Saturday, February 15, 2014

Dancing Down the Danube by Pat Browning

A native Oklahoman and award-winning newspaper reporter, Pat Browning set  her first mystery, ABSINTHE OF MALICE (original title: FULL CIRCLE) in California's Central San Joaquin Valley, where she has lived for many years. After an 8-year sojourn in Oklahoma, she’s back in the Valley and is still working on her second mystery, METAPHOR FOR MURDER.

Kaye, thank you for another chance to ramble down memory lane. Since I never know when to shut up and sit down, I will do it in three parts – my visits to the three jewels of the Danube RiverVienna, Budapest and Belgrade. I’m also including a brief look at mysteries set in those locales.

"I've Danced With A Man, Who's Danced With A Girl, Who's Danced With The Prince Of Wales."

Well ... not exactly. I’ve talked to a woman who met Tom Brokaw in an elevator but it seemed like a big deal at the time.

The line from a 1927 song keeps coming back when I read gossipy news about Prince George of Cambridge, grandchild of the late Princess Diana and third in line to be King of England. The king-in-waiting, Charles, Prince of Wales, is now old enough to draw his pension even though he has never been a king. A TV documentary a few years ago revealed that Charles told Diana he didn’t intend to be the first Prince of Wales who didn’t have a mistress. It would be hilarious if it weren’t somehow so sad.

But back to Tom Brokaw and Vienna in June, 1979.

Tom Brokaw and I were both staying in the Vienna Hilton, but the closest I got to him was the lady who met him in the elevator. I was a tourist. He was covering the Salt II talks between U.S. President Carter and Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev. I skulked around the hotel lobby for a little while, hoping for a glimpse of the famous newsman. No luck. Went up to the mezzanine where the press handouts were. Nobody there.

And so I left Vienna without dancing with the Prince of Wales, but not before I came face to face, so to speak, with Carter and Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. Pastry chefs at Demel, Vienna’s famous coffee house, sculpted Carter and Kreisky out of dough, life-size and in living color, and put them in a front window. Truly, an amazing sight.

What can I say about Vienna that hasn’t been said over and over again? It’s a beautiful, historic city. It also has its dark side. A classic movie, “The Third Man,” about black marketers, is set in occupied Vienna at the close of World War II.  It was a spooky movie and the zither music is haunting. The original soundtrack, with Anton Karas playing the zither, can be heard on You Tube at

Historical note: After Germany’s surrender in World War II, Russia, the United States, England and France divided Austria into four military zones, keeping a tight grip from 1945 to 1955. Graham Greene’s depiction of Vienna’s black market had its basis in fact, and the book was a “treatment” for the film. The New York Times of March 19, 1950 quotes Graham Greene as saying: “The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen.”

And perhaps Vienna itself is mainly meant to be seen. A colorful example is the burial of the late Otto con Habsburg, who died in 2011. Quoting the UK's Daily Mail newspaper, "His death brings to a close 640 years of European history."
Von Habsburg's body was buried in Vienna but his heart was buried in Budapest, and both cities pulled out all the stops. There are scads of photos and they are stunning. Do yourself a favor and go to the Daily Mail article at

And you thought the Brits had a lock on pomp and ceremony, right?


 It’s about 150 miles from Vienna to Budapest and you can make the trip by boat, by train or by car. Hungary has an old and checkered past. Russia claimed it after World War II, and rolled tanks into Budapest to crush a 1956 uprising. When I was there, Hungary operated under a kind of “goulash communism.” Shell holes still pocked the Citadella, an old fortress overlooking the Danube, and a Russian statue stood on the roof.

The Citadella is on the Buda side of the Danube, with a sweeping view of the river, its eight bridges and the city. One balmy evening our group had dinner there and afterward walked outside to enjoy the city lights. “It looks like Oakland,” someone said. Well, maybe, if you could forget the bullet holes in the walls behind us.

Budapest was beautiful but the people seemed tense, happy to have tourists but wary. It wasn’t surprising, considering the terrors they lived through at the hands of the Nazis, followed by the Communists. Out in the countryside people were freer and more talkative. Still, there were remnants of the past.

In one small town our tour bus passed through there were still loudspeakers on telephone phones, only now Hungary’s storks were building nests there. I got one of my all-time favorite travel photos by pressing my camera against a window and snapping a stork on the nest.

The stork is a good luck symbol in Hungary, bringing babies and preventing house fires. Year after year, storks fly in from Africa to spend the summer. Through Hungary’s darkest years the storks returned to nest on telephone poles. In this rapidly changing world, that’s nice to know.

For a fact-based fictional look at Budapest past and present read William S. Shepard’s MURDER ON THE DANUBE. Surviving Freedom Fighters of the 1956 revolution became politicians, bankers and bureaucrats, still uneasy about their pasts. The author alternates past and present, picking up stories of known survivors as they prepare to meet again at a Parliament reception. The novel’s protagonist is "Robbie" Cutler, Political Officer for the American Embassy.

The pace quickens when a Freedom Fighter who emigrated to New Jersey arrives in Budapest to see about building a memorial to the 1956 Revolution. He wants a statuary group of Freedom Fighters similar to the Korean Memorial in Washington D.C. Before he can meet with Robbie to discuss his plans, he is murdered.

The American ambassador asks Robbie to look into the murder. The investigation takes on aspects of a traditional police procedural—ferreting out friends and relatives who might know something about the victim's movements and his murder. Everyone remembers the Revolution and Robbie surmises that "nostalgia would be a leading Hungarian product."

The diplomatic world as painted here is a small, gossipy one, almost a closed society, with most of the action taking place at social functions or in cafes, over coffee. The ending would fit an Agatha Christie "Poirot" novel, with interested parties gathered in the private dining room of a secluded restaurant for a review of the investigation and unmasking of the murderer.

Author William S. Shepard is a former career diplomat who served as Consul and Political Officer at the American Embassy in Budapest. He was made an Honorary Hungarian Freedom Fighter at the 25th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

If you like black humor and are in an experimental mood, you might try UNDER THE FROG by Tibor Fischer, published in the UK by Polygon in 1992 and in the U.S. by Picador in 2001. It’s available in paperback at Amazon. The title is from a Hungarian expression meaning the worst possible place to be is "under a frog's arse at the bottom of a coal mine.”

The story follows a Hungarian basketball team on the payroll of the Hungarian railroad. They travel naked around the country, thinking mostly about sex and escaping from Communist Hungary. The story ends with the 1956 revolution.

The author is a British-born Hungarian who spoke at the 2012 Hay Festival in Budapest. An article in The Telegraph newspaper quotes him as saying, “My father really was a basketball player and really did travel round the country in a railway carriage with his fellow players, naked for some of the time...” The article and a good photo of Fischer are at

Photos: Stork photo © 1979-2014 Patricia Cokely Browning; Budapest photo from Hilton Budapest Hotel web site; 1956 Uprising photo from NATO web site.


Because of Yugoslavia—Land of the South Slavs—I never got to Ireland. I never got to Egypt. I never got to Australia. I just kept going back to Yugoslavia, surely one of the most beautiful and historic places on Planet Earth.

I traveled through Yugoslavia both during Tito's time and after he died. It was rugged terrain, 70 percent mountains and a prime region for hunting and fishing. Consider this: there were 40 miles of paved road in the entire country when WWII broke out.

The Nazis came in blowing up bridges and villages; their fighter planes strafed people in the streets of Belgrade and there were concentration camps outside of town. With no roads to speak of, Nazi tanks weren't much use. The people just went up into the hills and lived with the Partisans, or guerrillas, and the Nazis couldn't get to them there unless they wanted to go on foot.

In the 1970s, after Tito broke with Russia and decided to open the country to tourists, the Yugoslavs started building roads and hotels and doing everything they could to encourage Westerners to come. The Yugoslavs were going great guns with their expansion when I was there the last time, in November, 1982. Something I will never forget: I was in a tour bus rolling through a rural area on a brand new road—built in such a hurry that it sliced a little steepled church in half. The half that was left still stood beside the road.

In 1999, during Yugoslavia’s war in Kosovo, NATO forces bombed Belgrade. Three downed U.S. Army soldiers were captured and held for a month. The Rev. Jesse Jackson led a religious delegation to Belgrade and the soldiers were turned over to him. When TV news announced that Jackson's party would take the three Americans by bus from Belgrade to Zagreb, I thought, yeah, I was there when they were building that highway.

It’s 196 miles from Budapest to Belgrade, where the Danube meets the Sava River on its way to the Black Sea.
I loved Belgrade, although I never heard anyone else say a good word for it. One of my favorite memories is of a winter night in Skadarlija, Belgrade’s lamplit Bohemian quarter. Packed cafés, everyone eating, singing, slugging down plum brandy. When the clock struck nine, rolling blackouts kicked in and waiters brought candles. Nobody missed a note or a drop. The blackouts were scheduled power shutdowns, section by section throughout the city, due to an energy crisis.

According to Wikipedia, Skadarlija was a gypsy settlement before it became the main bohemian quarter of Belgrade. The guest list is impressive, everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to George H.W. Bush. 

The Times of London reported that Europe's best nightlife can be found in Belgrade. In the Lonely Planet’s "1000 Ultimate Experiences" guide of 2009, Belgrade was placed at the first spot among the top 10 party cities in the world.

Yugoslavia didn’t survive Tito. It’s a lot of separate republics now. The Republic of Macedonia is still in a “silent war” with Greece; you can stand in Greece and look across a field at the disputed territory. Serbia wants to join the 28-nation European Union, a process expected to take several years. They’ll make it. The South Slavs have staying power and they are a feisty lot.

Further south, on the Adriatic Coast, is the city of Split, a famous seaport in what is now the Republic of Croatia. It’s early evening. Our tour group checks into a hotel overlooking the seaside promenade and I decide to stroll into town. I’m part of an exotic mix that includes sailors who might have stepped right out of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Along the way I pass a building with a huge painting of Tito on the street-side façade. In the back, on a pavilion over the water, young Slavs are dancing to “Boogie Shoes.” I still laugh when I think about it.

A Google search turned up some crime fiction titles but I can’t honestly recommend any of them. They’re too grim for my taste, especially those set in Sarajevo. What I can recommend is a You Tube video of a Belgrade dance troupe doing a traditional dance. Be advised, it’s loud. They really whoop it up, and the costumes are gorgeous. It’s at

You might also rent or buy the DVD of  “The Yellow Rolls Royce,”  a 1984 movie that follows the ownership of a 1930s yellow Rolls Royce Phantom ll during the years up to and including the start of World War ll. Its third owner is a wealthy American socialite played by Ingrid Bergman.

Time and place: 1941, Trieste on the Yugoslavia border. Enter Omar Sharif, a partisan hero with a price on his head. Over Bergman’s objections, he smuggles himself into Yugoslavia in the trunk of the yellow Rolls Royce. Bergman’s elegant, imperious manner at the border checkpoint is a delight. The scenery is breathtaking. How close the movie comes to reality I can’t say, but some of it was filmed on location and it’s great entertainment.

*Photo of Skadarlija from Wikipedia.



Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome back, my friend!!!!

I so love travelling with you vicariously, but would have loved it even more if we'd known one another back in the day and I could have trailed along for real.

Start planning your next piece for Meanderings and Muses, okay??

lil Gluckstern said...

I really liked your post. My parents were born in Vienna, and you brought it to life. We had family friends who came from Budapest and Sarajevo. All arrived here just before WWII. I only wish I could have seen these places. Thank you for bringing these places to us.

Pat Browning said...

Lil, your family and friends were so lucky to get here before World War Ii almost destroyed Europe. My first trip was 25 years after the war ended and there were still scars everywhere, but people were making a real effort to get on with their lives. So much has changed but the beauty and history of the Danube countries survive. I wish you could see them, too. My pleasure was to share my brief memories with you.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I'm fascinated by this part of the world. My husband and I visited Trieste and Koper (just over the Yugoslav border) in 1965 (we weren't married then), and I was struck by how the local Communist bigwigs were treated in Koper. I've often wondered if it survived and what it's like now. My parents went to Yugoslavia in the 1930s and their old photos show a world now lost. Thanks for posting this journey, Pat.

Billie Johnson said...

Pat, what a visual piece! I would have loved to have travelled with you!

And the plum wine sound dee-lish!

Billie Johnson, Publisher
Oak Tree Press

Pat Browning said...

Your comment piqued my curiosity so I did a little Googling.

Trieste is still in Italy just 70 miles from Venice, but Koper, within shouting distance, is in Slovenia.

According to Koper's main attraction is the Venetian-era old city, where repairs and restoration are slowly underway. The center of the old city is Tito Square, where the Praetorian Palace, dating back to the 15th century and the only fully restored building in the Square, houses the tou4rist office.

Tito, that bloody old Partisan, really left his mark in that part of the world.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat Browning said...

Billie, we would have had a million laughs, but darn it, we met about 30 years too late.

That plum wine is lethal! ((-:

Thanks for stopping by.

Chester Campbell said...

Pat, you did your usual picturesque job with this blog. I set the opening of my first Post Cold War political thriller in Vienna in 1991, though I didn't visit the city for another eight years. The second book featured Budapest. I got all my information from books and the National Geographic. I wish I'd had the opportunity to visit there as you did. You should be writing more books.

Pat Browning said...

Chester, great to hear from you. What are the names of those political thrillers and how did I miss them?! I'm off to look them up right now.

Pat Browning said...

My goof, Chester. I read and reviewed both of those books but my focus at the time wasn't on the Vienna and Budapest settings. Thanks for the reminder!

Mike Orenduff said...

Thanks, Pat, for that engaging travelogue. It brought back many memories, mostly of the fond variety, when Lai, my daughter and I were living in Bulgaria. We drove though Macedonia which was stable but tense and through Albania which was possibly the most bizarre country on the planet, the countryside filled with concrete bunkers that the nutcase dictator, Enver Hoxha, had built in every farm so that the agricultural workers could defend the country against invasion. The workers were given wooden rifles which more or less rendered the pillboxes useless but insured that they wouldn’t be turned on Hoxta himself, a definite possibility considering almost every family in the country had at least one member who had been murdered by the secret police. We drove to Vidin (ВИДИН) which was close to the Serbian border village of Zajechar (ЗАЈЕϤАР) with the idea to cross into Serbia because we had never been there. But the sound of artillery fire dissuaded us. At the American University in Bulgaria, I had a student from Albania, a nice, bright young man with the unlikely first name of Elvis.

Pat Browning said...

Hi, Mike:

Your memory of Albania gave me a laugh. Obviously I loved the Balkans, which is why I never got to Ireland, Egypt, Australia, etc. etc. etc.

I read once that of all the Slavs killed during World War II, more of them were killed by other Slavs than by Nazis, Commies or other evil outsiders.

Have you written a memoir of your time in Bulgaria? If not, why not?