Lake Bled, Slovenia, August 2009
In the morning, Jani waved off us on what he insisted on calling our ‘boating adventure’. At the lakeside, a man who looked as if he’d completed a triathlon before breakfast took our money and pointed at a mahogany-brown dinghy. We had an hour. I slotted the oars into the rowlocks and dipped them into the water. My first attempt at a hefty pull moved us an inch. The triathlete put our money in his pocket. Out on the lake, other families deftly steered his boats through the lanes marked out for the Slovenian rowing team’s training sessions for the 2012 London Olympics. Another hefty pull got us away from the pontoon at least. A few more and we began to pick up speed, heading for open water where the only danger came from the gondoliers punting groups of tourists across the lake. Someone shouted from the ramparts of the fairy-tale castle, but I couldn’t make out what they said. Others called out from the rowing boats, the gondolas, the lido. Disjointed phrases skimmed across the surface of the water like dragonflies or pebbles. The mountains rose up against the sky like opera scenery. For a moment, it felt as if we were crossing Europe’s duck pond, cradled by alps, surrounded by tracts of territory which, as they stretched out in every direction, became Italy and Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia. Further on again, those same tracts turned into France and Germany, Poland, Romania, Bosnia and Albania. Elsewhere, ferries crossed from Spain to Morocco, boats sailed across the Black Sea to Georgia and the Crimea, and, from Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Express left for Beijing and Vladivostok. When I inadvertently steered us into the boating equivalent of a snarl-up, and bows and oars clunked against each other, embarrassed apologies were exchanged in four different languages.
At the island church, I shipped oars and we drifted beneath overhanging branches, pale green leaves reflected in the almost still water. Sam dropped his hat and I manoeuvred the boat so that we could rescue it. Sam thought this was so extraordinary that he rang his sister on his mobile phone. Lydia’s voice intermitted as the signal came and went. She asked to be handed over to her mum. Sarra talked her through how to wash a load of woollens. The signal died before I got a chance to speak.
On the opposite side of the lake, I recognised what looked like a pair of insect eyes or concrete goggles: Tito’s villa amongst the trees. It had been one of the communist Yugoslav leader’s favourite haunts, and in 1946 he’d twice entertained his momentary ally, Enver Hoxha, in what the Albanian leader regarded as a grotesquely decadent lakeside palace. The second visit had proved particularly awkward. Calling in on his way to the Paris Peace Conference, where decisions about the division of post-war Europe taken at Potsdam and Yalta would be ratified, Hoxha had only brought one decent suit with him. According to his memoirs, he feared that Tito’s villa would be swarming with raven-haired Yugoslav beauties dressed in sexually alluring satin dresses. Hoxha’s worst fear, in fact, was that Tito would force him to take part in a photo shoot in which he would have to pose, draped with voluptuous young women, just like a bourgeois movie star. Not only would this be a propaganda disaster for the ascetic Stalinist, it might also leave his carefully chosen lounge suit smeared with lipstick and smelling of hairspray.
As it turned out, he was right to be anxious. His suit was in danger, but not from Tito’s ‘assistants’. Having lost his favourite hunting dog during the Patriotic War against the Nazis, the Yugoslav had acquired a replacement, and the shaggy-haired mutt enjoyed free rein at the presidential residence in Bled. It also suffered from appalling flatulence and let out ‘a great fart’ with such regularity that Tito had to instruct General Todorović, an ex-partisan who would eventually fall foul of the dictator’s mood-swings, to ‘kick the damn thing out’. Hoxha heaved a sigh of relief and thought that he might now get his chance to discuss the future of communist Europe. Tito wasn’t interested, however. Just as Jani had done with us, he insisted that the Albanian take a boat trip on the lake. To Hoxha’s horror, the dog came too, plunging into the water and swimming behind Tito’s launch with all its might. While the Yugoslav ignored the Albanian’s ever more specific questions about his policy towards the USSR, the dog paddled through the lake, leaving an explosive trail of bubbles. Eventually, it tired and dangled pathetically in the wake of the boat. Tito took pity on his pet, ordered the captain to slam the launch into reverse and whistled. The dog leapt up over the gunwale and vigorously shook itself. The Yugoslav bellowed with laughter, but the Albanian was appalled: his only suit was ruined.
‘Because in fact we did not discuss any weighty problems,’ Hoxha later wrote, ‘I remember almost nothing.’
Copyright Tom Phillips 2013