By Johna Till Johnson
“Where did these come from?” I held the tattered leather shoes up to my mother. They had curved toes vaguely reminiscent of Scandinavia, but also of Native cultures. Were they Sami, perhaps? After all, we had lived in Norway for a few years…
The answer surprised me: “Oh, I got those in Sarajevo. When I went there in…let’s see… that would have been… the summer of 1953.”
My mother had spent the early 1950s (her mid-to-late 20s) teaching in Germany and traveling through Europe.
I’d known that, but I’d somehow forgotten, or possibly never known, that she’d paid a visit to the then-country of Yugoslavia.
As she tells the story, her visit was in direct opposition to U.S. government orders. The iron curtain was beginning to fall over Eastern Europe, and the newly created “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”, along with the other Eastern European countries, had initially aligned themselves with the Stalin-era Soviet Union.
By 1947 (just five years before my mother’s visit), that had changed: Yugoslavia, under Tito’s control, had opted to break from the Soviet Union and was accepting a limited amount of American aid. However, Tito remained a vocal critic of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and the American government was concerned about the stability of the uneasy peace in the region, sandwiched as it was between Western Europe and the Soviet Union.
So the U.S. issued a warning that Americans were not to travel there. Undeterred, my mother nevertheless obtained a visa. With just a backpack and a change of clothes, she hopped on the train from Venice, where she had been visiting her future husband (my father), a naval officer whose destroyer had docked there briefly.
As it does today, the train wound around the northern Adriatic coastline before plunging inland to Sarajevo. My mother had colleagues in Sarajevo from the Experiment in International Living. So she was able to stay in a youth hostel there. And she was confident in her ability to navigate a foreign country, government warnings or no.
So when she arrived in Sarajevo, she immediately went out to explore.
“What made you want to buy the shoes?” I asked, expecting to hear that she wanted a souvenir of her adventures.
“Oh, I liked them and needed a pair of shoes,” she replied cheerfully.
She wore them? Sure enough, when I inspected them closely I could see the soles were well worn. I slipped my feet inside and discovered they fit me almost perfectly. And they were surprisingly comfortable.
“And you know what the Yugoslavian college students told me about the curved toes?” she asked me mischievously.
Apparently toilets in Yugoslavia at that time were often… primitive. (Think hole-in-the-ground.) So the curved toes were useful to..ahem…hang on to while squatting.
That was the story, anyway. Not that my mother ever had need of them for that purpose, she hastened to clarify.
But she did wear them as she traipsed happily around Sarajevo… until the evening she was comparing visas with the Experiment in International Living team.
“Let me see that, ” demanded one of the students, who could read Serbo-Croatian. “How long did you say you were staying in Sarajevo?”
“I have another week here,” she replied.
Except apparently she didn’t—the visa expired the very next day. And you didn’t fool around with expired visas in Eastern European countries, at least not at that point in history.
So that was the end of my mother’s Yugoslavian adventure… but she brought the shoes home, for me to discover 64 years later.