downtown building. Then we ate a light meal (something that resembled a thin, square pizza) at another retro-looking cafe, and departed Budapest to drive back to Vienna, a mere 125 mile journey, where we spent two more nights. The highway to Vienna was sometimes two-lane and sometimes four-lane, and mostly uneventful, with only the occasional clump of snow covered dachas to look at along the way. At one point Gene, who was driving at the time, decided to see how fast the little Volvo would go. He accelerated to about 150 kilometers an hour and decided to slow back down, not to take any chances that might get us in trouble. There was hardly any traffic on the highway, and it got a little bit boring, so the Austrian border was a welcome sight, and, to tell the truth, a distinctly reassuring one. We made it back in one piece! Be sure to read about our stay in Vienna.

Though the people we met in Eastern Europe were generally friendly, and curious about us, this was still a pretty serious undertaking at the time, and we were just young men in our early twenties (except for Myron). We had all the required travel documents, were very careful at all times, and had a remarkably smooth time of it considering all the possible things that could have gone wrong! It was an exciting trip worth taking that I'll never forget, and I still reflect often back to that wintry trip to Eastern Europe. The End.

Budapest information
Hungary tourist information
My photo of Parliament
Click herer for a map of Croatia | Serbia | Hungary | Budapest