Wednesday 24 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 8 - Tito Was Watching
1968: the year of street fighting from Paris to Berlin to Prague. While parts of the world were high on optimism and rebellion and other parts just high, I was getting married. In Zagreb. Married to Renata and, as it turned out, to her relatives, her country, her culture and the entire Balkans.
Instead of a train journey in the company of Turkish workers, kebabis and raki, I drove the one thousand miles from London in my minivan. Alastair Hatchett, a student friend, travelled with me. He was going to be best man. His girlfriend, Diana, and two other friends would meet us there.
My parents were flying in from London. The only concession to ’68 was the sticker on the back window, FATE L’AMORE, NON LA GUERRA. I had bought a batch of them earlier that year from the radical Milan publisher, Feltrinelli.
The night before arriving in Zagreb, Alastair and I bought a bottle of plum brandy on the outskirts of Ljubljana. Camped beside the road, we drank it all. I was getting married the next day and I was past the point of no return. When I woke up the next morning, I had to throw away my pillow.
On August 20th, 1968, Renata and I were standing in a long queue outside the Trešnjevka Registry Office. Nada and Renata’s aunt, Mirijana, handed out rosemary buttonholes as we entered the building.
Because we had to have an official translator, our wedding took longer than the others. As we declared our vows, I couldn’t help looking into the cold white eyes of Marshal Tito whose life-sized marble bust stood behind the Registrar. His stare seemed to be asking me if I was doing the right thing with the right person in the right place.
Behind us there were a lot of angry about-to-be-weds. As we left, some of the brides looked like they were about to throw their wedding bouquets at us, and not because of the tradition of whoever caught it would be the one to get married next.
Renata’s parents treated us to a limousine while the 30 guests walked the two kilometres along the busy Slavonska Avenija to their tiny flat. Ivo and Nada made the journey on Ivo’s Lambretta scooter, Nada hanging onto her hat.
The reception was crowded. Nada had one sister, but Ivo was one of 15 brothers and two sisters. To feed everyone there were four suckling pigs, chicken, and hams served with roast potatoes and cabbage. For an hors d’oeuvre, Nada had prepared smoked beef on rye bread. To finish the meal, there was chocolate ice cream scraped out of a freezer bag which had sat in the middle of the bath since early morning. For drinks there was beer, Slavonian white wine, Dalmatian red and plum brandy.
An American uncle had brought two bottles of Jack Daniels.
There wasn’t enough space for 30 people so we had to use the living and the bedroom. Ivo and I pushed the double bed against the window and set up a second table that had been borrowed from a neighbour. Family sat around the table in the living room and the other guests were in the bedroom.
I worried what my parents would think about it all, but they seemed fond of Renata. My mother was made to feel like a queen and my father was plied with drink. He put his fluent German to good use, helped along by the brandy. When he got up to speak he managed, ‘I was drunk when I arrived in Zagreb and I’ll be drunk when I leave.’
Ivo and his band set up in the hallway and there was just enough room for two couples to dance, or rather turn, in the centre of the living room. The extra table, now empty of food, had been taken into the front garden ready to be returned to the neighbours.
The last guests left at 2am. Ivo and Nada offered us their bed, but we didn’t get much sleep and it wasn’t for the reason you think. The new Czech president, Alexander Dubcek, had been trying to shake off the country’s Soviet masters and the Russians were about to invade Prague.
The Yugoslav army were moving north on the dual carriageway to the border, only metres away from our window. Military vehicles had started rumbling past when the party was still on but, by the time we went to bed, there was an endless convoy of tanks and artillery. It was audibly ominous and we were scared. We joked about whether our marriage was going to last long.