Travel Diaries: The Businessmen from Skopje

The Burdensome Job

During my student years I shortly worked for a well-known Greek chain of stores as a sales assistant. It was the kind of job I could never see as a long-term solution; my ultimate goal was to manage to stay for a year. Consequently, unable to take any more of it, I was starting to gather the strength needed to submit my resignation around six months in. It was simply not worth getting so pressured for the basic salary – and that before even the Greek crisis had started. Many of my colleagues were surprised to hear of these thoughts, as I had given no prior signs of being so fed up with everything.

“But how can you find another job?” I remember them say. Remember, the crisis was not even there yet.

“I think I have enough money to get around for a bit”, I explained. “Plus, I have my Balkan road trip planned for next month and I’d much rather not have to come back afterwards”.

Days went by, but I could still not collect the courage to make the big announcement officially. My excuse was that I did not want them to know too early in advance. That way they would not have enough time to try to convince me to stay. In reality I was scared; this was my first job and I was not sure how to break the news without shaking from anxiety. Then came some days off, then a new salary, it simply became tougher to let go of all that. Hesitation became my constant feeling.

Clients in Suits

One day I had the morning shift. Traffic was low, I was sleepy and unmotivated but still did my best to serve the few clients. Few minutes into my shift, two guys in suits walked in. I had seen such guys before: they were usually posh, capricious, rude, thought the whole world owed them something and everyone was their servant. I sighed and walked their way. Good morning, I said reluctantly.

One of the men responds in Greek. We have the usual conversation: how can I help? Looking for something in particular? They were interested in the netbooks, which back then were the latest trend. Throughout that time, I only spoke with one of the men, the other strolling around the store in awe, touching everything as if he had never walked into a department store before.

I was relieved to find out that the client I was talking too was not like the others. He was warm, polite, kind. While discussing his needs, he tells me he works in Skopje. With my road trip coming up soon, I instantly get interested. Momentarily I forget the sales and start asking questions. The man happily answers them.

Break the Ice

My turn comes to share.

“I am taking the train up to the Balkans soon”, I explain, “my goal is to practice my Serbian”. It had just been six months or so since I started learning the language.

“Dragan, come here!” the Greek man calls out to the other, who was already lost behind a row of monitors. As he walked closer and I had the chance to inspect him, I realized he indeed looked much like a Serb. At least the Serb I had in my head, not having met many of them in real life before. He was tall and very slim but looked sturdy and strong. His face had something ascetic but kind about it, his blue eyes standing out from the rest of his tired-looking face. His nose was very Balkan, slightly crooked around the bone but not unattractive.

He stands opposite me and starts chatting me up. He asks me about my love for the Serbian language, about Serbia, about my life. I am having a hard time explaining as I am still an amateur. He smiles patiently and helps me express myself without switching to English. He understands that I want to prove myself and he wants me to end this conversation with a feeling of achievement. The store has really caught his eye as he admits, it might be the most well-equipped one he has seen in a while. The prices is his favourite part, he wants to buy everything. The ice has broken, the three of us are now chatting as if we’ve met before.

An Invitation

The Greek guy, Babis, has been living in Skopje for 2 years now. He is the kind of man who, in his own words, doesn’t fit in one place. He hails from a Greek island but grew tired of the lack of options. A good job offer in Skopje made him decide to move. The wife doesn’t even need to work there, his salary is enough to cover everyone’s needs.

The Serb, Dragan, is from the Southern Serbia. A poor town, no worthy options for anyone. He moved to the closest major city (in his case Skopje) already before the beginning of the Balkan wars, when Yugoslavia was still a thing. They both tell me how much they love Montenegro; they insist I should put it in my plan for the upcoming road trip.

Babis grabs one of the netbook packages from a nearby stash. That might have been the easiest sale I had ever managed! In the meantime, I catch Dragan with the tip of my eye jotting something down in a piece of paper. He hands the note to me. His name, surname and email address, scribbled in a quite chaotic handwriting.

“If the road takes you to Skopje, it would be a pleasure to have you”, he smiles. “Me or Babis can host you, would be great to spend a weekend together and have a roštilj” (=Balkan-style barbecue). “I really admire what you are trying to achieve, keep it up. I am here for you to practice anytime”.

He also hands me a business card, in case I consider a change of career plans. It suddenly all becomes so crystal clear to me… I hate this job. I am fed up with this store. It’s exhausting to work with this boss. I deserve better.

The Big Step

They both shake my hand, say goodbye and head towards the cashier. Dragan and I exchanged a few emails in the following months, however we never managed to meet for that barbecue. Road trips, much like life itself, don’t always take you where you initially plan them to. I am sure if we met today he would be happy to know I never gave up on learning his language. I would probably not even struggle that much to keep up a conversation with him. So much has changed, yet I still remember this meeting as if it was yesterday.

Maybe it sounds cheesy and I am sure you heard it many times before. Things happen for a reason. Maybe they don’t, maybe they do. Perhaps they just make you feel they do, so you feel better about your life choices. Either way, that meeting with Dragan and Babis was really game-changing for me. I considered it a fateful encounter which came at the time I needed it the most.

The two men picked their bags and got into a car. After the car got lost from my sight, I slid Dragan’s card into my pocket and confidently headed towards my manager’s door. One month later I was boarding a train from Thessaloniki to Belgrade, released from the weight of a daily routine that was not for me any longer.

2 Replies to “Travel Diaries: The Businessmen from Skopje”

  1. Great posting!
    In my perspective these incidents happen in every person’s life sooner or later, and if sb is lucky they may happen more the once.
    But overall, one person’s understanding of incidents like these, is that will make the difference and ultimately change sb’s life!

    1. thebalkanson says: Reply

      Hey George,
      Thanks for reading! I agree that similar things happen to everyone to one way or another wake us up from our daily routine. People tend to get too comfortable in their own comfort zone and forget that change in life is, one way or another, necessary for one’s mental health and pursuit of happiness. This particular story might not sound like a very profound experience to some readers, however as you said it is the circumstances, the timing but also the way I perceived it that made it so insightful.

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