I used to have a friend from Serbia called Svetlana. She had been a doctor in Belgrade and married to a shady accountant. After 15 years they moved at his insistence to London for a better life but Svetlana could not practice as a doctor because she had to resit the medical exams and she could not speak English!

Then disaster struck and she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Her husband left her flat. Just walked out. ‘Just like that’ as Tommy Cooper would say!  Abandoned, she had to turn to the British social services to help support her until she found a suitable job for her high medical qualifications and house her.  Also she had to learn English in the city that she had adopted as her new Home. That was 20 odd years ago but every month she received ‘conscience’ money from her ex husband even though divorced she had no idea where he was residing or even if he had remarried.  She was always stressed because it was the money she needed to support her travels and she never knew when it might stop. A cheque would arrive in the post monthly from an unknown source to bump up her small salary from the job she loved as part of a research team at the well established hospital.

Svetlana taught me to how to say ‘How are you’ in her language and the reply ‘Good’ or ‘So so!. But we never went to ‘Her country’. She never referred to Serbia, it was always proudly said, “My country!” without ever mentioning the word Serbia! She would confide in me about her hateful materialistic sister-in-law, Irina, who dominated her only weak brother and eventually forced him to write a breaking off letter after Svetlana refused to give them their father’s flat she had inherited. Her idea was perhaps to rent it out and then in her dotage buy a little flat my the sea for her twilight years.

Svetlana loved her father dearly and would fly from London to be his side after her dear mother died when she could afford it. Over the years her father, a simple gentle man who was a postman, would constantly give into the demands of his daughter-in-law. She became his bread and butter and would cook for the helpless old man daily. She milked him over the years constantly. No wonder she had set her heart on the family apartment!

But on his death the flat went to his beloved devoted daughter in London who had nursed him selflessly in his time of need while his bitch of a daughter-in-law stayed away. As for Svetlana’s brother he was hen pecked but Svetlana loved him despite his weakness, after all he was her only brother.

 Irina, was jealous of Svetlana living in London. Working as a laboratory assistant in the research department of the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. To her Svetlana was “rich” so why would she need an old apartment in a village a couple of hours away from the capital?

She was jealous that Svetlana could afford to go away on organised holidays twice a year, paint and study to be a clown doctor. Her aim was to go into children’s hospitals and make them laugh like Patch Adams did in America. He was her role model. She loved children but could never have any herself. Now it was too late. The whole 15 to 20 years we were good to friends she had no relationships with the male species other than platonic. Of course she was bitter over how her husband had treated her  and so no one could penetrate her essence.

Sometimes I would stay over after I moved to Brighton and have an uncomfortable night on her couch after a  National Serbian dish that she had cooked with love. Then we would look at her travel photo albums and she would excitedly describe the places she visited for two weeks, two weeks there but never the people because she had always been in a group as a tourist, never alone, like me, as a traveller.

She would schlep secondhand clothes from charity shops to her village for her brother and his children. She knew what it was like to live in a Socialist country prior to the 1991-95 Yugoslavian War and the aftermath when Serbia was created. So she made the journey every two years with her old suitcases full of clothes and things for the home that were unavailable unless perhaps got by hook or by crook on the black market.  Even though life got better in Serbia, she still continued to bring clothes and essentials to her family whom she loved especially as she was very close to her mother and father.

She saw the fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th November 1989 and its effect in the satellite countries of the Eastern Block after the Cold War. Not that she was political, she was a creative. An artiste who created a character called Madame Lopiter and even played her alias with a mop at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She was also an experienced Egyptian belly dancer having taken advanced courses in Cairo. I saw her rolling in figure eights off the Dalmatian Coast and she was captivating.

That summer we shared a cabin on a Croatian ship called ‘The Dalmatia’ travelling from Venice to Corfu via Split, Dubrovnik and Montenegro. She danced the nights away while I chatted to the Croatian crew and found a waiter who was a magician who had bought tricks and books from my late husband, the international magic dealer Martin Breese. She was sensitive on board because she was a Serb and the crew and staff were Croats so she felt the tension even on board.

I dreamed of going one day to The Balkans with her. But it was not to be. When I had my breakdown in 2004 and suffered my ‘lost years’, she took it upon herself to ‘help’ me but I was not listening and somehow she did not try hard enough to penetrate my depression. The formal doctor in her came out and we drifted, never to rekindle our friendship. If I never called her to ask about her travels, she would never call me. It became a one way friendship. Her yearly Xmas and Birthday cards stopped coming and as she refused to get a mobile phone, it became hard to keep in touch.

She came to my Bonfire party on 5th November one year and another time I invited her for lunch when she came to visit me for the day in Brighton  but the magic of our friendship had gone. Our electric meeting years earlier at the Patch Adams laughter and clowning  workshop had dissipated. Only the memory lingered. But Svetlana was the catalyst to my interest in The Balkans, Ljilana Cukelj Cakic being the second catalyst who got me there and finally opened the door to an exciting different culture.


Written on the Avianca flight Bogota to London 13.3.18. 

Ref. The Balkan calendar and The games people play