Gordana tells me: “Bridget, you can make some money in Czechoslovakia by selling cocoa, chocolate powder. They don’t have nice chocolate over there. People want to buy the Yugoslavian kind.”
They do? I decide to risk it, following up on my experience of cross-border smuggling with Isobel into Bratislava. I buy a kilo and wrap it up in small portions.
Skills of a Serbian housewife
In her kitchen, Silvy’s mother is mixing something in a big bowl. I watch carefully. She drops several eggs into a pile of white flour and, using her hands, she kneads the ingredients together until she has a big, yellowish ball of dough. This she cuts into three sections. Two of the portions will be meat-free, partly for my benefit.
Using a long, wooden rolling pin, she rolls out one portion until it is paper thin. Then she cuts the dough into long, thin strips and then into shorter pieces. She drops the strips into a pan of boiling water, and when they are cooked, she drains them and adds freshly beaten eggs. It becomes a delicious panful of noodles with scrambled eggs. I never knew until this moment that country women make pasta in this way. For me, noodles, in the same way as macaroni and spaghetti, are something we buy hard and dry in a packet, then boil until soft.
Next, she rolls out another of the portions. This is to be cooked with a mixture made from crushed black poppy seeds mixed into a paste with sugar.
The third portion is mixed with chopped ham from their own home-produced meat.
This food is so simple and delicious. I have never tasted anything better.
I am impressed by her in other ways. When she breaks the eggs into a bowl, she uses her finger to squeeze out every speck of the white. At home, when we break eggs in the normal fashion, we let the inside drop into a bowl, and then dispose of the shell. There is always a little egg-white left in the shell, but we pay no attention to that. Silvy’s mother, however, has known hunger. She wouldn’t let one drop of egg white be wasted. She rotates her finger inside the shell, scraping out every speck.
Then, after washing the dishes in warm water, she throws the water out onto the earthen yard outside. The hens know the routine, and when they see the bowl coming, they rush over and get every single scrap of edible food from the washing-up water. Not a soggy crumb, not a fatty scrap, is wasted. And because washing-up liquid is not yet in use, the water is unpolluted. My diary records my ponderings. How would I like to be a Serbian woman with a little house in a village-town, animals I could take to market, living close to the land? My diary:
I like the life of the country people in Vojvodina. Their work is the business of living, preparing food, seeing to the garden, building and incessantly repairing and improvising round the house. They are largely their own masters with regard to time. Pleasure is in rest, enjoyment in each other’s company, or nowadays an hour in the evening by the television. I wonder if a self-sufficient life could satisfy me, doing nothing but working for the basic needs of life. Maybe I’d get to like it. I have much admiration for these people, but I’m a spoilt, independent Western girl and not much like them.
On Thursday the 30th of March, I am on my way:
Silvy came with me to Horgoš, a little town near the Hungarian border. I turned and waved for a last time as I walked to the barriers with my load of stuff. The sun was shining, and I was impatient to get inside the real Hungarian frontier. I spoke my last few words of Serbo-Croat to the frontier guard.
Perhaps I’ll never need to speak Serbo-Croat again. I am leaving Subotica, Belgrade, Serbia, Yugoslavia and all the friends I’ve made. There are pangs, a real kind of pain. I walk on into Hungary, along the road to new adventures. And there are heavy packs of chocolate powder in my bag.
Extracted from Bridget Ashton’s new book, Cold War, Warm Hearts. Buy it to find if her chocolate-smuggling scam pays off.