In a few days I'll be off on a journey through Serbia and Croatia. I've been wanting to write about my family's history for some time, and now I finally have the chance to do so in the form of a book. From this weekend, I'll be embarking on what I can only describe as an epic road trip from Belgrade to the mountainous interior of Croatia – with my mother.
We're going to be exploring the areas in which she endured extremely traumatic experiences during the Second World War trying to survive Nazi occupation, civil war between royalists (my parents' side) and communists, starvation, disease and other things all too prevalent during the 1940s.
But it won't be all doom and gloom. One thing that wars and strife can never change, and that's the innate hospitality shown by people in the Balkans. I remember having long conversations with a much-missed colleague and former travel editor of the Independent on Sunday, the late Jeremy Atiyah. He loved the Balkans tremendously, and we used to play a game in which we tried to outdo each other with tales of acts of extreme kindness, hospitality and great food. My childhood memories were of the Tito years, whereas his were more recent and grown up, concerning a man who was able to explore a country on his own terms. A common thread bound the two, however: good food, high spirits and a typical Balkan warm welcome.
I'm slightly apprehensive about the journey, mainly because I'll be driving along some dodgy roads with no satnav and only my mother – who has already declared herself a totally useless navigator. She's told me that she doesn't like the idea of me doing the driving. Thanks, Mum.
I'm also very keen to explore a place I haven't really seen since my childhood. Both my parents come from Lika, a region in Croatia that has been populated by ethnic Serbs for generations. We have the Ottoman empire to thank for that. In fact, the history of the region is particularly rich, as anyone who has read Rebecca West will know. It's going to be quite a task to keep the historical context in mind as I talk about the present day. For you can't write about one without the other, and nor would you want to.
Wish me luck.