At right of this photo is a fellow I intend to include in my “Famous Common People’ series some day, for he was one of the most extraordinary men I ever knew and symbolized the kind of “common man” the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they penned that liberating document in the first place. He died in 2011 at age 47, from cigarettes (too many), hard work, (too much) and Serbian beef (too often). His name was Dmitar, or Mitko. To me, he was part son and part brother.
I began visiting Mitko’s small military shop down a side street in downtown Sofia in 1995. I was going back and forth to the Balkans working with small companies in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia, trips which didn’t always pay for themselves. so came up this super idea of paying my way by buying things from the wide array of antiques, antiquities and militaria there, then ship them back home for resale. By the time Mitko died he and I were doing close to $30,000/year in business, so I had helped make him a little bit wealthy and very influential among certain government officials.
The man and woman just off his right shoulder in this photo are Zlatko and Slavka, and they are the people about who this short essay is about. It would have been around the period of the NATO war with next-door Serbia, 1998, that Mitko asked me if I wanted to see the super- secure warehouse scheme he’d designed for protecting the half-million dollars in military items he’d accumulated. He had an employee named Nikolai (nickname, Kolya) whose parents were goatherds, and who grazed several acres near a village about 15 miles out of town near the river levees. And it was there he stored his cache.
We drove for awhile on a paved road, then dropped off (literally) onto a potholed dirt road (5mph tops) and drove another three km of so past some old abandoned stucco huts with holes in the tile roofs, an old abandoned church, until we came upon a patch of trees and four small houses, in which a narrow path wound itself between wire fences and gates, each set enclosing the individual cottages. It was set up like a compound with a gate at one end, where we entered, and a single gate into each of the yards, if they could be called that.
As soon as we opened the outer gates, Cujo, the dog from hell, came charging out from under a tire-less Trabant, where he’d been chewing on the real axle. Baring vicious teeth, snapping and barking, bouncing off the wire fence trying to get at us, and to rip us to shreds, Mitko laughed and called him some silly Bulgarian name like “Babykins” but I hugged the fence line on the opposite side of the path until, about 40 feet later, we slipped inside the gate of Zlatko’s cottage, at which time the dog stopped and went back to saying his paternosters to Satan under the car.
Mitko looked at me and proudly said “Iz best security in all Bulgaria. Who would come here to steal my stuff?” Approaching the house, out stepped Slavka, dressed as you see her here…and as she always dressed when I visited, so I assume her Sunday best, with a cloth cap, tennis sneakers and a worn pile-lined overcoat which you wouldn’t even find at a thrift store in Detroit. She and Mitko spoke, then he introduced me, we shook hands, and then she went inside and came back with a set of keys. Mitko summoned me with his finger to follow and we went to a small 20 x 10 stucco out-building next to the cottage where inside were stacked, row after row, at least a quarter-million’s worth of old WWII uniforms, helmets, and gear, plus military training posters of every weapon imaginable, especially the RPG, which I was limited to a dozen because of high demand.
Mitko glowed as I surveyed the area, and after an hour and a half of picking through the lot, what followed had become a ritual almost every time I visited Bulgaria thereafter. Under a small 3-foot canopy that served as a porch to the hut, Slavka had set up a small table…about the size of the one you see a father playing tea-time princess with his daughter in the backyard, except this was made barn wood slabs…around which was set four wooden stools. Slavka was joined by her daughter, Nedalya, who spoke some English and on other occasions by her grandson, Yanko. Nedalya had the awfulest looking mouthful of teeth I’d ever seen (a common enough sight among country folk in a country where medical care is actually pretty good), but she could beam a smile that could light a room. We were joined by Zlatko the goat-tender, (he hadn’t enough goat to be a herder) who was just putting away their two goats in a small out-house-sized shed. (A few years later Zlaoko would have his larynx removed and would have to talk through a box taped to his throat). And on the table was an array of sweets, cakes, a bottle of rakia (the local adult beverage similar to cognac and a social necsssity when people come to call), a bottle water and some glasses.
We sat, toasted, drank, ate, and “spoke of many things”, none of which I understood, although I did hear my name mentioned approvingly from time to time.
The language barrier didn’t bother me because I enjoyed these visits for they allowed me to observe local customs and interactions at a level few Americans get to see. I noticed for instance, that while a wealthy man to Zlatko and Slavka, and the employer of their son, Mitko spoke to them with great deference, and they spoke to him with great authority, as if sharing some great wisdom.
As they talked Mitko reached into his pocket and pulled out two packs of American- made Marlboro cigarettes. I know they were American-made because I ‘m the guy who brung them, never knowing who Mitko would pass them out to. I just knew that blackmarket US Marlboro’s went for about $20-a-pack and a fellow could get lucky in most hotel lounges as quickly as a GI could with Hersheys and nylons in Rome in ’44. (Or so I’ve been told.) Zlatko could still smoke in those days, and both he and Slavka pulled one of those filter-tipped picayunes out, lit up, and eased back, letting out an exhale of sheer pleasure, which, considering the sunshine and ambience, I have to rate as one of the top ten memories in my life. (Sorry, Becky Hall, some firsts just can’t stay on a list forever.) It was better than any old commercial jingle, and while I had quit smoking15 years earlier, I am no tobacco-Nazi and love being downwind when a Marlboro is in the room. So I took in the fragrance as if I’d just kissed the hand of a cabaret dancer in the Kasbah. Interestingly, because I have a keen ear, I don’t think Mitko ever told Zlatko and Slavka the cigarettes came from me.
In the years that passed, our relationship never changed, although I never came to Bulgaria again without bringing boxes of chocolates and sweetbreads, some American, some Dutch or French, and other treats, although I always gave them to Mitko to pass on.
On this last visit to the huts in 2009, shown here, I took my wife, Joanne (or Ioanna, as they called her) with a little trepidation. But she and Nedalya became quick friends, so I left her chatting with Slavka while Mitko and I worked in the shed. Then we came out and sat and spoke of many things for the last time.
No matter where I went in that region I was treated to extraordinary hospitality, but nowhere was it dished out by people who clearly couldn’t afford it. I was reminded that being treated as true royalty is when people give more than they can afford to give. Only I never knew how deeply that law ran..
When Joanne and I returned to our hotel that evening, as soon as we were in the door, she turned to me and burst into sobs, saying “I have never seen anyone that poor before.” Trying to compose myself, I offered, “Well actually you probably have, but you have never seen poor people with so much dignity.”
There’s am epilogue to this story, for the next year when I returned, sitting in Mitko’s shop, I asked about Slavka and Zlatko, and Kolya, their son. Mitko told me that Kolya had quit his service and taken a job with a house-builder in Sofia who was building houses near the Black Sea, and being a master carpenter he was offered a two year appointment. But Kolya countered the salary and offered his services if the boss would allow him to build a house for his parents. He would do it for room and board…and by the time I came back, Slavka and Zlatko had moved to the seacoast.
The good son is almost always the product of the good parents.