The Secret Space Program of Yugoslavia

Zur deutschen Fassung.

After my brother and I unexpectedly and rather accidentally discovered a secret Yugoslav submarine port in Montenegro (please read that story first, otherwise this one won’t make any sense), we were still completely excited and out of our minds until late into the night. We probably even drank a glass of Rakia or Amaro Montenegro. Or rather half a glass each, because we are sensible guys.

The next evening, I met with a Montenegrin friend who, for some unfathomable reason, had not yet noticed how cool and adventurous I was. So I proudly, enthusiastically, extensively and possibly with some embellishment told her about our adventure in the submarine base, on board of the warships and in the sights of the Montenegrin naval snipers.

Because my idea of romantic relationships is based solely on James Bond movies, I thought that she would reply: “Oh, Andreas, you’re such a hero! But if the Montenegrin Navy is after you, you will have to go into hiding. Luckily, I have a cozy cabin in the mountains, where we can hide for a few years.”

In reality, she said: “Oh, the submarine tunnels near Luštica? I sometimes swim all the way out there in the summer.” She said it in the same tone one would use to convey the information that one had stopped by the grocer on the way home to get some milk.

I was glad that it was winter, otherwise she might have invited me to join her and would have realized that I don’t know how to swim at all.

And then she suggested: “If you are interested in such places, you should visit the military airport near Željava. That was the largest underground air base in the world.”

“How can an airport be underground?” I asked, obviously as inexperienced in airports as I am in other things.

“Željava is located in the Plješevica mountains. The runways are above ground, of course, but the hangars are built into the mountain. And the pilots can start their takeoff underground, so they spend as little time as possible on the tarmac once they leave the mountain.” That is useful when you are worried about enemy missiles.

Željava is the actual foundation for the fictional enemy military base deep in the mountains in “Top Gun: Maverick”.

“We could actually visit it, because it’s all abandoned now. However, the area lies directly on the border between Croatia and Bosnia, so there are still mines everywhere in the forest.” Because Croatia is rather unfriendly to refugees, Afghans, Syrians and Iranians now spend the winter in these concrete bunkers. From time to time, one of them steps on a landmine and explodes. It is always sad to see when countries are hostile towards refugees, although, just a few years ago, their own population had to seek safety from a war.

And then she said, offhandedly: “The complex in Željava is also where the Yugoslav space program was developed.”

I didn’t say anything, but I guess you could tell that the existence of a Yugoslav space program was news to me. As it probably is to you.

And so I learned that Yugoslavia had the third largest space program after the USA and the USSR. But that Yugoslavia needed money and therefore sold its space program to the USA. That the families of Yugoslav engineers were told that their fathers, husbands or sons had died, but in fact they moved to Florida. And that NASA could fly to the moon only thanks to Yugoslav technology and experts.

If I did not believe it, I should simply look up which country was the first to be visited by the astronauts of Apollo 11 after their return, my friend said. She was right: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin paid tribute to Yugoslavia. And why were Tito and Kennedy such close friends?

However, there seems to have been a problem. Some say that Yugoslavia had fudged the calculations, which is why quite a few Apollo missions blew up at launch. Others say that the CIA was against cooperation with Yugoslavia, which is why it was no coincidence that Kennedy was shot a month after his last meeting with Tito. Some say that the USA demanded that Yugoslavia pay back the billions received, and that this is precisely what led to Yugoslavia’s bankruptcy and consequent breakup. Others blame the USA for a more active role in that breakup, allegedly out of revenge for the space fraud.

I bet you are eager to learn more about all of this. In this case, I recommend the movie “Houston, we have a Problem!”

However, I don’t know where the film is playing. Apparently it’s nowhere to be found on the western interweb. Which is again pretty suspicious. Good thing I saw it back in Montenegro…

Links:

  • More movie recommendations, hopefully not also deleted by the CIA.
  • And more reports from and about Yugoslavia, Montenegro and Croatia. Unfortunately and for some inexplicable reason, I have not yet been to Bosnia and Herzegovina. I should really rectify that soon.
Posted in Bosnia–Herzegovina, Cinema, Croatia, History, Military, Montenegro, Technology, USA | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Mobilization in Russia

After the Russian government’s call for mobilization, many Russians, especially young men, spontaneously discovered their patriotic urge to become very mobile indeed.

Considering that mobilization kicked off World War I, this is a bit disconcerting, though.

Posted in Military, Politics, Russia | Tagged | 3 Comments

Naughty Towns and Sin Cities

Have you also been wondering why some towns in Germany have to put a “Bad” before their name?

Well, this happens when a town misbehaves. If they are found to have done so, they need to put the “Bad” before their name on all signs and in all correspondence for three years. It actually happens more often than not.

Usually, the reason is that the municipality has overspent its budget, especially on frivolous things like a fun park with water slides or some huge museum in a small place, where there will never be enough visitors for the revenue to recover the investment. But they can also get pilloried like this if they failed to guarantee safe drinking water or didn’t act against industrial pollution. Or when a bridge collapses, although in that case, it depends whether it was a local bridge, a county bridge, a state bridge, a federal bridge or a railroad bridge. German federalism is famously complicated.

For three years, the town is then put under supervision of the respective state oversight authority

As a tourist, though, a city being branded a “bad city” shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting. This has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the city, let alone levels of crime or danger. Quite the contrary, many of those “bad” towns are really beautiful, as I recently experienced in Bad Münstereifel, Bad Mergentheim and Bad Kötzting.

Come to think of it, maybe those towns are often quite beautiful because they did overspend on frivolous things, like building parks and renovating their old towns?

I will soon be able to find out, as part of my quest to visit all geographical centers of Europe. Because one of these points, Mount Dyleň (Tillenberg) is on the Czech-German border, and the municipality on the German side is Neualbenreuth. Or Bad Neualbenreuth, as it has just been designated.

I wonder what they have done wrong. Hopefully, it wasn’t about tinkering with the border again.

Links:

Posted in Germany, Politics | 19 Comments

I am not a spy, I am just curious

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Recently in Albania, three people were arrested as they tried to enter a former arms factory. The intruders from Russia and Ukraine said that they were bloggers and liked to photograph old buildings.

People who have seen too many James Bond movies are now arrogantly thinking: “Oh please, you could have come up with a better excuse!”

But I, as a world- and Balkan-experienced blogger myself, understand that this may well be true. On Mount Vrmac in Montenegro, I once met two young Russians who graciously allowed me to join them on their exploration of a military fortress. (Okay, one of the two I really suspected to be a spy, but for a different reason. More about this in the report of said trip.)

Dach mit zwei Russen Vrmac.JPG

Along the coast of Montenegro, probably the most beautiful coast in Europe, there are dozens of these fortresses, all abandoned by now. They predate World War I, when Austria was still a maritime power and sought to protect its bays, harbors, and ships in the Adriatic. (Ironically, the end of Austria as a naval power began in the bay of Kotor in 1918, but that is another story, yet to be told.)

Because Montenegro is a laid-back, friendly country with responsible people, no one needs to cordon off these bunkers, tunnels, and munitions piles or put up signs yelling “No Trespassing!” at you in a rude voice. In the spirit of man’s emergence from self-imposed nonage, one simply decides for oneself through which entrances and exits to emerge and submerge.

As far as I have seen, these military installations have always been built with meter-thick walls, so they can’t really collapse. Hence, for your next family vacation in Montenegro, you can keep in mind that they are perfectly safe playgrounds for the kids.

Speaking of family holidays: When I lived in Montenegro, my brother and my mother visited me. (Every family is happy when at least one member leaves the capitalism rat race behind and becomes a vagabond, so they can visit me in a different country every year.)

And back then, I happened upon a story that shows how easily the curiosity of tourists can be misinterpreted as espionage. After all, it is quite natural to have an interest in ruins, abandoned airfields and military installations, isn’t it?

In any case, we were driving along the coast when, on Luštica peninsula, I spotted yet another one of those Austrian fortresses. I suggested that we take a look at the ruins and go explore them. My brother was excited, my mother was not. She prefers botanical gardens, coffee shops and bookstores. And at the time, she urgently wanted to be taken to a hospital.

Now, in democracy, two votes are more than one, so we decided that mom would have to wait just a little while, so that my brother could finally explore a Habsburg fortress from all sides and angles. It was raining cats and dogs, so my mom didn’t want to get out of the car. Ever thoughtful, I parked the car so that it was just in front of the cliff, with a perfect view of the stormy sea and the raging thunderstorm. That way, she wouldn’t be bored, I thought. I also left her a book, which anyone would admit is the pinnacle of thoughtfulness.

“We will only be gone for 15 minutes.”

My brother and I explored the fortress, climbed around a bit and took photos. These fortresses are all similar, probably built after the same model, planned far away in Vienna. But this one on Luštica peninsula had something which I hadn’t seen before: a shaft leading down into the depth of the fortress. Very deep down. So deep that we could not see the bottom.

Inside this shaft was a metal ladder. It looked pretty sturdy. Besides, there were two of us, so one could go ahead. If he didn’t make it back, the other one could still call for help. My brother is more tech-savvy than me and even had a flashlight with him.

Because I’m heavier, I was the first one to descend. If the ladder could support me, it would also support him. It’s hard to estimate how deep down it went, but it took a few minutes to reach the bottom. There, I found dead rats and, even more shocking, dead moles.

And then I saw something really disturbing: cables, metal pipes, electric wires, switch boxes. That didn’t look like World War I anymore. Honestly, it didn’t feel right. If I had been alone, I wouldn’t have dared to go any further, but the two of us explored the corridors and hallways, getting lost deeper and deeper in a labyrinth of cables, concrete and rubble.

Because we were deep inside the womb of mother Earth, we forgot about our own mother. We no longer paid any attention to time. That deep into the lithosphere, we didn’t even notice that the storm was turning into a hurricane.

Until we suddenly heard water rushing.

An enormous, thundering, powerful roar of water. As loud as the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi. Or like Iguaçu Falls in Paraná.

“We have to find the ladder and climb back up,” I shouted, over the din of the waters casting their echoes through the dark tunnels.

But my brother was more adventurous: “Let’s go see where the water is coming from.” Maybe he was also more brave because he knows hot to swim. I don’t. Our family is very poor, so they could only afford swimming lessons for one of us.

So we fought our way through the intertwined tunnels, now always following the unmistakable sound of the masses of water. It became more rhythmic, like a waterfall being turned on and off. Or like strong stormy waves slapping against a quay wall.

And suddenly we stepped into a room, no, a hall. The size of a submarine hangar. And that was probably what it was: We had discovered a secret submarine base of the Yugoslav Navy.

From the photos, you can’t even imagine how enormously huge and gigantic everything was. Especially when you’ve just crawled through small, dark tunnels and suddenly find yourself in this cathedral of seafaring. It’s like walking through the narrow streets of Rome and then stepping into the Pantheon.

The best way to get an idea of the dimensions of the submarine base is to remember the type of ships for which it was built:

“The Hunt for Red October” is closely interwoven with family history, because it was the last film that my grandfather and I saw in the cinema together. This was in 1990, at the end of the Cold War and shortly before he drowned. This was the same grandfather who had lived in Yugoslavia for a few years in the 1940s under dubious circumstances. Had he built that submarine port back then? For whom had he spied? Why had my grandfather – in West Germany, mind you – taught me the Cyrillic script? Were we, his grandsons, now to be lured into a trap? Why was no one in this family permitted a peaceful life?

Opa 3.jpg

All these were questions that didn’t even occur to us. The water kept sloshing over the edge of the pool, and we had to be very careful not to be washed away. The concrete was slippery and full of holes, and there was no railing. Of course, we still ventured all the way to the front, where the rain was lashing down, the wind was blowing, and the sea was greedily snapping at us.

And there, further north on the coast, we spotted two ships. We climbed – rather daringly – to the other side of the submarine port. There was a hole in the wire fence. And we pretended not to understand the sign, which – for once – said something against trespassing. But then, who in the world speaks Montenegrin?

As we approached, the two ships didn’t look all that crispy anymore.

We took a run-up, jumped on board and looked around: Ammunition for anti-aircraft guns. The galley log, with entries from spring 2006, the last days before Montenegro’s independence. A radar set that was still emitting radioactivity. A helmet in a pool of blood. What had happened here?

Just as I was posing for a souvenir photo, someone on the shore shouted at us to get the hell off the ship. Whoever it was, he sounded mighty pissed. We obeyed the order, already suspecting that we were in for a teeny bit of trouble.

“Let me do the talking,” I said to my brother as we jumped off the boat. After all, I had been in similar situations before.

It was a soldier who wanted to know how anyone could be so stupid as to walk into a Montenegrin Navy base in broad daylight, climb onto warships and take photos there. All the while, he kept his hand on his gun holster. He looked even angrier than he had sounded.

“We are terribly sorry for the inconvenience, comrade,” I said, using the salutation “druže”, because the soldier looked old enough to appeal to his nostalgic feelings for Yugoslavia. (Lesson #1: As a prisoner, you must try to make your captor like you. That makes it much harder for him to kill you.)

“We went for a walk on the coast because I wanted to show my little brother that here is the most beautiful coast in all of the Adriatic.” (Lesson #2: Compliment the country you’re in. Everyone likes it when foreigners praise their country. – Lesson #3: Show that you have responsibility for others and that this is not a one-on-one situation. Younger siblings, innocent cats or old grannies are perfect for this purpose.)

“We saw the submarine tunnels first and were absolutely amazed. Really fascinating! And then the ships here, it’s all so incredible! We thought this was a naval museum.” (Lesson #4: It’s much better for the captor to think you’re stupid and naïve than dangerous and shrewd.)

The soldier took his hand off the gun.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“From Germany,” I said, glad that we were from a NATO country. Montenegro had joined NATO in 2017, so we were allies. It would be dicier if we were Russians or something. In 2016, there had been a Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro, which went strangely unnoticed by the rest of Europe. Like all the warnings about Russia, even if they come from Russia itself. But that’s another topic.

“Let’s see your passports,” the soldier ordered.

Stupidly, we had left our passports in the car. Despite lesson #3, I did not mention that we also left our mother in the car. I did not want the soldier or his colleagues to question her. Because, as cool and thoughtful as my brother and I were acting, we most certainly had not inherited that trait from our mother. And escalation was the last thing we needed.

The soldier spoke into his radio, which was good. As long as there is communication, no shots are fired.

The soldier’s commander came up with the same idea I had thought of already: One of us would return to the car, get the passports and come back. The other one would stay behind as a hostage. It was clear that I would stay and my younger brother would go.

The photo is from a military exercise, but it was pretty much like that.

So my brother had to walk back through the dangerous tunnels, shafts and the submarine port, all alone, probably explain to our mother why we were gone a bit longer than expected, get our passports and make the whole long arduous journey yet another time. In the rain. And try not getting lost, not falling down some hole and not getting killed.

The soldier guarded me with wary eyes, his hand back on the gun. I looked at the ground with an innocent puppy look, pretending to be insanely worried about my brother.

Soon, a sergeant approached on a speedboat. To my relief, he was younger, friendlier and more relaxed. He immediately suggested that we move to one of the nearby buildings because it was raining. Then he offered me a cigarette. I declined, thanking him, but offered him a cigar. He declined, thanking me. We talked a bit, but more about Montenegro in general, how beautiful and interesting it was (lesson #2), that I was studying history (lesson #1) and that I wanted to show my brother this beautiful country (lesson #3).

This photo is from an exercise, too. But it’s exactly what it was like. Even the same weather.

Because I didn’t want to ask anything about ships or the Navy or other suspicious stuff, we soon ran out of things to talk about. My brother stayed away for quite a long time, and I began to suspect why. The older soldier was getting grumpy, the younger sergeant was getting bored, and I just hoped that they hadn’t sent a patrol to look for our car.

After about 45 minutes or so, my brother returned, running. He wanted to show that he had hurried. We handed the sergeant our passports. He took a notebook out of his pocket, and I saw that it was already full of names, addresses, and passport numbers. Apparently, curious photographers and bloggers enter these premises on a regular basis. I was relieved. It looked like in Montenegro, you didn’t get in trouble until you illegally entered a military base for the second time. A laid-back country, very likable.

“Did you take any photos?”

“Yes,” my brother admitted and showed his cell phone. After all, the soldier had been watching us on the ship. There was no point in lying. Besides, who sets out on this dangerous journey and then doesn’t take any photos?

The sergeant looked at the images and ordered us to delete the ones with the two ships. When he got to the photos of the submarine base, he said: “Oh, you can keep those. The submarine tunnels are no longer a restricted military area, so that’s not a problem.” I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but Montenegro is an extremely nice and friendly country.

“And you, do you also have a cell phone?” he asked me.

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket, and he had to laugh. Which is what happens regularly when people see my phone.

“All right,” he said, “that’s it. If you want, you can stay here for a while, so you don’t have to walk back in the rain.” You may have noticed it already, but I’ll say it again: Montenegro is the friendliest and most amicable country in Europe!

But we preferred to set out immediately, because we still had our dear mom, who had been waiting for a few hours more than the promised 15 minutes. And because our mother is not from Montenegro, but from Germany, she would hardly be as relaxed as Montenegrin sergeants who caught two espionage suspects red-handed.

As soon as we both crawled through the fence, my brother said: “It took me so long, because I copied the photos onto the laptop.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said with a grin, feeling proud of my younger brother. It was particularly smart that he hadn’t deleted the photos on his phone, which would have only made us suspicious. It’s a real joy to work with professionals.

Our mom, on the other hand, was not proud at all. Quite the contrary. She was pissed off. And the more my brother and I were happy about the successful outing, the angrier she got. Maybe it was because the heavy rain had loosened the gravel on the slope and the car had already slid down the cliff a bit. I didn’t really think of it as a problem, because there was still at least half a meter between the car and the sea.

“But I left you a book to pass the time,” I tried to de-escalate the situation.

“Yeah, from that fucking Radoje Domanović, writing about people falling down into a canyon!”

“Oh.” I had given her an anthology of Yugoslavian storytellers to get to know the country and its people.

“And that stupid Ranko Marinković writes about heads being cut off. That didn’t make it any better.”

“Oh.” Next time, I should remember to bring some funny books.

“And can we finally go to the hospital, please?”

Oh dear, I think I had forgotten to explain before why my mother wanted to be taken to the hospital. A few hours earlier, she had broken her foot. I wanted to show them Zalazi, a village in the mountains, very high up. It’s in ruins, completely deserted, but you have a fantastic view over the bay of Kotor from there.

Unfortunately, I had only been there once, with a local hiking group, so that I didn’t have to pay too much attention to the path. Of course we got lost in the alpine territory, had to stumble across the rocks, where my mother fell and got injured so badly that we had to carry her back to the car.

For just one day, I guess all of this was a bit much for her.

Ever since, none of my family have visited me again.

Links:

Posted in Albania, Military, Montenegro, Photography, Travel | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Learning German with Hamlet

I am always impressed when someone manages to learn German. It’s not the easiest of languages – though not the hardest, either – and every 50 kilometers or so, it is pronounced in a completely different way. Even I, as a native German speaker, don’t understand all fellow Germans. Let alone the Swiss.

One curious account of learning German comes from Patrick Leigh Fermor, who as an 18-year old boy walked across all of Europe, from Holland to Istanbul. On foot. Setting out in the winter of 1933/34.

In his (highly recommended) book “A Time of Gifts”, he describes how he picked up the language during the part of the journey that led him through Germany: He bought a German translation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and, knowing the English original by heart, put two and two together, and – swoosh – he was fluent in German. Just like that. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, as Shakespeare would have rhymed.

Not being a genius like the 18-year old hobo who had gotten kicked out of school and was sleeping in barns and ditches, I was always a bit skeptical about this account.

But now, somebody discovered an interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor from 1989, in which he – 55 years later – still remembered passages from the German translation of “Hamlet”. [Watch from minute 10:35.]

Extraordinary. And he also learned Hungarian, Romanian, Romani, Greek and Turkish on the same walk.

The German came in very handy when, during World War II, Patrick Leigh Fermor kidnapped the German commander on Nazi-occupied Crete.

So, you see, kids: If you want to have an exciting life, learn languages!

Posted in Books, Europe, Germany, Language, Travel | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Montenegro, where Laziness is Olympic

Zur deutschen Fassung.

In Yugoslavia, there are certain prejudices about each of the republics, most, if not all of which are now independent countries: Slovenes, they say, are so snobbish that they don’t even consider themselves part of the Balkans. Serbs always see themselves as victims of some global conspiracy, even when they trip over their own shoelaces. Croats are a bit ustasha. Bosnians would never eat burek with cheese. And so on.

But the most persistent prejudices are held about Montenegrins. Allegedly, they are the laziest people in the world.

Having lived in beautiful Montenegro, I can disclose that there is nothing to this prejudice. Absolutely nothing. Quite the contrary. Often, I could observe with my own eyes how the Montenegrin boss personally came to the construction site at 10:30 a.m. and laboriously gave instructions to the Albanian, Macedonian, Bosnian and Ukrainian workers. Sometimes even before going to a café for second breakfast. And he did that up to three or four days a week!

Granted, there are Montenegrins who earn their money practically in their sleep, either renting holiday homes or “working” as translators. And you can get into museums for free, because tearing off the ticket is too much effort. But things like that make the country likable, don’t they?

After all, with more laziness, there would have been fewer Balkan wars. It’s surely no coincidence that the supposedly hard-working Germans are the ones responsible for all world wars so far. And it would be better for the environment if we spent less time toiling and consuming. In a nutshell: With more laziness, the world would be better off, people would be happier, society would be fairer.

But back to Montenegro:

As if to satirize the stereotype, the country holds an annual competition in lying down. Sadly, it hasn’t been adopted by the Olympic Games yet, because the IOC has been unable to sell the TV broadcasting rights. (Although I personally think that a lot of Olympic disciplines are far more boring to watch.)

The competition was held for the 12th time this summer, in the small village of Brezna, far from the nearest town. Ideal conditions for the athletes to relax and focus on their sport without too many distractions.

If lying down made you think of a cozy bed, you need to think again. As the event is also about showing the world how relaxing Montenegrin nature is, the athletes lie under a tree. All of them under the same tree, in a circle of camaraderie. This way, they can lend each other moral support, exchange training and nutrition tips, and arrange to meet for a beer after the Olympics.

This year it was more exciting than ever, I heard from people who were following the event closely. Of the initial nine brave contestants, two remained, and after several days the competition climaxed in a gripping duel. Like Fischer against Spassky. Or Ali against Frazier. Only less brutal, with no fists flying and no pieces being kicked off the board. Here, everything takes place in the head. And in the back muscles.

Because lying down for days on end is not that easy. Try for yourself and see how long you can hold out!

The champion, Žarko Pejanović, limped off the pitch after 60 hours, aching with pain, but proud. He had won 350 euros, a pizza and a seat in parliament (sports committee).

Although one would think that a lying-down champion is a pretty relaxed guy, Mr. Pejanović gets mighty angry when he has to read that people call him “the laziest man in Montenegro”. A mistake committed by the newspaper Dan. With all the pent-up energy of a master relaxer, Mr. Pejanović stormed the editorial offices, beat up the journalists and trashed some desks.

Now, Mr. Pejanović can try to beat his own record of lying down while in prison.

Links:

Posted in Montenegro, Sports | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

King and Peasants discuss the British Monarchy

The following clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is still one of the best contributions in the debate about (not only British) monarchy:

I found the following transcript of the dialogue:

[ARTHUR and PATSY riding. They stop and look. We see a castle in the distance, and before it a PEASANT is working away on his knees trying to dig up the earth with his bare hands and a twig. ARTHUR and PATSY ride up, and stop before the PEASANT]

ARTHUR: Old woman!

DENNIS: Man!

ARTHUR: Man. I’m sorry. Old man, What knight live in that castle over there?

DENNIS: I’m thirty-seven.

ARTHUR: What?

DENNIS: I’m thirty-seven … I’m not old.

ARTHUR: Well – I can’t just say: ‘Hey, Man!’

DENNIS: Well you could say: ‘Dennis’

ARTHUR: I didn’t know you were called Dennis.

DENNIS: You didn’t bother to find out, did you?

ARTHUR: I’ve said I’m sorry about the old woman, but from the behind you looked …

DENNIS: What I object to is that you automatically treat me like an inferior …

ARTHUR: Well … I AM king.

DENNIS: Oh, very nice. King, eh! And how d’you get that? By exploiting the workers! By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the social and economic differences in our society! If there’s EVER going to be any progress …

[An OLD WOMAN appears.]

OLD WOMAN: Dennis! There’s some lovely filth down here … Oh! how d’you do?

ARTHUR: How d’you do, good lady … I am Arthur, King of the Britons … Whose castle is that?

OLD WOMAN: King of the WHO?

ARTHUR: The Britons.

OLD WOMAN: Who are the Britons?

ARTHUR: All of us are … we are all Britons. [DENNIS winks at the OLD WOMAN.] … and I am your king ….

OLD WOMAN: Ooooh! I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective …

DENNIS: You’re fooling yourself. We’re living in a dictatorship, A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes …

OLD WOMAN: There you are, bringing class into it again …

DENNIS: That’s what it’s all about … If only –

ARTHUR: Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?

OLD WOMAN: No one lives there.

ARTHUR: Well, who is your lord?

OLD WOMAN: We don’t have a lord.

ARTHUR: What?

DENNIS: I told you, We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune, we take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

ARTHUR: Yes.

DENNIS: … But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly …

ARTHUR: Yes, I see.

DENNIS: … meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs.

ARTHUR: Be quiet!

DENNIS: … but a two-thirds majority in the case of …

ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet.

OLD WOMAN: Order, eh — who does he think he is?

ARTHUR: I am your king!

OLD WOMAN: Well, I didn’t vote for you.

ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings.

OLD WOMAN: Well, how did you become king, then?

ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held Excalibur aloft from the bosom of the water to signify by Divine Providence … that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur … That is why I am your king!

DENNIS: Listen, strange women lying on their backs in ponds handing out swords … that’s no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

ARTHUR: Be quiet!

DENNIS: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

ARTHUR: Shut up!

DENNIS: I mean, if I went around saying I was an Emperor because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, people would put me away!

ARTHUR: (Grabbing him by the collar) Shut up, will you. Shut up!

DENNIS: Ah! NOW … we see the violence inherent in the system.

ARTHUR: Shut up!

[PEOPLE (i.e. other PEASANTS) are appearing and watching.]

DENNIS: (calling) Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help, help, I’m being repressed!

ARTHUR: (aware that people are now coming out and watching) Bloody peasant! (pushes DENNIS over into mud and prepares to ride off)

DENNIS: Oh, Did you hear that! What a give-away.

ARTHUR: Come on, patsy.

[They ride off.]

DENNIS: (in the background as we PULL OUT) did you see him repressing me, then? That’s what I’ve been on about …

Having lived in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as the country officially calls itself, for two years, I was surprised about the absence of a significant movement to abolish the monarchy. – We celebrate people getting get rid of their dictators all around the world, yet we are unable to overthrow a monarchy.

Posted in History, Politics, UK | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

One Hundred Years Ago, they were looking for the Center of Brazil – September 1922: Brasília

Zur deutschen Fassung.

As you know, I am currently searching for the geographical center of Europe, which, over the next few months, will take me to obscure villages from Ukraine to Sweden, from France to Belarus, from Estonia to Belgium.

“Why would you do that?” some will wonder, until they read about the even more nonsensical alternative ideas.

But such a geographical center can also have practical relevance, as we will learn today, using the example of Brazil. Like Germany, Austria, Mexico, the USA and a number of other countries, Brazil is a federal republic. As in many federal republics, the individual states can’t always see eye to eye with each other. There are always some who believe that they generate all the revenue, while the others are scroungers.

Often, these differences can be traced back to geography. Alaskans aren’t rich because they are ingenious and hard-working, but because there is oil and because they live far away and in sub-zero temperatures, which means that nobody will move there and the revenues get shared among fewer people. Hence the annual check. Or let’s take solar energy: It just can’t work in the USA, because they don’t have as much sun as Germany.

Which explains why so many Americans like to spend their winters in ever-sunny places like Grafenwöhr, Vilseck, Hohenfels, Kaiserslautern or Baumholder.

And then there is the long-lasting impact of history, for which I point you to the episode about Black Wall Street.

In Brazil, there have been and still are major differences between rural regions (where large landowners act like lords of the manor) and cities (where people are aware of their civil rights). Between mining areas (Minas Gerais even has the mines in its name), which dump mercury into the rivers, and coffee states, which need clean water. Between logging states and beach states, the latter ones worried about declining tourism if too much of the rainforest is cut down. Between German-dominated states like Santa Catarina and African-dominated states like Bahia.

We also have these geographic and historical differences between states in Germany and in Austria, but they rarely turn into anything serious. Because sooner or later, somebody looks at the map of the world and realizes that we are teeny-tiny countries. Globally irrelevant. Brazil is 100 times the size of Austria and 24 times the size of Germany.

Brazil is also older. It gained independence from Portugal in 1822 and became an empire. Almost 50 years before the German Reich was founded.

Incidentally, the first emperor was the son of the Portuguese king, who had enjoyed his vacation in Brazil so much that he didn’t want to return to Portugal. The empire lasted for two emperors, Pedro I and Pedro II, until 1889, when a military coup established the republic. (30 years before Germany finally became a republic.) Fortunately, just before the demise of the empire, Crown Princess Isabel had taken advantage of her father’s vacation to act as regent and abolish slavery.

For once, that was something useful done by an heir to the throne. Not some stupid assassination like the Austrian crown prince in Sarajevo. Not to mention the Hohenzollerns, who went on to campaign for the Nazi Party. By the way, about the latter, there will be a fun event at the end of September, where we can finally meet in person. Please show up in large numbers and in good spirits!

But back to Brazil: Because the new republic was a federal republic (“the United States of Brazil” was its official name), there was a dispute about the capital. Until then, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro had been capital cities, each for about 200 years. But of course they were/are also the capitals of their respective states, Rio de Janeiro (now I mean the state of the same name, not the city) and Bahia, respectively.

Not being a fan of huge cities, I haven’t been to Rio de Janeiro. But in Salvador, you can clearly see that it was once the capital. However, you also notice that this era has been over since 1763. Slowly the paint peels off the plaster, little trees are growing on the roofs, and the history is long forgotten. Until this blog brings it back to life.

By the way, just left of the house in the last picture was where I was staying. It was affordable.

Because Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, São Paulo and many other cities were fighting over who would be the capital, they asked the people who should always be consulted in the event of a dispute: the lawyers. In 1891, these experts on everything and anything wrote into the constitution that a new capital should be established on neutral territory that does not belong to any state. A tried and tested solution. This is how, for example, Canberra in Australia or Washington in the USA came into being, which also do not belong to any of the previously existing states.

And where should this new capital be?

Well, of course, right in the middle of the country, in its geographical center.

What the lawyers didn’t know because, unlike me, they were not world-traveling or at least Brazil-traveling lawyers: In the center of Brazil, it looks like this.

Well, if you always hang out in FlorianópolisBlumenau or Pomerode, you can’t even imagine what the rest of the country looks like. And thus, the midpoint-finding commission got to work. A task which was complicated by Brazil changing its shape and size, because it kept attacking its neighbors and gobbling up territory from Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. (The latter is a particularly tragic case, because Bolivia lost not only large parts of its territory, but also the sea.)

Why it’s always the enormously huge countries who believe that they have to own yet more land, I don’t know. Maybe Russia can answer that.

At any rate, Brazilian geographers found an approximate central point, which was, of course, in the middle of the jungle and far away from all cities, people and politicians. There, the new capital, creatively named Brasília, was to be built. For this purpose, a new territory was created that did not belong to any state, but was directly subordinate to the federal government. Like the District of Columbia in the USA or the Australian Capital Territory in Australia. Why the German federal structure, which prides itself on being the most complex one, hasn’t picked up on this idea yet, is beyond me.

When the government asked the military, two men volunteered for the long and arduous battle towards not-yet-existent Brasília.

Jair Bolsonaro, a rather simple minded man, was on fire: “I will burn down this whole fucking forest!”

Cândido Rondon, of indigenous descent, engineer and positivist, was also enthusiastic: “I will use the search for the geographical center to lay telegraph lines, survey the country, discover previously unknown indigenous tribes in the Amazon, tell them about the blessings of the republic, and thus unite the country.”

Fortunately, Rondon got the job.

For 24 years, he traveled through the most remote areas of Brazil, laying 4000 miles of telegraph lines. While he was at it, he extended the lines to Bolivia and Peru. He encountered indigenous communities, for whom he was the first representative of the Brazilian state to come in contact with. Bolsonaro would have shot them all; Rondon set up a gramophone and played the Brazilian national anthem, informing them that they were now citizens of the republic, with equal rights to everyone else. He created a foundation and a national park to protect indigenous peoples and their ecosystem.

In between, he was considered lost in the jungle for a few years, brokered a peace agreement between Colombia and Peru, mapped newly discovered rivers, collected plants and animals for research and saved Theodore Roosevelt’s life. A man straight out of a novel.

The only tragedy was that when Rondon returned from the jungle after 24 years of laying telegraph lines, the radio had been invented. Hardly anyone needed a telegraph anymore.

On 7 September 1922, the centenary of Brazil’s independence, the foundation stone of the new capital Brasília was laid at the point which had been carefully measured and calibrated. More or less.

And then – nothing happened.

The constitutional mandate to build a new capital was simply ignored.

For decades, Brazil was otherwise occupied. Military coup. World Cup. Another coup. Carnival. In between, Brazil defeated the Nazis in World War II. (Many people don’t know that.) Another military coup. Until in 1956 – 34 years after the foundation stone was laid -, construction of the new capital finally began. The plan was bold and modern, but unfortunately the 1950s were the age of the automobile. City planners at that time did not think about people, but about vehicles. So there were eternally long distances between buildings, plenty of parking spaces, but no streetcar. It was not until 2001 that a subway was finally added.

As I said, quite modern. But also artificial and sterile, like the depressing new buildings around Canary Wharf in London. No corner pubs, no spaces for culture, for informal meetings, no retreats in overgrown parks, nothing that touches the soul or the heart.

Even a military coup, like the one in 1964, looks kind of ridiculous there.

Maybe it was just a coup against the bleak architecture?

But I don’t want to judge too harshly. After all, I haven’t been to Brasília myself. If you have been, I am curious about your impressions!

Anyway, Oscar Niemeyer, the architect, said in 2001: “This experiment was not successful.”

That’s okay, ideas fail. But if you fail, it’s still better to fail in style. Like in Salvador.

By the way, if the 34 years from the laying of the foundation stone to the beginning of the actual construction seem long to you: The coup plotters who overthrew the emperor in 1889 and proclaimed a republic recognized that this was not the proper way of doing things and stipulated that, ultimately, the people should vote on the form of government (monarchy or republic). That referendum took place in 1993, a mere 104 years later. The republic won against the monarchy by 7:1.


Another event that will have its centenary this month is the fire of Izmir, the catastrophe of Smyrna.

This would be a good opportunity to rehash the whole Ottoman-Hellenic-Turkish-Greek history. If anyone of you knows their way around this and wants to tell the story, please step forward! As you can see, this series is open to unusual and personal approaches to complex topics. Likewise for October 1922, if someone wants to write about the fascist march on Bolzano or on Rome. Or about the discovery of Tutankhamun in November 1922. After all, I can’t be an expert on everything myself.

Links:

Posted in Brazil, History | Tagged | 1 Comment

One Hundred Years Ago, Sweden almost gave up on Booze – August 1922: Prohibition Referendum

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Before I went to Sweden last summer, I received a lot of well-meaning advice from friends in Germany who had already been to Scandinavia:

“Take enough beer with you, it’s prohibitively expensive in Sweden!”

“As an EU citizen, you’re allowed to bring in 110 liters of beer and 90 liters of wine duty-free.”

“When we go to Scandinavia in the camper, we pour the liquid out of the pickle jars and replace it with alcohol. Okay, the vodka tastes like cucumbers, but so far, the customs inspectors never discovered it.”

“We fill the water tank in the camper with alcohol. After all, there are plenty of lakes to wash yourself in.”

“If you want to get drunk, take the ferry from Stockholm to Tallinn. Once you’re in international waters, you can drink duty-free.”

“Just take pure alcohol with you. You can dilute it and it will last you longer.”

I don’t care much for alcohol and filled the backpack with books instead. Scandinavian studies, Scandinavian history, Harry Martinson, all 10 volumes of the Inspector Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. There wouldn’t even have been room for one shot of Sherry.

Those among you who have not yet killed off all their brain cells with alcohol will be surprised: We already dealt with the role of alcohol in Scandinavia as part of this entertaining history series, didn’t we? That’s right, when I spoke about the Åland Islands. And we’ve already covered Sweden, haven’t we? Indeed, that one was about their attempt to create a better human being.

Today, I combine these two themes into a palatable mixed drink of alcohol and Scandinavian attempts at making the world a better place. We will talk about a referendum held on 27 August 1922, exactly 100 years ago, in which the Swedish people were to decide the fate of alcohol, once and for all.

But first – as happens when writing about history – we have to stagger back a bit along the timeline. The Scandinavians, as you know, are descended from the Vikings, who were drunk as a skunk at all times, whether on land, at sea or in Valhalla.

Even during their feared raids, they were so drunk that the well-known defense lawyer Hedobald Braxen got the Vikings acquitted on grounds of incapacity before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. As a result, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland never had to pay reparations and are now in a pretty solid financial position. Unlike Haiti, which until 1950 was paying off debts for its revolution from 1791-1804 and for that gross injustice has to suffer the insult of constantly being referred to as “the poorest country in the western hemisphere”.

When industrialization took hold in Sweden in the 19th century (Volvo, Saab, Ericsson, Scania, etc.), factory owners found it convenient to pay workers with little money, but with plenty of brandy.

“We would actually prefer money,” a few recalcitrant trade unionists objected.

The factory owner lambasted them for their unpatriotic demands. “Remember, men: You are proud Vikings! They conquered the world for beer, not for some coins.”

The workers hung blue and yellow flags in their gardens and were henceforth very proud of their nation, but remained poor and drunk.

Nowadays, Swedes are very private and reserved, but back then there were still people who liked to stick their noses into other people’s business. No, I don’t mean the Säpo. I mean the temperance movement.

The teetotalers recognized the harmfulness of alcohol and, beginning in the 1830s, went around the country preaching to convince men (we’ll get to women later) to stop drinking, or at least to drink with temperance. Their motivation was partly health-related, partly religious and moralizing, but many of them wanted to create a better society. Which is why many teetotalers were found in the ranks of social democrats, Marxists, socialists, and communists. Because of their social-hygienic ideas, there was also an overlap with the eugenics movement of that time, which, as you already know, was very successful in Sweden.

Moreover, women found the teetotalers quite appealing, because they (and the children) had to suffer the most from their husbands beating them in a drunken stupor. And if the husband wasted half his wages on drinks on the way home from the factory, that wasn’t so good either.

The temperance movement was a mass phenomenon, a huge thing with millions of members, and no government could ignore their demands. Beginning in 1919, alcohol was rationed. Citizens received a ration book in which the alcohol already purchased was noted. Once the monthly limit was reached, you had to wait until the next month. (Or find a friend who didn’t drink and send him to the liquor store.)

Now you probably want to know how much alcohol one was allowed to buy per month?

But it wasn’t that simple.

To get a ration book, you had to present yourself to the local sobriety committee. First, they checked whether you had already been noticed as an alcoholic, whether you had a regular job, whether your children went to school, whether you owed taxes, whether you kept your front yard clean, whether you were volunteering with the fire department, and so on and so forth.

Social status and class were also determining factors. The unemployed, homeless, and low-income people received no ration book at all. People in the countryside received a lower ration than people in urban areas (because people in the city have more social obligations at which alcohol is served). Those who had a profession in which you have to invite clients or customers for a drink (lawyers, notaries, real estate agents, film directors, trade and industry magnates, members of parliament, and probably the king) received a higher ration. Women received only a ration book as long as they were single. For weddings and birthdays, one could file a separate request for an extra ration.

And you know those people who claim that “corporations are people, too”? Well, now you can guess who came up with that idea.

Of course, the ration book could be withdrawn in the event of misconduct. The alcohol licensing authority had more information about its citizens than the Stasi, Securitate or Säpo.

Reading all of this is enough to make you want to stop drinking already, isn’t it?

But the Swedes continued to drink, and the teetotalers did not rest, not even on the seventh day. They did not want people to drink only 2 liters a month. They wanted that nobody never drank nothing no more. Not a single drop! Except maybe a cup of tea.

At the time, the idea of a complete ban on alcohol was not only on Swedish minds. Other countries had implemented it recently. Russia in 1914, Iceland in 1915, Norway in 1916, Finland in 1919, and, most famously, the USA in 1920. When all the neighboring countries and the two superpowers do the same, the idea suddenly doesn’t seem so absurd. After all, no one could have foreseen that Prohibition would lead to the rise of the Mafia in the USA and to revolution in Russia.

But Sweden was a democracy, so they held a referendum. It was a non-binding one, but the temperance campaigners hoped for an unambiguous, high-proof mandate for parliament.

The Yes campaign (for a complete ban) cited the well-known problems of alcohol: Harmful to health, bad for morale, lowering performance, leading to violence in families and elsewhere, health care costs, loss of millions of working hours, loss of self-control, creeping stupidity, traffic accidents, plane crashes, nuclear disasters, all caused by alcohol.

The No campaign (against a complete ban, but not in favor of lifting the restrictive quotas) had a poster that said: “You can’t eat crayfish without alcohol.” (Not a convincing argument for me, who finds all these marine animals disgusting.)

On top of that, the No campaign argued with the general liberty to do as one wants, the danger of a police and informer state, and of being forced to smuggle and distill in secret.

Voter turnout on 27 August 1922 was 55.1%. That may not sound like much, but it was more than in the previous general election.

The result was close and surprising: the opponents of prohibition won with 50.8% against 48.8%. Women, who had only been allowed to vote in Sweden since 1919, had overwhelmingly voted in favor of alcohol prohibition. But 59% of the men who voted against the ban had prevented the female vote from taking alcohol away from men. Thus probably narrowly avoiding an uprising and a civil war.

Sadly, there was no special quota in the ration book for celebrating the outcome of the referendum. Because, although the complete ban on alcohol had been averted, the restrictive alcohol policy remained in place. Rationing and the stamp book were not abolished until 1955.

And to this day, Swedes and visitors to Sweden live with another Scandinavian peculiarity: the state monopoly on alcohol sale. The monopoly has become somewhat spotty due to European Union law, but the general rule is that you can only get alcohol in a restaurant (at exorbitant prices) or in a state-run liquor store (at steep prices).

“Systembolaget” is the name of the state-run stores, which you won’t find on every corner.

Because the idea behind the Swedish model of a free country which is at the same time concerned about the welfare of its citizens is this: If you really want to get drunk, fine, that’s up to you. There are no more quantity restrictions. Likewise, there are no restrictions on alcohol content. You can even buy Stroh rum with 80% alcohol at Systembolaget. (I use this rum to let the raisins soak up alcohol, preferably for several days, before baking Kaiserschmarrn. My Kaiserschmarrn is very popular.)

But first you have to find a Systembolaget. For this, you have to drive up to 20 km, in the far north sometimes 100 km. The idea behind it: You should not get alcohol at the corner shop spontaneously, out of boredom or in a state of despair. If you have to squeeze yourself into a snowsuit, put on snowshoes and trudge 12 kilometers through deep snow before you get a beer, you might think twice and come to the conclusion that a hot chocolate is quite nice, too.

Because there are so few stores, you also have to wait in long lines. Again, the idea is to enable you to change your mind while you’re waiting and to buy chewing gum instead.

You also have to be at least 20 years old, which is strictly controlled. Anyone who makes a tipsy impression will not be served. I once smiled at someone in a Systembolaget and was expelled from the store because it was misunderstood as an indication of intoxication. I had walked 10 km for nothing.

Opening hours are extremely restrictive. On weekdays until 8 pm, on Saturday until 3 pm, and on Sundays and holidays the system is closed altogether. If the family freaks you out over Christmas in such a way that you need an urgent drink, you are lost. Or you have to take the ferry to Tallinn or Travemünde.

The stores are large, bright, well-stocked, with staff giving excellent advice. But there is nothing that would provide undue purchasing incentives: No bulk discounts. No six-packs, because then you might buy more than you actually wanted. Each can or bottle is sold individually. No shopping carts, so as not to buy too much. No chilled drinks, because that might tempt you to quickly finish the drink while it’s still cold. No “special offers” right before the checkout. No marketing consultants who want to create a “customer experience.”

It’s actually quite pleasant to be shopping in a store where no one is out to take as much money from you as possible. Where you are treated as a citizen, not as a customer.

So, what about the prices?

Honestly, I don’t think they’re that bad.

It’s true, alcohol is more expensive in Sweden than in Central, Southern or Eastern Europe. But everywhere in Scandinavia, everything is more expensive than elsewhere. Compared to the exorbitant prices of Swedish trains, I don’t find €2 for a bottle of beer a prohibitive price. In addition, taxes are set according to the alcohol content, but at a fixed rate rather than a percentage. For vodka (40% alcohol), for example, the tax is 20 €/liter. Granted, that’s a lot. But for wine (14% alcohol), the tax is €2.20 per liter. With the cheapest wine, that will make a difference, but if the bottle costs €50 anyway, then the tax hardly matters.

Just have a look at Systembolaget’s website. The prices are of course in Swedish krona, you have to divide them by 10 to get the euro/dollar price.

I really don’t understand the whining of the tourists. Especially not if they have previously bought a motorhome for €60,000 for the trip to Sweden. I think this exaggerated obsession about saving a buck says more about the (mostly German) tourists than about the Swedes.

And: Beer with less than 3.5% alcohol (so-called “folköl”, or people’s beer) can be bought in any supermarket. From the age of 18. Light beer (up to 2.25% alcohol) can even be bought by children.

And now I am curious to hear about your experience with alcohol in Scandinavia!

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Posted in Economics, History, Politics, Sweden | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Journey to the Center of Europe – Kruhlyi, Ukraine

Zur deutschen Fassung.

For the project “Journey to the Center of Europe”, I am going to visit all the places that have ever laid claim to being the geographical center of Europe or the European Union. And write about them.

The first stop was a place far off the beaten path, in a country that many people didn’t know anything about until very recently. Because my first journey took me to Ukraine. I don’t know why, but somehow, the readers of this blog are always keen on me risking my life. Well, if you do need to satisfy your lust for sensationalism, then rather by reading this edutaining blog than by watching a bullfight. Poor animals.


Solotvyno. The first place in Ukraine after walking over a rickety wooden bridge, crossing the river Tisa and with it the Romanian-Ukrainian border.

The bus station is a small container on the main road with an impressive list of buses and departure times hanging on the outside wall. I missed the 8:28 bus to Rakhiv by a few minutes. Doesn’t matter, though, because the next one will leave at 9:10 already. Or so the schedule of departures says.

The station manager, a helpful lady, steps out and informs me that the timetable is no longer valid. The drivers were called to the front, the busses are now serving in the war.

“Nobody knows when they will be back,” she says, and I am not sure if she is talking about the drivers or the buses.

“Or if they will come back at all,” she adds with a sigh. It sounds like her husband is one of the bus drivers.

The day is 15 July 2022. Or, in the calendar currently in use, day 142 of Russia’s attempt to wipe out Ukraine. For a supposed Blitzkrieg, that’s dragging one quite a bit.

There will only be one bus today, at 11:15, the woman says, and she doesn’t blame me for trying to hitchhike instead.

But nobody stops. Some drivers thunder through the town at over 100 km/h, well aware that all the traffic cops have swapped their radar guns for real ones and are patrolling trenches instead of turnpikes.

Finally, a couple stops, but they ask for money. How much, I ask. Between the two of them, they are debating this matter for a while. I don’t understand anything, but I imagine the wife arguing that you can’t just leave a stranger standing by the road like that. The husband, on the other hand, talks of war, inflation, uncertain times. There is a bit of back and forth between the two, until the husband writes a number on a notepad, already covered with so many numbers as if he was in the business of providing coordinates to the artillery: 1500 hryvnia.

Honestly amused by the misjudgment of my financial capacities, I decline. 1500 hryvnia are about 60 euros. For 30 kilometers. (One week later, it will be only 40 euros. Maybe the couple worked at the Ukrainian Central Bank and already knew something about the upcoming devaluation. Or, and this is more likely, it shows that money simply should not be taken so seriously.)

I am disappointed that no one stops. There is a war, after all, and I read and hear so much about people’s readiness to help. I can’t see any of it. And I feel as if some drivers are eyeing me suspiciously. As if there was something absurd about hitchhiking during a war. Perhaps they find it suspicious that a young man, muscular, beaming with fitness, is not in the military. – But then, why they would leave someone standing by the side of the road who just turned 47 last week and couldn’t enlist in the military because he failed the sports test?

Only after three quarters of an hour, the second car stops. Excited, I say “Добридень”. Businesslike, the man says “money”. But because he only asks for 10 euros, and because I have no more reason to be optimistic, I agree.

He asks me for “dokumenti”. I tell him that I am from Germany, which he thinks is so-so, but good enough for the military checkpoint. Maybe that’s why no one else has stopped, because the drivers know that they are looking for spies at the end of the town? But the young soldiers wave us through, barely looking into the car.

A few villages further, the driver picks up two women on the roadside who want to go to Rakhiv. They don’t even talk about the price, which shows that Vasily is known as a fair chauffeur with fixed rates. I am more concerned with his racing driving style, passing other cars in mountainous curves next to steep cliffs, honking wildly, but the women in the backseat don’t seem to mind.

We are traveling along the Tisa. The Ukrainian side of the river is secured with rolls of barbed wire. Why, I am wondering, because I don’t think Romania will launch an attack. But many Ukrainians have already escaped through this shallow, innocuous river to avoid military service. In this area alone, the Romanian border police pick up 5 to 10 men every day. They don’t send them back.

The fishermen whom I spot on the Romanian side are probably happy about the absence of Ukrainian competition. Tonight, there will be war-profiteering trout served everywhere in Maramureș.

The driver and the two women in the back seat find it amusingly curious that someone would make the long journey from Germany to look for the geographical center of Europe in this remote valley in the Carpathians. This is not Paris or Rome or London, after all.

But if my information is correct, the center of Europe is right by the river Tisa. After it has turned north, no longer marking the border. Here, the railroad bridge connects two Ukrainian sides and is patrolled by Ukrainian soldiers.

The railroad from Sighet in Romania to Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, known to older readers as Stanyslaviv, crosses the Yablunytskyj Pass and connects Maramureș with Ruthenia, Bukovina with Galicia.

Tingling names, ringing a distant bell, without knowing exactly what they were, where they were, when they were. Mystical places, like from the “Lord of the Rings”, but it was only the Habsburg Empire. It perished more than a hundred years ago, in a self-instigated blaze that grew into global conflagration. Gone and forgotten, for generations already, one would think. A hundred years is a long time. Except that here, in the far-away valley of the Tisa, nothing is ever forgotten. But more about that later.

There are no trains today. Instead, plenty of cars. Mostly families. Parents take photos of their children. Children take pictures of their parents. A girl forces her boyfriend to take 32 photos of her in unnatural poses. He would like to put an end to his misery by throwing her into the river, if it weren’t for the soldiers watching from the bridge.

It is a beautiful summer day. Lush green. The water in the river is rushing. The highest mountain in Ukraine, Hoverla, is only 25 km away, but the mountains here are so gently curved that, regardless of their height, they look more like hills. Wooden stalls are selling honey, sausages, snow globes and Hutsul costumes. Only one boy sells something useful: Coca Cola and Snickers, in case I have to walk the 30 km back over the mountains.

A light drizzle sets in. The kind of summer rain you don’t even hide from, because you know it will be over soon. Smoke is rising. It is day 142 of the war, of which, by now, nobody believes that it will be over soon. But no shot was fired, no bomb was dropped, no rocket exploded. The smoke is coming from the chimney of the restaurant.

And what is it that draws all these people here?

A stone marker. Built in 1887 and slightly tarnished by time.

At that time, the district of Rakhiv belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After laying the railroad tracks, the Austrian engineers apparently had some bricks, mortar and education in classics to spare and left an inscription in Latin:

Locus Perennis Dilicentissime cum libella librationis quae est in Austria et Hungaria confecta cum mensura gradum meridionalium et parallelorum quam Europeum. MDCCCLXXXVII.

In this Carpathian region, inhabited by the Hutsuls and where Germans and Austrians had been settled as lumberjacks, no one knew Latin, and thus, the marker fell into oblivion.

Although Dilove was actually very much at the center of European history. In the 20th century alone, it belonged to or was occupied by more than a dozen countries: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Federative Socialist Republic of Councils, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Hutsul Republic, the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, Hungary, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia again, Transcarpathian Ukraine, the Soviet Union, Ukraine since 1991.

And now, once again, war.

In this remote valley in the Carpathians, the people who have changed nationality, political system and language several times in the course of their lives probably have a much better idea of what Europe means than those in Paris, Rome or London. Here, they know that borders, nation states and passports are merely random twitches of bureaucracy and form no basis for identity.

Only in the Soviet Union was the Austrian railroad engineers’ memorial marker was remembered again. It happened like this: In 1964 Nikita Tarasov, member of the Geographical Commission of Rakhiv Rayon and as such delegated – on a representative and consultative basis – to the Geographical Commission of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, had to step out for a moment while hiking in the Carpathians. By chance, he stopped right next to this little column, got a flash of inspiration, as often befalls geniuses at the most unprepared moments, and thus put Dilove on the agenda of the 13th Inter-Commissional Meeting of the Academic Commissions of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, where the matter was referred to the Subcommittee on Geodesy of Places of Possible Inter-Rayonal Significance, and in 1986 it was finally decided that this was a most important and unique place that should be decorated with a plaque.

This Soviet plaque is still next to the stone marker. It says something like: “Here, in the opinion of the Geographical Commission of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and with the consent of the competent minister in the honorable Council of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, is a significant point, so unique and unparalleled that it can exist only at this very point.”

It does sound important, but also a bit vague, doesn’t it? The reason was that no one among the geographers was ready to admit any knowledge of Latin, because that would have labeled them as bourgeois. You might as well go straight to the train station and buy a ticket to Kolyma for yourself.

But it didn’t matter, because in 1986 came Perestroika (good), Chernobyl (bad), the return of Andrei Sakharov (good), the sinking of the cruise ship “Admiral Nakhimov” (bad) and no one worried about the marker anymore.

Until 1991, when Ukraine suddenly became independent again. Ukraine regards itself as part of Europe. Quite rightly so. After all, that’s what the Maidan Revolution in 2014 was about. But I don’t want to digress too far. Especially because whenever I visit said Maidan Nezalezhnosti, I am harassed by some stupid birds.

Like half of Europe, Ukraine struggles with the problem that Western Europeans believe that Europe ends at the Oder-Neisse line or maybe in Prague. (Hardly anyone knows that Vienna, Athens and even Görlitz lie further east than Prague.) In order to geodetically underpin its EU membership application, Ukraine henceforth claimed, with reference to the Austrian surveyors of 1887, not only to belong to Europe, but to be the very center of our continent. A banner joyfully proclaims the country’s status as a candidate for EU membership, attained a few weeks ago.

By the way, in many reports and documents you can find the information that the center of Europe is in Dilove. Maybe because that’s the closest bus stop. But from there, it is another 3 km to the exact spot, which is much closer to the hamlet of Kruhlyi.

All the authors who write about Dilove probably never went there, instead copying from each other. Only on this blog do you always receive original, first-hand, fact-checked, thoroughly researched facts. Guaranteed!

And here, you also get the truth about the Latin inscription. It means something like:

This is a permanent location recorded for eternity, determined with European precision by a special measuring instrument manufactured in Austria-Hungary and using the system of latitude and longitude. 1887.

One could almost think that the engineers dispatched to Transcarpathia were pulling a joke with the important-sounding but meaningless text.

I would love to go back with one of the horse-drawn carts. That’s still missing on my hitchhiking bingo card. But they are all galloping in the wrong direction, to Rakhiv, the capital of the district, the Paris of the Hutsuls, the gateway to the Carpathians, the center of the biosphere reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the right direction, dozens of cars and day-trippers are going, but they make sure to ignore me. Maybe it’s because of the way I look. With a white shirt, beige pants, short hair and freshly shaved, I look like a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. And no driver wants to spend an hour being lectured about Jesus. Especially not when his country is being bombed in the name of Christianity.

Or it could be something else.

Because when, after half an hour, a man in an old Zhiguli stops, he first asks for my documents. When I say that I am from Germany, I am allowed to get in. He too mentions the army checkpoints. Here in the border region, no one really wants to give a ride to a Ukrainian man trying to avoid military service by jumping into the raging floods of the Tisa.

In Dilove, the driver has to stop briefly to get some bread. He leaves me sitting in the car and the key in the ignition. You can recognize the really good people by the fact that they can’t even imagine that somebody would do anything bad. He doesn’t want any money either. In Velykyi Bychkiv (Gross-Botschko in German) he drops me off directly at the bus station. Here, too, the same situation as in the morning: The timetable has been reduced dramatically, the next bus to Solotvyno, 10 km away, will come in two hours.

But maybe the bus station information people and I have always been talking past each other, because later I learn that the people in this region – just as some people still convert everything into pounds, shillings and pennies – do not set their clocks to Kiev, but to Vienna. So they use the Central European time zone instead of the Eastern European time zone, which means a difference of one hour. Or would mean a difference of one hour, if it weren’t more complicated. Because when Transcarpathia became part of the Soviet Union in 1945, the time difference between Vienna and Moscow was two hours. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, and the time difference between Dilove and Kiev was only one hour, many people kept the two-hour time difference to the capital. Out of habit. So, in effect, they were living according to the time zone of London or Lisbon, imagining themselves in good old Vienna. I bet many of them also had a picture of the last Austrian emperor hidden in their house.

Timekeeping is further complicated by summer and winter time, which begins or ends on different days in different districts or is not implemented at all in some districts. In addition, depending on the religion, the Julian, Gregorian, Old Rite, Autocephalous Orthodox or Reformed calendars are used to determine the beginning of spring or fall and thus the time the clock changes.

Trains use the time zone of the destination instead of the local station. So, if from the same station at the same time, one train leaves for Budapest, one for Bucharest and another one for Moscow, one leaves at 1 pm, the other at 2 pm and the third at 3 pm. Although they depart at the same time. Got it? But the local people will give the time in Carpathian time, that is Kiev minus one hour, or, for older people, Kiev minus two hours. On the other hand, if they are talking to a foreigner, they will use Vienna time, naturally. Except young people, they just look at their cell phones and have no idea what time zones are.

In Solotvyno, I had wondered why people were at the station hours before the train left. But now I understand. When there’s only one train a day, you don’t want to run the risk of miscalculating.

Multilingual people also use different times depending on the language they are talking in. And, in case I haven’t mentioned it yet: Multilingualism is quite normal in this region. People here spoke and still speak Ukrainian, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Czech, Ruthenian, Romani, Polish, Old Church Slavonic and, as I tested for you, a little bit of English. One more reason why I think that the search for the heart and essence of Europe rightfully leads you to the Carpathians.

And in case you are wondering whether I made this up – an almost indecent question in view of my research: No! There are even scientific studies about the Transcarpathian time zone. The graph shows the percentage of the population still using the Habsburg time in 2016, the photo shows the opening hours of a pizzeria in Ukraine according to Vienna and Kiev time zones.

This back-and-forth calculation between different time zones must be easy for people who grew up speaking three or four languages. I certainly can’t get my head around it.

I rather walk to the end of town and try to hitchhike. Again, dozens of cars pass by, and I’m starting to get angry. What good are the patriotic flags on the car, if nobody stops? What good are the crosses on the rearview mirror, when you let your fellow man wither by the road in the midday heat? And at some point, I think about the fact that Ukrainians can use the trains for free in the European Union. I’m not a refugee, I am here voluntarily, I don’t want to equate unequal things. But it would be nice to get a bit of solidarity in return.

The increasingly gloomy thoughts are interrupted by a young man in a van, who also first asks which passport I have with me. When I say that I am from Germany, his face brightens. His whole family has found refuge in Germany, he is the only one who has remained in Ukraine.

“Ukraine is not a good place to raise children right now,” he says, and I appreciate the understatement with which he describes the war. He is a kind man. Underneath the current sadness, you can still recognize the pre-war personality. I hope it won’t get buried irrevocably.

Although he is driving something important to be taken somewhere urgently, he makes a detour to drive me to the border in Solotvyno. To the “kordon”, as he says in Ukrainian, reminding me that one hundred years ago, here was to be the “cordon sanitaire” between Western Europe and the Soviet Union.

After crossing the border, a woman on a bicycle catches up with me. She had been behind me, queuing for the Romanian checkpoint.

“Excuse me, sir,” she asks, “may I ask what kind of passport you have?”

“A German one,” I reply.

She thanks me for the information and explains the question: “We were all wondering why you were the only one who didn’t have to open your bag.”

That’s how it works. If you ever need a smuggler, use a neatly dressed middle-aged man, preferably with a German passport. Guys like that never get checked. And now I have to find a buyer for the plutonium I brought across the border….

For people who are checked here every day by Frontex when they just want to visit their parents in the next village or go shopping, for whom these newfangled nation-state borders cut through their beautiful Carpathian land or their Bukovina, for people who can communicate fluently on both sides, this discrimination is particularly degrading.

On the other hand, when dealing with Frontex, you already have to be thankful that they don’t throw you over the bridge into the river.

The red color on the railing and on the bridge marks the border. On one side Ukraine, on the other Romania. On one side war, on the other peace. On one side conscription and combat, on the other college and cinema.

A red line, drawn as arbitrarily as the point near Dilove, cutting the continent, families and lives in half.


So, this was the first episode of the project “Journey to the Center of Europe”.

I suspect that I will also find cause for historical and current reflections on Europe at the next mid-points, as insignificant as they may seem at first.

Have a look at the map and the list of all the places to be visited. If you live near one of these points, I would be happy to meet you! And the esteemed supporters of this blog will receive a postcard. (Unfortunately, I didn’t find any postcards in Ukraine, so you will receive one from somewhere else soon.)

Do you want a posctard?

Actually, you would be surprised how hard it has become to find postcards in some places. But for you, dear reader, I’ll walk the extra miles!

€10.00

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