We woke up to low grey clouds. About mid-morning, the sky grew darker. There was thunder in the distance. Then at last it began to rain. It came pouring down, warm and steady. It went on all day and we were so glad. ‘Listen to that,’ we said to each other, ‘rain on an iron roof. Is there a better sound?’
And yet six months ago, when we were still in London, we hated rain. We’d wake to see water running down the window and we’d groan. When we went out, we didn’t feel delighted by the wonderful smell of rain – we just felt miserable and wondered if we could get to the newsagent without getting our feet wet.
We experienced similar shifts in perspective when we lived in Belgrade many years ago. It was still the Cold War then, Belgrade was still the capital of Yugoslavia, Ceausescu was still in power in Romania and Albania was the last Stalinist state in Europe. From time to time we would drive up from Belgrade to Vienna, to get things we couldn’t get in Belgrade and also for a change of scene. The strange thing was that, driving towards Vienna, Hungary looked fantastic – and, relative to Yugoslavia, it was. Only two days later though, driving back from Vienna, Hungary looked dismal. Nothing had changed except where we’d been since we last looked at what we saw.
And the same was true of Romania – on the way there, Yugoslavia always looked its usual rather dreary, tumbledown self, whereas on the way out it looked glorious. Going into Albania, Macedonia – then one of the poorest parts of Yugoslavia – looked squalid and the capital, Skopje, looked like some kind of rubbish dump; yet, coming back, it looked like paradise.
In those days, of course, nowhere you could come from would make Albania or Romania seem anything other than prisons for their own populations – except possibly North Korea. Visiting them was fascinating, but the fascination was mixed with a measure of unease. We were glimpsing the hidden misery behind the Iron Curtain (and going into Albania in those days, you actually did pass through a huge iron gate, painted with a double-headed eagle – it slid back automatically once they decided to let you through, probably the only example of any kind of automation in the whole country at the time), but we weren’t doing anything to help the benighted inhabitants of either place. There was a faint sense that we were semi-collaborators in the system – while we weren’t actually cooperating with the regimes involved, we were sitting back and observing, not lifting a finger to change the way things were. Opposition would have been pointless, yet it still didn’t feel entirely right.