We had left London 6 days earlier, arriving in Ljubljana early evening of the second day, having spent the first night staying with friends in southern Germany. Ljubljana was a beautifully preserved city with more obvious art nouveau architecture than in any other European city I had seen. In the morning, we wandered through the eery, cold dampness of practically deserted streets and happened upon a market. Here, coated, hatted, scarved and booted, women were selling mushrooms and fungi, and cabbages, exclusively of the hard, white variety, whole or shredded. Apart from this array of diverse fungi, edible and medicinal, and the hills of stacked cabbage or polythene sacks of shredded, nothing else was on offer. It was impossible not to imagine that this annual trade had a similar antiquity to that of the Turkish carpet weavers.
As we proceeded through the former Yugoslavia, it became clearer that this was a nation in which inflation had gone mad. The thousands of dinar that we handed over for a loaf of bread or a bottle of brandy amounted to pennies for us. We had been down and out in Stuttgart, but our status as rich Westerners rose the further east we travelled during these latter days of the USSR. The Mercedes became a symbol of our ostentatious wealth to wide-eyed, country dwellers, though the left-hand drive, twelve-year old car had cost only a few hundred pounds in London.
Having done some dollar deal with the guardians of our car, we marched along to the 'Intourist' office in order to be allocated rooms somewhere for the night. En route we couldn't help but notice that the cars parked in the street had no windscreen wipers. We later discovered by way of a German-speaking taxi driver that they had been removed by their owners to avoid their inevitable theft.
I can still hear the high-pitched, nasal English of the Intourist girl with the beehive hair as she issued our documents for the hotel and coupons for dinner and breakfast; it was eerily affective and reminded me of Marla, the Venusian 'Space Patrol' puppet. However, the exotic parking lot, the missing windscreen wipers and Marla's accent were only the prequel to an increasingly bizarre evening involving a space pod cafe, the hottest spot in town according to the taxi driver we commissioned for our outing, and a waiter wearing a black waistcoat, bow-tie and a white shirt which appeared not to have been washed for several weeks. Here, amidst potted plants and piped Beatles covers, sat on 60s formica chairs, we sipped vodka cocktails and looked out over the dimly lit town with not a little bemusement at our present fate. However many dollars we exchanged for 'lev', the local currency, I cannot recall, but it was practically impossible to spend them. There may have been some underground happening going on somewhere but we weren't going to find it.
The next morning we were given directions to a restaurant where we could exchange our coupons and queue alongside many other workers of various kinds for warm goulash and beer. Plastic, pint pots of beer were arranged around a pump like cups of tea in an English cafeteria. We sat with our food, a clear soup with floating, fatty mutton lumps, and tried to look willing. It was like one of those school dinners at which 'Miss' sits at the end and you have to pretend to eat the grey mush, but there is a limit as to what your knife and fork will physically cover when it is time to pass your plate.
A walk in the central street was hard to comprehend. There was a quiet grandeur about the mostly baroque buildings and we had grown accustomed to the lack of traffic, but where were the neon signs, the logos, the paraphernalia of consumer life? Then we looked more closely within the buildings we were walking by. There were large windows, which should have been a clue; however, all that was on display was a pitiful assembly of disparate objects. A toy shop, I recall, had a large proscenium arch of a window but contained only selection of wooden building blocks as centre stage with some rag dolls stages left and right. This seemed at once comic and poignant. The most powerful feeling, however, which emerged slowly and surely, was centred around our own expectation of what we assumed a city should look like; of how we had become conditioned to a kind of abundance which wasn't in existence here. The contrast was stark and profound.
We found a hotel, somewhere near the Blue Mosque, washed up and prepared ourselves for a blow-out. An hour later we stepped down to the foyer with no particular plan, only to meet the very same two guys from Izmir who were taking delivery of the car. How? What? The questions were somehow framed and lost as we poured into a taxi and headed to a fish restaurant with dancing. Neither Ahmed nor Murat spoke English and we had little or no Turkish. Fortunately, Murat had lived in Germany and spoke some of the language. This was not the first, nor the last, time my low-grade A-level German came in useful. He explained that the Berlin Wall was coming down that very day. This was very exciting and significant for us, and cause for celebration. After the spectacle of the gyrating abdomen of the impossibly supple dancer, we hit the floor and were instructed how to dance Turkish-style. When we sat down again and drank more wine, I recalled a word from school: Lebensgefühl. Our German-speaking Turkish friend translated for Ahmed, and we all drank a toast to 'Lebensgefühl'. It seemed very meaningful at the time.
It's difficult to comment, without portfolio, on the whole matter of the disintegration of the former USSR. 'The Wall' had been not only a physical barrier, separating and impounding, it had been a symbolic one as well. There was, and remains, ambiguity in terms of gains and losses, but the initial exuberance was founded in the fact that the people had emerged from under an overarching politics. This would not have happened in the way it did without preparatory, political activity, but the enduring idea is one of liberation; not just a liberation from an oppressive regime, but a liberation, both physically and symbolically, by the people, from a political structure. There is a paradox here, clearly, which the idea of democracy has somehow always to exceed.