Mad dogs and Swiss Cyclists

25. Juni 2016 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Benighted Englishmen these days vote for Brexit. The left-over mad dogs go out in the mid-day sun, accompanied by two Swiss cyclists who brave the 35 (plus) degree heat in the plains of the Serbian northeast. 
To me it felt like an extended injury time (just imagine, the referee adds two days to the game rather than 2 minutes). Two days ago we spent an evening rich with conservation, slivovitz and rosé wine at Maja and Dusan´s place in Novi Sad, a retired academic couple who had had to leave Yugoslavia in the 1990s because of the war – or rather because they didn´t want their older son to fight against fellow countrymen as a drafted member of the Yugoslavian People´s Army. 

The family of four found a new home in Brisbane, from where I know Maja. She and her faculty at Griffith University invited me as a visiting scholar to teach a course and attend some classes back in 2008. We hadn´t met again since, some emails having gone down the drain of a digital black hole. But under the spreading walnut tree, we re-established a heartfelt contact quickly, due also to Dusan´s dry humour and calm demeanour. They are a truly Vojvodianian family with 4 languages among them: Hungarian, Serbian, German and English. Their younger son is now installed in Budapest as a tennis coach, the other is a teacher in Brisbane but due to follow his wife on a post-doctoral scholarship to Britain. A close family, but geographically dispersed. 

Understandably, Dusan deplored having had to sell the little house in a quiet back street in the midst of Novi Sad – they couldn´t resist the offer made by the neighbouring enterprise, a thriving fertility clinic. The couple emigrated in their fifties, and although they like nearly everything about Australia and its lifestyle, home is where the roots are, in one of the truly multilingual niches in pre-war „Mitteleuropa“, tinted by Austrio-Hungarian charm and a faint nostalgia which we just picked up again in Zrenjanin and in Timisoara. Of course, you will need a fine sense of perception to notice these things amid the businessmen in their bulging white shirts, the hot pants of the joyful teenage girls and the decrepit factory buildings which don´t stand the slightest chance of ever being up and running again.

The next day, Reto and I inspected the city beach on the Danube, which Dusan had called the best river strand in the world. Indeed, the atmosphere was very relaxed, with children playing and pretty women turning their best sides towards the sun. The bridge that crosses the wide river at this point is new. We saw a memorial gallery of photos of the bridges that had been destroyed by „bomb attacks“ (perpetrators not named) in 1999. This is not so long ago, and even if the beauty of the beach may be slightly exaggerated by the proud locals, it´s certainly far better than concrete blocks and pylons sticking their sides out of the water.


Another interesting encounter was 30 km before our end point of Timisoara; in front of a small shop we got to talking (in German and French) to a Roma family. The young mother of two had worked in a Munich kitchen for five years and wanted to go to Austria now. She asked whether this was the same country as Germany. It turned out that she owed some money to a doctor or hospital and was afraid they would not let her in. I calmed her down, there were two different governments, I said  without too much conviction as you never know if their databases communicate with each other. 

This was already in Romania, but before that, in the last town before the border, we had been addressed by a friendly youngster named Stjepan, who was proud, under a shady canopy of trees, to point to his father´s farm with crops of cherries, peaches and other fruit coming up for harvesting. He poured us juice and told us in passable English that he helped his father, the manager, around the farm in the summer, and that the property of 120 hectares had been put up for sale by the Serbian government to pay back debt. A German businessman had bought it as an investment, but looked after it well. Most of the produce goes to Russia for good prices. I remembered having come across the cherry harvest in northern Greece three years ago, with all the fruit going to Germany in trucks. I had wondered then how it was possible in this heat to pick the cherries and prevent them from rotting before they got to their destination.

A look into the nightsky in Zrenjanin


I myself was practically rotten on this last stretch of our final lap, and I swore never to go cycling in such heat again. The 126 km ride probably took away as many minutes from my life as smoking three packets of cigarettes would have. But then, smokers have said similar things, knowing full well the price of their addiction. 

A candle for the happy finishers?

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