Book Review: Letters to Zerky

Letters to Zerky: Part Travelogue, Part Memoir, Part Love Letter

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, and if you’re thinking about a special gift to give someone (including treating yourself), how about a copy of the book Letters to Zerky?

Letters to Zerky is part lost love letter and part  travel tale, but the book itself is a story of its own.  The story is about a couple with a small child, Zerky, and their perky (but tiny) dog, Tarzan.  They set out on a roadtrip and end up driving from Munich to Kolkata via a number of places in Europe and the Middle East, and then left their van/home to travel via boats and planes making their way back to San Francisco.

This all happened in the 1960s when epic roadtripping wasn’t so popular, and Bill and wife JoAnne had the good sense to make a journal.  They did so by writing letters to their son Zerky so when he grew up he’d know about his epic adventures.

Here’s the rub, though – both JoAnne and Zerky passed away later on after the family returned home.  Years later Bill happened upon these wonderful letters he wrote his son.  So he decided to have them printed – and I’m so glad he did.  I couldn’t put the book down, and felt emotionally wrecked at the end of it (in a good way).

Storytelling at Its Best

What really strikes me about Letters to Zerky are a few things.  Firstly are the characters – Bill and JoAnne tends to take a back seat to the sights and sounds of their location, as well as events of both Zerky and Tarzan.  Tarzan was definitely my favourite character – he was learning and exploring just as much as Zerky, and he’s very much a part of the drama, from their initial scrape with German immigration at the start of their journey, as well as a particularly nasty bout with another dog that bit poor wee Tarzan.

But also, the family was travelling at a time when borders were not porous like they are today, as well as a time when the world was in much strife, so there are some wonderful cultural experiences of the “flower power” era.  Bill describes the amazing colours of India, the sheer cliffs of Nepal, and the lost treasures of Iran as if little Zerky could talk and say what he was seeing.  There’s also plenty of realistic talk about the hassles of governments permits, illness and the like – there’s no sugar coating here, which makes for a very well rounded read.

Love from Sarajevo

Bill actually suggested, and kindly allowed me, to print one of the letters here in its entirety.  While reading the book, this suggestion was in the back of my mind, but when I started reading the letter from Sarajevo, I know this would be the one.  Stephanie recently told us her story about the heart-shaped country of Bosnia-Herzegovina and how it still has a special place in her own heart just for her, and I think this letter shows off some of the touching poignant moments that happen regularly on the family trips.  Slightly edited for brevity:

Sepetember 10, 1967

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia

Dear Zerky,

I hope you have figured out by now that you did not perish in that snowstorm beneath the Matterhorn.  You went south like the bird.  The day we left Switzerland, we drove over San Gotthard pass in a blizzard and then, an hour later, and several thousand feet lower, we zipped eastward across northern Italy in near-summer weather. We spent two nights camped on Lido Island, just outside of Venice, from where we took the boat into the city.  You had a good time chasing pigeons in San Marco Square, and you liked your gondola ride too.  But we didn’t stay very long – your mother had been there before and I found Venice too much of a tourist trap.

After three nights on Lido Island, we crossed into Yugoslavia, near Trieste, and followed the Adriatic Coast southward through the rocky hills that plunge into the sea all along that coast.  We were then on the scenic Dalmatian Coast, which is Yugoslavia’s biggest tourist attraction.  It is very popular with East European vacationers, who love warm beaches.  Halfway down the coast, at the town of Split, your mother became impatient with “this Yugoslavian Riviera,” as she called it.  She suggested we “split from Split.”  So we left the coast and cut inland.  Eleven years ago, she had hitchhiked through this part of Yugoslavia and she remembered the Yugoslavian interior to be very different from the Dalmatian Coast.

Climbing into the mountains known as the Dinaric Alps, we followed an asphalt road northeast for about ten miles.  We expected no difficulty, as our map shows the road to be a major thoroughfare to Belgrade, the capital.  At the first village, the road virtually disappeared.  Bewildered, we got out our Serbo-Croatian phrase book and tried asking some nearby villages about the road to Livno, which, according to the map, was the next town along our route.  Always with a laugh, the villages would wave us on.  What’s so funny about a road to Livno, we wondered?  All we could find was a dry streambed.

Very slowly and carefully, we inched ahead, creping ever so slowly over so many stones and boulders that I had to stop and let the clutch cool down three times.  What happened to our highway, we wondered?  A flood must have washed it away.  But surely it would not have disappeared all the way to Livno, about thirty miles away?  An hour later our road had not yet improved.  We stopped for a conference – we were making no more progress than we could have on foot.  VW buses have high clearances, fortunately, but the rate we were going ti would have taken us days, or weeks, to reach Sarajevo.  Assume we didn’t break an axle.  Or burn up the clutch.

The sensible thing to do, we finally decided, was to turn back.  But we were having too much fun.  So we continued on, yard by yard, picking our way up and over and in between the rocks, even higher into the mountains.  Ta dah, ted ah! “These damp barren hills strewn with gray boulders and patches of brush,” JoAnne writes, “are among the most desolate I have ever seen.”  Pregnant with meaning, such boulders are the metaphorical building blocks of modern Yugoslavia….

Still climbing upward, the road began to improve.  A wind came up and it turned cold.  We crawled along in low gear for two more hours.  At the top of the pass, a weather-beaten sign announced that we were leaving Croatia and entering Bosnia-Herzegovina.  The sign denoted only a change of province.  Little did we know we were entering a whole new world. Asia may begin at the Bosporus, geographically.  Culturally it begins at Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The most stunning change was in people’s dress:  women’s skirts became billowing pantaloons turned under at the bottoms and drawn up tightly around their caves, as in pictures from the Arabian Nights.  These garments seem to us to be the ultimate in Puritanism; by closing off the bottoms of the skirts, any chance of catching a glimpse of a woman’s legs is automatically forestalled.  The women we passed along the road drew shawls up over their faces, in the manner of a veil.  Any doubts as to which culture we were in were soon dispelled when we began seeing men wearing the fez.

Passing through our first Bosnian village, we found a central square commanded by a tall minaret.  Soon minarets began popping up all over the place.  Towns of any size have several of them, and often a mosque.  We had read that Bosnia was once under the hell of the Turks, we had never expected to see so much Turkish influence surviving on down to this day….

Our biggest surprise upon entering Bosnia-Herzegovina was the road.  We soon found ourselves zipping along at thirty miles an hour and we reached Sarajevo by nightfall….You found Tito in that supermarket, Zerky.  Your mother quickly named him after her favorite bear in the zoo at Bern… It was love at first sight.  Unfortunately Tarzan doesn’t’ love Tito at all.  When you showed him your new teddy bear, Tarzan grabbed him away from you and tried to shake all his stuffing out!  Your mother charged to the rescue.  But now you need to be careful to keep Tito away from Tarzan.  I think Tarzan is jealous.

It is raining heavily now.  Tomorrow we plan to head into Montenegro and take back roads southward toward the coast.  It should be sunny there, which will be a relief – most of the time its been raining ever since we left the Adriatic Coast.  Let’s hope we don’t get stuck!

Love,

Dad

Why I Love This Book

Letter’s to Zerky makes for an engaging read, in flight, on the beach, or in bed under the covers.  It comes with my highest recommendation, but I think the author Bill summarises it best with this quote of his from the flap of the book jacket.

Letters to Zerky is an adventure book, a tale told by people who loved what they were doing.  It was never meant to be a message book, but should there be one, it is probably this:

JUST GO.

I couldn’t agree more.   Travel More, my dear reader.  And if you want more of that Just Go magic, you can purchase a copy of Letters to Zerky via the Amazon link below.

Editorial Disclosure: The author was given a review copy of this guide, which did not influence the contents  of this article. Also note that many countries and political boundaries have changed significantly since the family’s trip.  The place names at the time of the trip are used here as a reference.

Letters to Zerky: Part Travelogue, Part Memoir, Part Love Letter

Andy Hayes

Andy Hayes is the founder and creator of Plum Deluxe. He authors our award-winning weekly email newsletter, The Blend and curates our popular organic tea of the month club.

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