BACKSTAGE ABROAD

We’re Luckier Than We Deserve

BLAIR FRASER July 15 1951
BACKSTAGE ABROAD

We’re Luckier Than We Deserve

BLAIR FRASER July 15 1951

We’re Luckier Than We Deserve

BACKSTAGE ABROAD

BLAIR FRASER

Maclean’s Ottawa Editor

IN BELGRADE the United States Embassy was bitterly annoyed with Mike Handler of the New York Times. Handler is an able sympathetic reporter who thinks Yugoslavia a useful military ally, worthy of help. However, he did point out in a recent article that Tito’s Yugoslavia is a Communist state, and that Tito is asking the United States and Britain to underwrite the deficit of a Communist five-year plan.

This, of course, is the simple truth, but it infuriated State Department officers in Belgrade. They are endorsing Tito’s request for one hundred and fifty million dollars in outright grants. They think Congress might balk at “underwriting the deficit of a Communist five-year plan”—they want to sugar it somehow. Therefore Mike Handler is a nasty, traitorous, reactionary type who should be suppressed. It’s against the public interest to call Yugoslavia a Communist state.

In Belgrade we all thought this was pretty funny, but I didn’t realize quite how funny it was until I got to London. I needed an American transit visa to return to Canada as I planned—by Scandinavian Airlines system via New York. So I took my passport over to Grosvenor Square for a visa, a process that normally takes about an hour.

In my case, they told me apologetically, it would take from four to six weeks.

Why? Because I had been to Yugoslavia. By recent and very strict order of the State Department no U. S. mission abroad could issue

a visa to anyone whose passport showed a visit to an Iron-Curtain country.

But Yugoslavia isn’t an Iron-Curtain country.

Yes, we know. The State Department’s instructions are that Yugoslavia be counted as an Iron-Curtain country. No visa could be issued until the application had been sent to Washington, cleared there, and returned to London.

At the request of Canada House they cabled Washington to see if an exception could be made in this case. Washington’s answer came back next day: “No exceptions.” So I flew home by TCA to Montreal.

Very unofficially an American official said, “I hope you write a story about this. We think it’s as silly as you do, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

IT DIDN’T seem funny at the time.

It seemed a bitter and unexpected climax to a series of little incidents, all showing how far even the “free world” has fallen away from freedom, all showing how deplorably human beings have come to be afraid of each other.

In Yugoslavia, of course, the mail is censored, so I didn’t want to mail any dispatches from Belgrade. I thought I’d get my Yugoslav piece (see page 10) off from Athens, where I had an overnight stop.

In Athens the first sign I noticed in the airline office said: “Passengers are forbidden to carry letter mail, by order of the Ministry of Internal Security.”

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In other words it’s a crime to evade the censorship. So I didn’t mail anything from Greece.

Israel was the next overnight stop —a free country at last, I thought. But the airport in Lydda had a sign that was even more depressing: “Passengers intending to leave Israel are reminded that all hooks, letters, documents and other written material must be submitted to the Censor Bureau three days before departure. Any written matter which does not bear the censor’s stamp may be confiscated.” So I didn’t send anything from Israel.

In Iran, where I expected all the machinery of a police state, they told me there was no censorship of the mail. With a sigh of relief I dropped the Yugoslavia article into a mailbox.

Maybe it was just incompetence and not censorship, but that was the last anyone ever saw of it. Two weeks later the article still hadn’t arrived. I wrote it over again from the original notes.

* * *

This experience was just one of the reasons why I felt so glad to be back in Canada. After a trip like this you feel humble; we haven’t done anything to deserve our good fortune, living in this country.

On the night I got to Belgrade it took me nearly two hours to get into a very small, very dim, very uncomfortable room. The mattress seemed to be filled with corncobs; the hot tap was the only one that worked, and though the water produced was stone cold it had been run through a rusty heating system and was unfit to drink. I was assured that this was the only room available (next day 1 learned how lucky I was to get it). As a last straw I found I had forgotten my soapleft it behind in Copenhagen.

I went down to the hotel desk, feeling pretty morose, to ask for a cake of soap. The desk clerk, a rather grimy soul, looked at me with a certain dignity: “You’re an American?”

“Canadian,” I said.

“You can probably get a cake from the Canadian Legation tomorrow,” he said. “As for us, we can’t buy it.”

I went back upstairs feeling thoroughly ashamed of myself. After all, I was only going to be in Yugoslavia ten days or so. Why should anybody make a fuss who was able to get out?

Compared with Yugoslavia and Iran, of course, the Scandinavian countries and Britain seemed like the Garden of Eden. They’re free, for one thing—and you have to visit a captive country to understand what a blessing freedom is. Their governments are honest and competent. Their people have hope, spirit, pride. They have a great deal - including some things that Canada hasn’t got.

But even from the good countries you’re glad to come back home. Life is so difficult there. So many things are scarce, so much has to be rationed and regulated, so much has to he given in effort for so little in material reward. To the returning traveler all Canada’s problems appear simple, her difficulties trivial. We are luckier than any of us deserve to be.

One thing that brings a recurrent blush to any Canadian cheek, though, is the European command of languages. We are supposed to be a bilingual country, but I had no occasion to be proud of my stumbling French. Almost everywhere I met people who spoke English; most of those who didn’t spoke far better French than I.

On a ski lift just outside Oslo (where

the skiing was still excellent in May) I shared a T-bar with a Norwegian schoolboy. We happened to ride together twice running; on the second trip he spoke pretty good English.

He said his name was Sven Erik Christiansen; he was fourteen, and half way through high school. He had never been outside Norway, not even to Sweden or Denmark, and had no instruction in English except what he got in school. Yet he was able to keep up his end of a conversation.

In Belgrade I went out on an inspection trip with one of the CARE officials, a man who had lived in Frankfurt and spoke perfect German. His driver had no English, but he could talk to his employer in German and to me in French.

“My father had my brother taught German and English, and me taught German and French,” thé driver explained. “But now I am learning English at home; I hope in a few more weeks to know three thousand words.”

One thing that’s discouraging, as you go eastward, is the way you leave behind you even the faintest touch of familiarity with the language. In any Scandinavian or German-speaking country, for example, you can at least make out the words. It’s no trouble, therefore, to read street signs and things like that.

In Yugoslavia and Greece you bid farewell to Roman letters; the words on the signs cease to have any significance at all, even phonetic. But at least you can still read the numbers. In the Middle East you lose even that frail link with the familiar world. After a few days in Iran you come to recognize an inverted heart as the figure 5, a long-tailed comma as the figure 2, and so on, but you never seem to learn any more than the few numerals that appear on paper money. Makes it quite a chore to find a strange address.

Taxi drivers are no help, either. Most of them speak no language but Persian, and read no language at all.

If you set out, as most foreigners must, with your destination written out for you in Roman and Persian script, you first give the driver your own pronunciation of the address. He looks blank. Then you show him the card written in Persian script. He still looks blank, but this time he nods and throws the car into gear. You go hurtling along, weaving your way in and out of traffic (Iranian drivers are the craziest in the world) for several miles.

Finally you get worried. You stop the car, point to the address, manage to convey the question, “Do you know where you are going?”

The driver takes the address card, gets out and shows it to three or four people on the sidewalk. Terrific colloquy ensues, none of which you can understand. The driver jumps into the car, makes a U-turn which narrowly mhses collision with a bus, a donkey cart and a couple of cyclists, and goes hurtling off with equal speed in the opposite direction.

After a couple of tries like this he gets you there—or, sometimes, dumps you at the wrong address and leaves you to go through the same routine with another driver. Each will charge you the full mileage rate, no matter how far out of your way he has taken you. This does appalling things to an expense account, ir