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24 May 2017

The Chocolate Curtain



This article was written by David Gaddes. All views and opinions are strictly his own.


In 1976 I was a young man who had just started trading physical metals in the form of refined lead and electrolytic zinc, much of which was purchased from North Korea and Eastern Europe. I did not travel the Comecon Bloc by choice. In those days, nobody wanted to fly to the likes of Moscow, Warsaw or Sofia in December when long term contracts for the supply of metal the following year were negotiated with the East European state monopolies responsible for base metals. At that time of year in those places there was about two feet of snow on the ground, the temperature was minus 30 degrees and those cities were not what they are today - but that is a story for another day. My peers were travelling to Paris, Madrid and Rome. Me ? I should have seen it coming a mile off but I didn't. Let's be kind and call it the naivety of youth.  My boss came to me one day and said " David, we would like to make you responsible for Eastern Europe."  He got from me exactly the reaction he hoped for. I felt feted and honoured. I was 23 years old and I had never been to Eastern Europe.  What I should have thought was: hang on a minute, why me ? But I did not. 

Two weeks later in the middle of December 1976 I was in the departure lounge of Sofia airport waiting for a flight that had been delayed six hours because the British Airways plane that was due to take us back to London had developed a fault. We were told another plane had to be crewed and sent from London to pick us up. I had spent three days in the Bulgarian capital seeing Rudmetal, the state monopoly who sold lead and zinc to me. I had been negotiating the purchase of pig lead and zinc ingots for shipment throughout 1977 to Cardiff in the UK  from the Bulgarian port of Burgas. The lead was destined for battery manufacturers, and the zinc for the brass and galvanizing industries.

I wanted to go home. So did the numerous traders sitting in that departure lounge. The authorities had very kindly allowed us to check in and clear customs before telling us about the six hour flight delay. So we were confined to a lounge which was definitely NOT state of the art. The bar was poorly stocked and the there were no duty free shops at all. This was Bulgaria 1976. So what do a bunch of bored traders do for six hours ? Remember, this is 1976. There are no mobiles, laptops, tablets, ipads, ipods or shopping malls. So what did we do ? Yes, you guessed it, we drank. Lots. Each of us bought rounds of drinks until we could not remember whose round it was. At this time the countries of eastern Europe had a desperate need for foreign exchange. I remembered the advice from my boss to take small U.S. dollar bills when travelling there. 

So there we are, a bunch of bored traders with U.S. dollars in our pockets, drinking for five hours. The trouble was, when you paid for a round of drinks at the bar in cash, they never had any change. So instead of giving you your change for the drinks in U.S. dollars they gave it to you in bars of chocolate. Yes, you heard right. Chocolate. They would not even give you change from the dollars they had taken from you previously. All change was given in the form of very cheap tasteless bars of chocolate. 

About five hours later, there were about ten of us still drinking and slightly the worse for wear. There was also a wall of uneaten chocolate bars on the bar. These unwanted bars of chocolate were the change from all of the rounds of drink that had been purchased in five those hours. They were stacked on the bar like lego, forming a curtain between the drunken band of traders and the barman.They were stacked so high that we could just see the head of the barman. One member of our party, on hearing that we should be boarding in about an hour, decided we should have one for the road, or one for the plane to be precise. He proudly shouted to us all that he was going to buy the last round of drinks for everybody. The barman smiled. So many dollars this day.

Once everyone had their drink in hand the barman told the gentleman buying the round how much it had cost in dollars. He looked over the chocolate curtain at the barman, smiled, and pushed the bars of chocolate slowly towards the barman so that the top half of the wall collapsed. He proudly declared " Keep the change !" 

Oh how we laughed! We laughed for a very long time. Long enough to give the manager time to go away and return with a "customs official" and two rather large soldiers sporting Kalashnikov machine guns. The customs official said if we did not pay cash in U.S. dollars for the drinks we were going nowhere. Now I have been drinking with groups of men in bars since I was sixteen but never in my life have I  seen so much cash come out of so many pockets so quickly to pay for a round of drinks. As I sat on the plane looking at the snow falling as we taxied I remembered the speech of Winston Churchill when he said that "...an iron curtain has descended across the continent............". 

The iron curtain that he referred to lasted a lot longer than our chocolate one. 

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