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House-hunting in Belgrade


Yugoslavia's unspoilt charm
John Julius Norwich Writer
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But I did love Belgrade. I learned the language very, very quickly because it's so like Russian and I got fluent in it, and, indeed, I acted as an interpreter from time to time, once with Field Marshall Montgomery, no less. And the drawback was that we had nowhere... for the first six months we had nowhere to live. There was a terrible housing shortage in Belgrade. I hadn't succeeded anyone, so there was – I was an additional – so there was no house I could just move into from my predecessor. And we didn't even go house-hunting. There were no houses to look at. We were stuck in extremely small rooms, well, Yugoslavia's, Belgrade's best hotel, but in the 1950s Belgrade's best hotel wasn't up to much, and forced to have every meal in the dining room, which took an hour-and-a-half before they even asked you what you wanted, you know. And, having to go out to dinner every night, nearly always in a black tie, and having one wardrobe the size of a sentry box in this one little room to share. Uncertain bath water, I mean, you can imagine. It was a pretty good hell and my poor, darling wife must have wondered what she'd let herself in for.

But, as a result of this, and because they pitied us so much, we had a long-wheel-based Land Rover, which I'd brought out, which was a very sensible thing to have on Yugoslav roads, fitted with an extra petrol tank because there were no filling stations. And because of this, I was able to go touring and they sent... the ambassador, Frank Roberts, who was a wonderful man, just sent me on as many tours around the country as he possibly could. So, those first six months, I think, we rode over, drove over almost every road in the whole country, you know, and it was wonderful in those days, because it was very, very primitive. I mean, some of the hotels were absolutely unspeakable, but that's too bad, but it was so picturesque. I mean, the peasants were nearly all wearing national costumes still, you know, and it was gloriously unspoiled. We had a four-wheel drive. We still, from time to time, got completely stuck in the mud while trying to ford, you know, rivers that had turned out to be slightly deeper than we thought they were. Three or four times we were pulled out by horses and carts.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Yugoslavia, Belgrade

Duration: 2 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018