After a year and a half of travel through Europe and North Africa, my money was gone by the time I got to Athens, Greece, in 1973. With a stroke of good luck, I found a job at an English-language newspaper, enabling me to continue my self-perception as a citizen at large in the world.
The visa issued to me at the Greek border had to be renewed every three months. This meant I would have to leave the country for a minimum of 48 hours. The easiest and most economical way to do this was to take the train to Yugoslavia, one of four countries contiguous with Greece along its northern border. The other three countries – Albania, Bulgaria, and Turkey – had serious drawbacks. Albania was ruled by a Stalin-like dictator who killed his political opponents and closed the border to tourists. The People’s Republic of Bulgaria, as its name suggests, was closely allied with the Soviet Union and also not a destination for Western tourists. The problem with Turkey was Greece. The military government that had replaced tyrannical Colonel Papadopoulos just after my arrival had rather quickly become hostile and threatening towards Turkey, a nation with four times the military might.
I originally arrived in Greece by way of Yugoslavia, also a Communist country at the time, but more open to the West. After leaving Spain, I had traveled across southern France, northern Italy, and the length of Yugoslavia to get to Athens. I remembered from that trip the small city of Titov Veles on the Vardar River in the southern Yugoslavian state of Macedonia. It was attractive in its setting, and that’s why I had chosen it as the destination for the renewal of my visa.
The journey from Athens took about 12 hours, and I slept the first night on the train, arriving in Titov Veles about 10 on a winter’s Saturday morning. “Veles” was the ancient name of the city, and “Titov” had been added in honor of Yugoslavia’s ruler, Josip Broz Tito. (The “v” in Titov was silent when the city’s name was spoken.) The train station was in farm land, and I walked a mile on small roads through pastures to get to the town. The day was cold but sunny, and I looked forward to my first adventure on foot and by myself in a Communist country.
I encountered very few people between the train station and the center of town, and the town itself seemed empty. All of the stores I passed were closed, and the buildings had that dreary, gray, post-World War II look I had seen in eastern European movies. Then up ahead I saw three young men walking the same direction as I, and hurried my pace. I caught up to them as they waited at a street signal.
“Do any of you speak English?”
They turned around, and the one in the middle said “I speak English” in perfect American. That I should find what appeared to be an American-speaking Yugoslavian on first try was remarkable in itself, but the young man’s countenance made it even more so. His round face, large dark eyes, and longish silk-black hair argued that his ancestors had arrived as an advance party for Genghis Kahn’s Golden Horde.
Then he put his hand out and said, “Am I glad to see you. My name is Sebestyen.” He introduced me to the other two young men, and I explained why I had come. They took me under their care. Sebestyen found me a cozy room for two nights, and spent the rest of that day and evening with me, affirming his life story. He had become a living casualty of the Cold War, and I became his witness. He told me his story as we dined in a dark restaurant in the basement of one of those dreary buildings. Most of the other diners were young. Recorded rock music was playing, and I suspected this was the best place in their lives, giving them a glimpse – far away but visible – of the life they wanted.
Sebestyen was born in Yugoslavia, but his family had emigrated to the U.S. when he was a young boy. Brilliant in math and science, he became a nuclear physicist at the University of California in Berkeley in the 1960s. It was Berkeley physicists who in the previous decades had led the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. But Sebestyan was radicalized by the social changes that swept through the culture during the sixties and he ceased to be a practicing nuclear physicist.
This did not sit well with the U.S. government, and it canceled his Vietnam War draft deferment. So he fled to Canada. His nuclear physicist background not helping, the U.S. pressured Canada to extradite him, and Sebestyen had to flee again, this time to West Germany. He lived there long enough to marry a German woman, and they had a child.
Eventually he became a pawn in a political commotion between West Germany and Yugoslavia, and Sebestyen was deported to Yugoslavia without his wife and child. That was a few years before my visit. Yugoslavia had ended its secret nuclear development program in the early 1960s, so he was not pressured to use his expertise. Instead, he had become a pig inspector, and had been trying to reunite with his family ever since.
Although I have a vague media-sourced memory from the 1960s of someone matching the Berkeley and Canadian details as Sebestyen presented them, I have not been able to substantiate his story through an internet search. But in his personality, his world view, and his self-concept, as well as in his speech, he was an American. Disbelieving his story is not an option for me. There cannot, in fact, be an ordinary explanation for why an American had become a pig inspector in Titov Veles. I vowed to stay in touch.
* * *
During my travels, I carried a small address book to insure a future for the remarkable friendships I had made. But the following year, within hours of arriving back in the States, I accidentally left it in a Philadelphia phone booth. When I later discovered my incredible blunder, it was as if I had lost twenty close friends in a single disaster. Among them was Sebestyen.
Richard LeBlond is a biologist living in North Carolina, where he worked for that state’s Natural Heritage Program until his retirement in 2007. He continues his biological research, and has added travel, photography, and writing. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in or been accepted by numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Kudzu House, Appalachia, Weber – The Contemporary West, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.