Driving through postwar Yugoslavia was nearly impossible, but a young poet and his new wife struggled through the desolate landscape to Athens
By Donald Hall
March 1, 2013
In December of 1952 my first wife, Kirby, and I left Vienna to drive through the Russian sector of Austria into Yugoslavia. At the border crossing, on a two-lane macadam road with no other car in sight, we stopped to present documents that permitted us to enter Marshal Tito’s country. Walking back to our car afterward, we met a man heading in the opposite direction, toward Austria. He had emerged from a big black car, and he looked important, like a diplomat or a capo. Seeing the initials of national origin on our small Morris convertible, he addressed us in English. I held in my hand our confusing travel directions. We asked the man if Zagreb was straight ahead.
He shrugged, and told us, “There is only one road in Yugoslavia.”
It was not long after our wedding. When I finished my initial year at Oxford, I flew home to marry Kirby, who had been my girlfriend in college. We had met on a blind date. When my college roommate asked his fiancée to fix me up, she asked, “How tall is he?” Kirby was pretty, intelligent, classy, and six foot one. I was only an inch taller, and found her height exotic. We had a good time together, sophomore and senior, and dated again … and again … and again. One thing led to another. That year I spent in England, we missed each other. We wrote letters back and forth, and by mail arranged to get married.
From London I flew to New York, 17 hours on a Lockheed Constellation with its triple tail. Our reunion was happy and frantic with preparation. After the September ceremony we had no time for a honeymoon, but took immediate passage to Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth. As a wedding present, my grandfather Hall had ordered us an English automobile, a tiny green Morris Minor that we were to pick up in London, and after Oxford ship back to the United States. From the dealer’s, we headed out into heavy traffic. Driving on the left-hand side of the road for the first time was terrifying. Kirby stiffened beside me, while I concentrated hard to keep us on track until we reached Oxford and the Banbury Road flat we had rented.
College terms were eight weeks long, followed by six weeks off. I spent the autumn taking notes for my B. Litt. thesis at the Bodleian, in Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest and coldest section. Kirby had the day alone, and spent much of her time reading Trollope or exploring our neighborhood of small shops—apothecary, fishmonger, butcher. In the evening we attended Oxford’s continuous party. For Kirby these gatherings were composed of strangers who did not notice her. When I had time at the flat, I worked over poems. I did little to relieve her loneliness.
By the end of term I had done my research and figured to begin my thesis when Oxford started again in January. What would we do for our six weeks of vacation? Another American gave us the answer: we should motor across Europe and down Yugoslavia to Greece, to Athens and the ruins of the ancient world. It was a simple drive, we were told, and the weather would be agreeable. We would take the honeymoon we had missed.
So in mid-December we departed Oxford for a Channel port, leaving after supper to catch an overnight ferry. Shortly we encountered the dense gray-flannel air of a London fog. I drove 10 miles an hour with my left wheels in the barely visible gutter. (Traffic, sensibly, was light.) At every crossroad the gutter disappeared, and Kirby left her seat to walk a foot in front of the Morris, cautiously scanning left and right for headlights, as I crept forward behind her. Shakily, we drove the car onto the ferry, slept across the Channel, and descended into France at dawn.
It was comfortable to drive on the right side of the road again, as we scooted by the stately poplars, past cafés where workers parked bicycles to sip the first cognac of the day. We entered Germany to spend one night on our way to Vienna. It was only seven years after the war, and the innkeeper was in his 30s, thick-necked and brawny. I could hardly look at him. Vienna was still a four-power city, and we found our hotel in the American sector. The first morning, we visited the Soviet embassy for the documents required to exit Austria through the Russian zone to Yugoslavia. We bided our time while the people’s bureaucracy bided its time. Vienna was restful. I worked on poems. It was the moment of the Orson Welles film The Third Man, and at every café Kirby and I heard its theme played on a zither. We tried to dance. I stepped on her foot.
Kirby had turned 21 the month before, and I was 24. It was the era of early marriages, often brief ones. We had told our parents about our excursion, in letters they would receive only after our departure. We were children trying adulthood out, and we did not want to deal with their anxieties. After a week of Vienna, we received our papers, gassed up, and left the city through the bleak Soviet zone. The bridges were guarded by uniformed teenagers armed with tommy guns. I have no memory of our drive from Vienna to the Yugoslavian border—though we must have stopped to fill up with gas or to eat—only of arriving at the border and meeting the man who directed us to Zagreb.
We drove in the early December darkness into a crowded city, and registered with Intourist, a government bureau that required travelers to report their movements. A mustached official directed us to a hotel. Dinner throughout Yugoslavia was fried unidentifiable meat (maybe mutton), accompanied by fried corn and fried peas. When we woke to a cold morning, we put on the heavy sweaters that Kirby had packed. We set off for Belgrade, traveling from Croatia to Serbia without knowing it. In 1952 the murderous ethnic divisions that would lead to slaughter and the fracture of the country already existed. We knew only that the nation was created by Versailles largely and arbitrarily out of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Yugoslavia during the Second World War, I remembered, two armies of anti-Nazi partisans fought each other as much as they did the Germans, one force led by Mihailović and the other by Tito. After the war, after Yalta, Yugoslavia belonged to the Soviet bloc, and Tito led the Federal People’s Republic.
The road was two-laned, the landscape dour, as gray as the skies. Belgrade was sophisticated, dense with promenaders, and large enough to confuse a driver. We had no idea where we were, and it was difficult to ask directions because of our defective Serbo-Croatian. (A second language in Yugoslavia was German, in which we were equally helpless.) Desperate, I parked the Morris and spoke English words and French at random among the walkers. Finally I found a Yugoslav who spoke French as badly as I did—Kirby’s was better, but she stayed in the car—and we talked in sign language, with an occasional tout droit or à gauche. We eventually got to Intourist and our hotel, which was comfortable enough, with huge bolsters on the bed. In the morning we checked out of our hotel with a clerk who had English. We told him we were driving onward to Niš, pronounced Neesh, and his face collapsed. “From Belgrade to Kragujevac there are second-class roads,” he told us. “From Kragujevac on”—he paused a foreboding pause—“there are third-class roads!”
We filled up with gas—gas was benzine (ben-zeen-uh)—then drove to Kragujevac over a hilly landscape, icy patches on the road but no snow. We bought more benzine, and headed toward Niš. Our route became a grassy track winding among obstacles. We struggled forward through shallow streams. Sometimes we saw nothing like a road ahead, but glimpsed two ruts that emerged from a lumpy valley. Each of us employed our worry beads: Kirby bit her fingernails; I exercised my habit of circling my left thumb with my little finger. We remained excited by our adventure—and by being wholly alone for the first time. Once, as we chugged through a field of mud, our Morris sank to its hubcaps and would not move. Five men working with shovels came to our aid, lifted the car—we slogged beside them—and carried it to firm ground.
We climbed hills, shifting down, then braked as we descended. As we passed through one challenge after another, we caught glimpses across the way of an unfinished sturdy superhighway running parallel to our rutted path. Concrete pylons stood elevated on each side of a river, no bridges yet constructed. We saw in the distance mountains green with fir. One cliff resembled a profile, a chinless Old Man of the Mountain. Mostly we ignored the landscape because our passage consumed us. All day, as we bounced and teetered in the direction of Niš, we drove without encountering a vehicle, not a car, truck, or bus. When we passed through a village, dense with small houses, we were greeted like an army relieving a siege, everyone cheering as we steered carefully through. Kirby and I waved at boys with bicycles who accompanied us until we left town for the wilderness ahead.
We exclaimed at crucial moments of our journey, but otherwise I don’t remember that we talked a great deal, and we never quarreled. It was as if we were not yet married. Between our college dating and our wedding, there had been a year of separation, with our only contact by mail. Kirby was younger than her years, not in intelligence but in experience. In the ’50s girls were rarely six foot one, and Kirby’s height separated her from her classmates at Miss Fine’s School and at Radcliffe. She was shy, with crushes but without boyfriends. I had the usual girlfriends, but our greatest difference was my single-minded literary obsession. I required a wife who remained passive in the face of my determination.
When we passed through increasing clusters of buildings, we realized that we were approaching Niš. Intourist directed us a few miles to our hotel in Niška Banja, a prewar spa, baths or waters surrounded by lavish hotels without signs of habitation. Our hotel was pink, and through late afternoon’s darkness we glimpsed a lake. A man checked us in at the desk, and the same man served us a fried dinner in the empty restaurant, then at breakfast brought mush and coffee before we started out. Traversing some flat country, we headed in the direction of Skopje, the present-day Macedonian capital. Our track bumped us through parched fields and muddy ones. A pedestrian stuck out her thumb and turned into a hitchhiker. She talked all the way to her village, as friendly as she was unintelligible. She wore five skirts, Kirby counted, and while we were driving she extracted a small pouch from somewhere and handed us strange, delicious cookies. Kirby said later that she detected chicken fat and honey, and added that she had never encountered a peasant before. “Maybe she’s a commissar,” I said. We drove through postwar Europe as privileged offspring of the American Century, 1945–1963, RIP. We did not speculate about how Yugoslavs lived. They might as well have been unfinished concrete highways.
The journey from Niška Banja to Skopje—as on the day before—never revealed another car. We saw no gas stations either, but someone had told us about a military dump, halfway between the cities, where we could find gas. We were cheered again, as we reached a village center. I stopped the car, got out, shouted, “Benzine! Benzine! ” and children pointed to a pitted track. Bicycles led the way. Out of town a mile or so, we came to a fenced-in compound thick with rusty barrels, odds and ends of metal, and one or two collapsed trucks. It did not look military. A middle-aged man opened the gates and motioned us to enter. While Kirby stood and stretched her great height, I unscrewed the cap of the gas tank. The caretaker nodded happily, as if excited to have visitors. Together with a bicycle boy, he rolled a barrel to the car, fitted a funnel into our gas tank, heaved the barrel up, and poured in benzine. I screwed the cap back on and pulled dinars from my pocket. Perhaps the price was 1,700 dinars; I have no idea. He scratched a figure in the dust on the trunk of the Morris. I handed him, say, two 1,000-dinar notes. He nodded no and pointed at the figure. I gestured for him to accept the difference. He thought I didn’t get it. He wrote “2000” over “1700,” drew a line, and wrote “300.” I had no words to tell him that I didn’t carry the right change, so I pointed at his inscribed “300” and gestured that it was a tip. He looked agitated, he looked pleased. Kirby and I drove back through the village escorted by bicycles.
At Skopje’s Intourist we heard familiar questions. Where had we driven from? I said we came from Belgrade through Niš. The face in front of us looked stricken. “But that is impassable!” the man said. An omnibus, he told us, had failed to make the journey two weeks before. “It is impassable!”
“We know,” I said. “We know.”
When we approached the Greek border we found ourselves driving on an identifiable two-lane dirt road, with bridges across rivers. Our relief was massive. Friendly, dilatory officers at the border brought us cups of strong coffee as they filled out forms. We talked without language, and proceeded into Greece. The road became lavish with pavement and gas stations. We had arrived at the Marshall Plan. Many houses were painted blue, their walls still pocked with bullet holes. (The Red Army had recently retreated north into Albania.) The day was warm, and we took the convertible’s top down. Halfway to Salonika we stopped to buy lunch from a street vendor. Sign language provided us a loaf of rugged bread and a wedge of sharp white cheese.
We approached Athens from the north in early twilight, climbing a hill. When we reached its peak, we were dazzled to look down and see the Acropolis struck by one beam of the setting sun, as if posing for a picture. Kirby stood up in our open Morris—she was as tall as an Ionic column—and took a Kodachrome. We drove to our destination, a bed-and-breakfast, from which we set out each morning to perform our pilgrimages. We explored the Parthenon, the surrounding Acropolis, and the agora below. Archaeological pits stood open in winter, and Kirby picked up a loom-weight, a small terra-cotta cone with a hole through the top. We visited Tiryns, Mycenae—and drove to Delphi on a day when there was only one other visitor. Was it Christmas Day? We stayed overnight near the oracle’s habitat.
In Greece every moment brimmed with the excitement of ruins and history. I learned from Kirby’s eye for architecture and sculpture, but our joy in the ancient world was dogged by one shadow. Maybe this time our route back through Yugoslavia would be truly impassable. Would Kirby and I take the wrong track, and spend Oxford’s winter term starving on the margin of a fourth-class road? Then we heard at the American Express office of an amazingly cheap alternative that took only half a day. In Piraeus, Athens’s port city, we had the Morris hoisted onto a boat and crossed the Adriatic to Brindisi, at the heel of Italy’s boot. Early in 1953, we replaced Yugoslavia’s one road with Ravenna’s mosaics, and continued north through Italy, at first with the convertible’s top down. We stopped a few days in Paris, visiting with George Plimpton and other Paris Review companions. We crossed the Channel in clear air to Banbury Road. As spring approached, Kirby found an English friend with whom she drank cups of tea and walked beside the Isis. At Oxford’s BYOB parties we perfected our story of driving a Morris Minor through Yugoslavia.
The marriage lasted 15 years, ending in 1967. Divorce was miserable, as it always is, and we divorce for the same reasons we marry. I grew up in a comfortable 1920s suburb of six-room houses. Kirby’s family raised sugar cane on a plantation in Jamaica. Our tastes in daily life diverged as much as our backgrounds. My literary ambition did not fit well with Kirby’s reserve. These differences, at first exotic, turned noxious and destructive. Years later I remarried, and in 1975, with my second wife, Jane Kenyon, moved to my old family farm in New Hampshire. Jane died there 20 years later. Kirby never remarried. After her own psychoanalysis, she became a psychotherapist, highly regarded in Ann Arbor, where we had lived together when I taught at the University of Michigan. She became independent, active, and political. We kept in touch until our two children grew up. Kirby left Michigan in 1991 and settled in New Hampshire, to be near our son and daughter (who had come east for college and for work) and our grandchildren. Although we lived not far apart, over a dozen years we never saw each other. When a child or a grandchild had a birthday, there were two parties.
Then Kirby became sick, and sicker—misery for children and grandchildren, melancholy and regret for me. Yet to my surprise and gratitude, her illness brought us together again, and it was a comfort to sit beside her and reminisce. We talked about a journey from Oxford to Athens. But there are no happy endings, because if things are happy, they have not ended. Kirby died of cancer in 2008, when she was 76. I survive at 84, writing, and oddly cheerful although disabled and largely alone. There is only one road.
Donald Hall was poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of more than 50 works of poetry, prose, and drama. His many awards include the National Medal of Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, and the 1990 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America.