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Subotica - Former Yugoslavia


Subotica - Yugoslavia

Subotica in the old Yugoslavia

The train from Budapest to Yugoslavia was long, quiet and gray. It was comfortable, especially because I was the only one in the wagon. A sleeper with 2 bunks, bottom ones were folded in the ‘seat’ positions, so that I was sitting comfortable amongst my exploded backpack. All my belongings were pitched everywhere so that I could get to my bag of Dutch licorice (which I swore I packed on top only days before). It was on top, in the little zip compartment, but I didn’t realize it until everything had come out.

On the map that I had, published in Hungary, a small town showed itself to be in Hungary, on the border with Yugoslavia, and it was called Subotica. The train had slowed down; soldiers were walking up and down the train. It was customs police. Us foreigners have difficulty distinguishing such detail; they are men in big boots, big uniforms, semi automatic rifles and many with mustaches. None speak English.

After I bundled my stuff together the men landed upon my private cabin. I had to fill in forms and give them my Hungarian money. I protested and said I was not leaving Hungary, and I showed them on the map that I was staying in Subotica, which was clearly marked on the map to be on the Hungarian side of the border. I had to show them repeatedly and assure them I needed my forints there, and I was not leaving the country yet!

It was dinnertime, the men were tired and hungry, and I had little trouble in convincing them not to take my Hungarian forints. It is illegal to take the forints out of the country. Like many ‘soft’ currencies, they are not for sale, or to be sold, outside of their country. They are not even allowed to be taken out or into the country of origin. This is standard regulation East Bloc procedure, I was aware of that. The usual trouble going to Poland, the old USSR, Hungary… Make sure you arrive when the bank is open, or else you will have no money! Only Marlboro cigarettes, chewing gum and Western T-shirts as currencies!

And so it was that I landed on the station in Subotica. Subotica, Yugoslavia. Not Subotica, Hungary as I had expected. The map was wrong…. Not sure what the history is there, but the fact was the banks were closed, and forints were not accepted. I was not in Hungary, I was in Yugoslavia, and I was hungry!

Fortunately the street and the town looked rather cheery. Cheery compared to the East bloc countries I had just come out of, but dreary to most Westerners. The local hotel was full of people talking and smiling, it was Friday night. This cheery attitude made me feel I was back in the West. Although President Tito had made Yugoslavia a lot more western, it was still part of the Warsaw Pact, and was technically communistic, a Russian ally and not all that free and easy compared to more cheery places, like lets say Amsterdam, mmm, yeah, Amsterdam….

In my best german I asked the barman to accept my Forints for tonight and go to the bank the following day. I didn’t even know that banks there did not open on Saturday either! german was more widely spoken there then english. My serbian was non-existent. I probably never even knew at that time that they were speaking serbian, it was Yugoslavian to me! Forints were regarded as toilet paper. Subotica was not Hungary, it was a proud university town of Yugoslavia and it’s currency, the Dinar, was a hard currency!

A local came to my rescue. His German was better. He was a student in Subotica; he took me under his wing. Drago was his name and he took me to his friends and gave me lots of brandy to drink. It was my first ever night on Brandy, and I paid for it. Not in forints, not in dinars, but in vomit. I have never liked Brandy after that experience.

The man took me home, as I had nowhere else to go for the weekend without money! It was a nice apartment, a student apartment where he shared with his brother and another man. I was young, 18, and looked even younger. These men were in their mid to late twenties, but all had heavy stubbles and hairy chests. Chests that were about double my size. They looked after me, and Drago treated me to a plate full of intestines. Tribe was their national dish, and it was ordered with a great fanfare. I couldn’t touch the stuff, I am not too squeamish about my food, but that plate full of cow’s intestines was not going through my mouth!


I apologized profusely, and Drago ordered me some other national dish. After a couple of nights there and Monday morning came I went to the bank with my traveler cheques.

Changed money, recorded it on my piece of paper which I carry separate from the traveler cheques for security. Paid Drago back for everything I owed him. I noted that I had missed writing down one cheque, or maybe one cheque was missing. At home I looked at my collection of traveler cheques. They were all different denominations, sizes, shapes and colors. Some were US dollars, some UK pounds, some Australian dollars, and some German Marks. I had American Express and Thomas Cook Traveler cheques. It all looked pretty impressive.

I had made a list at home on which I had written the numbers of all the cheques, and signed them off as I used them. And this list showed me one was missing. On closer examination I discovered that approximately one of each type was missing. They were the smaller amounts, but one Thomas Cook of each currency, and one American Express of each currency was missing.

Being a scatter brain at the best of times, wouldn’t notice it for weeks if someone swapped my yellow toothbrush for a pink one, I started thinking… I do loose things often; I stopped calling it ‘loosing’ a long time ago. I don’t loose things, I temporarily misplace them. Things do come back. This happens not just in a house, not even within a backpack, but even in the confines of a bathroom kit. Mmmm, no comb… And a week later I find it right there in the same bathroom kit. I even stopped questioning my brain about these events.

But come to think of it, I had this mouth freshener spray, and those nail clippers, I had that underarm deodorant and I could suddenly think of lots of little items that were almost inconsequential, that were missing. So I sat down and thought about when, where and what. Who was in the house when I wasn’t there, who was with me when things were unattended…. And it came out that Drago’s older brother was often at home when I was out with the others.

Being all of 5 foot 9 I summonsed Drago’s brother to my court. When no one else was around I called him over and asked him where my traveler cheques were. He denied it vehemently. Then I asked him about the smaller items missing from my backpack.

Eventually the poor man broke down and cried. Here was a man twice my size, with a full beard, crying in front of me, apologizing and telling me he was so fascinated by some of these things and souvenired some thinking that I wouldn’t notice, or that it wouldn’t matter… Out came a few traveler cheques and a few toiletries. I had to insist, and show them the numbers on my piece of paper, to impress upon him that I knew exactly what he had. They all came back. I didn’t make an issue of some minor bits and pieces missing such as the breath freshener, because I may have temporarily ‘lost’ them myself…. But the traveler cheques came back.

Doing this with practically no language in common was not easy. It did put a damper on things, and the man told me his brother would kill him if I told him, or if he found out. I had to leave, that was obvious. It was an interesting weekend. Drago asked me to stay longer, till that museum on the corner opened on Wednesday… but I took the train on Monday. Time for my next adventure. Belgrade was on the map, the big smoke!

I have not forgotten Subotica; I have not forgotten the tribe or the brandy, or Drago’s brother. But you know what, I have forgotten Drago’s name…. But Drago sounded good, so Drago shall be his name for today!

And as for the country Yugoslavia as it was known in the past, it was a unique country thanks to President Tito. Tito developed economic and cultural relations with the West, but refused to align his country with NATO. The post Yugoslav economic developments were followed with great interest by experts in the Soviet bloc, and there is no doubt that some Yugoslav economic reforms influenced the thinking of economists in other East European states.

In 1948 Tito allowed Yugoslav workers to work in the West, mostly in West Germany. They lived frugally, saved money, sent it back home, and/or returned to invest it in family farms or private business. These funds provided an important source of foreign currency and investment. The European recession of the 1970s limited the number of Yugoslav (as well as other "guest workers") working in Germany, which was a hard blow to the Yugoslav economy.

When Tito died in 1980, he left a struggling economy and explosive nationality problems, notably Albanian demands for greater autonomy in the Kosovo region. There was resentment against Serbian domination in Croatia and Slovenia, the two most prosperous republics of Yugoslavia.

The rest is (more) history…

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