In 1990, I was sent into Zagreb, Yugoslavia by a bank in England that I was working for. My job was to start a new sales and marketing program and train the locals. Early one fine spring morning we left from Schladming, Austria in our 1969 Ford Econoline van. Zipping down the Autobahn at 125 mph in a twenty-one-year-old deathtrap is not my idea of relaxation. With me were a German, a Brit, a Greek, and an Austrian. Interesting group.
As we pulled up to the border, I saw lots of men in brown trenchcoats holding automatic weapons and giving us the evil eye. The guy in charge came out of a little hut, marched up to the driver's window, and just stared at us for a good thirty seconds. We stared at the floor and handed him all our passports. I didn't like how the guys with machine guns were looking at us, but I wouldn't look at them because I didn't want them to think I was challenging them. After about fifteen tense minutes, the big guy came back, handed back our passports, smiled, and said, “Welcome, my friends, welcome.” Phew.
Driving through northern Yugoslavia is like driving through Vermont; it looks almost the same. Beautiful hills and valleys with picturesque little towns. It felt almost like home. Zagreb was completely captivating. A city of small buildings with amazing architecture. Eventually we found the Hotel Dubrovnik, our home away from home.
That night we gave a sales presentation to a group of about forty Yugoslavs. I had decided to do the presentation myself since I arrogantly believed I was the best salesperson. I just had one small problem: I didn't speak Serbo-Croatian. Eventually, a translator was found and the presentation started right on time.
Now, I like to inject a little humor into my presentations. Bad idea. Here's how it went: I would tell a joke and then look at the translator. The audience would look at me and then look at the translator. The translator would tell the joke, the audience would all nod and then they would all look back at me. Okay, then, I thought. Humor isn't going to work here.
Did I mention this was in June of 1991? Do you remember a little thing called the Croatian War of Independence? No? Well, let me tell you that I was there for the start of that little party. During the presentation, I was writing on the board (I don't know why, because no one could speak English) when I heard what I thought was a couple of trucks backfiring. When I turned around, there was no audience. They were all hiding under their tables. I suppose that should have been a clue for me, but I stubbornly went right on trying to sell them something. As it turned out, it wasn't trucks at all, it was gunfire.
Presentation over, let's go to dinner. Off we went to find the Kordic restaurant near some square in the basement of a church, where I had one of the best meals I've ever had. Who knew, right? At the end of the meal, the waiter brought the check and he handed us all calculators to figure out the currency exchange.
First, I have to tell you that a few days before our visit, the government of Yugoslavia devalued the dinar, the national currency. The way they did this was simple. They just crossed off the last four zeroes. If you formerly had a 100,000-dinar note, you now had to cross off the last four zeroes: you now have only 10 dinar. Yup, that's what they did.
Back to dinner. We have American dollars, German deutsche marks, Austrian shillings, Greek drachmas, and British pounds. We're trying to convert these into Yugoslavian dinar and factor in the recent devaluation. All after having sampled a great deal of the native adult beverages. I don't recommend attempting this.
Finally, we reached an agreement with the waiter and I gave him the money. When he returned with the change, he brought a pile of bills in every color of the rainbow. I mean a pile. There was about 2,300,000 dinar in that pile. Of course, now it was only 230 dinar, but when you're drunk and staring at a pile of multi-colored bills, you start to wonder if you're rich.
Anyway, I piled that money in my pocket and out the door we went. Hearing gunfire in the not-too-far distance, we decided that maybe it was time to get out of Dodge. Piling into our trusty 1969 van, we headed out for the Austrian border. Wait! Stop! Is that really a tank blocking the road? Yes, it really was a tank, along with more of those guys in the brown trenchcoats with the machine guns.
It was about 2:00 a.m., and we could hear more gunfire. A right, then another right, then a left. We have to get out of this city. This is really no place for a young guy from Cape Cod! Eventually we made it back to the border and crossed safely with no fuss.
The next night, at the bar in the resort, I ordered a drink from the barman, Karl. When he brought my beverage, I put 100,000 dinar on the bar. He looked at me and shook his head, no. So I put down 1,000,000 dinar, and again he shook his head. Come on, Karl, a million of anything should be enough to buy a drink. I had forgotten that one dollar equaled about 200 dinar, which meant that with 2,300,000 pre-devaluation dinar in my pocket, I had the equivalent of about $1.15.
What did I do? I brought the money home with me and gave every kid in the neighborhood 100,000 dinar in the multicolored bills. I was a hero.