Border between Greece and Bulgaria
There were three men against the back wall with AK-47s. They were unshaven, unmoving, and looked as if the last time they smiled there was blood on the ground. They glared at me and there was an even chance that I was the first American they’d ever seen. Communism had just fallen and, since no system of law, order or enforcement had yet taken its place, these men had become all of those things.
They were guarding the ‘businessmen’ that I was meeting with in a rural village in Bulgaria, businessmen who were money changers, importers/exporters, and a rural ex-party mafia rolled into one. I was here to sell a tractor, the first modern western tractor in the country as far as any of us knew, and though I didn’t want to be negotiating with ‘businessmen’ like these, there was no choice. They could move large equipment; they had money; and they had protection.
I sat at a wooden table with more dollars taped to my body than most Bulgarians made in year.
On a trailer outside the restaurant was the tractor that I was hoping to sell. I’d hired a man to guard the tractor with an AK of his own, and though he did a good job keeping kids and villagers away and preventing petty theft, he’d be no match for these guys. But I hadn’t hired this guy just to prevent theft. I’d also hired him specifically for this meeting, so I didn’t appear like the damn fool I probably was, bringing a load of dollars and a tractor into a remote and ungoverned part of Bulgaria.
“To meet with these men, it is the only way,” Dragomir had told me.
Dragomir was my translator and a poor honey farmer, but perhaps the most ambitious and resourceful honey farmer in all of Bulgaria. We’d met at an agricultural fair in Thessaloniki when he approached me and asked about selling tractors in Bulgaria. The Greek tractor market had all but collapsed and Bulgaria had just opened up, so Dragomir had not only seen the future, but a place for himself in it.
In time, that meeting had led to this one with the ‘businessmen,’ along with a mixture of faith, recklessness and courage on my part, but mostly recklessness. For the negotiations I was conducting were a charade, because what might happen to me, my money, and my tractor if I refused any of their terms was something I wasn’t eager to discover…
Six months later, after we’d actually managed to sell a few tractors, Dragomir brought one back in the middle of a cold December. It kept breaking down, and they didn’t have the spare parts or expertise to keep fixing it.
Dragomir and I met in the no-man’s land between the Greek and Bulgarian borders for the exchange.
I pulled the tractor onto a trailer and handed Dragomir a check for $9,000. Then I gave him a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue with a red bow. He handled the bottle protectively, knowing it was expensive and how much it would be worth on the other side. I fully expected him to sell it when he returned home and enjoy the holidays in a style he might not have known before.
“Merry Christmas, Dragomir” I said.
“But I didn’t get you anything,” he replied and, before I could stop him, cracked the label on the Johnny Walker Blue, rendering it almost valueless.
“Merry Christmas to you, Mr. David.”
And there off to the side of the road in a no man’s land between Greece and Bulgaria, we drank the finest whiskey out of plastic cups, eventually joined by a Bulgarian border guard who traded part of his cheese sandwich for some whiskey of his own.
Later, as the sun was setting and we were about to return to our respective countries, Dragomir said, “Those men you met in the restaurant, Mr. David, they are dangerous men. If this check doesn’t work and they don’t get their money, they will do bad things to me. Very bad things.”
And as he drove away, I thought about my ever-resourceful Bulgarian friend. His country was broken, his way of life aborted, his business associates carried AKs, and the only security he’d ever known was a cartload of honey jars.
How could he know if I could be trusted with $9,000, a small fortune in his country? He’d seen good men sold out for less, I was sure. And what could he know about the Greek company I worked for, or the banks I dealt with, or, as he kept calling it, “the capitalist system” overall? So he, like me, was a mixture of faith, recklessness and courage, but mostly courage — mostly courage.
Merry Christmas once again, Dragomir, wherever you are.
My novel, published by Betimes Books in Dublin, is available here: THE LAST ISLAND