Erhan Kurt is driving along an empty country road on a cool Sunday evening. It's foggy and visibility is poor, but he is determined to reach the village that was once his home. He wants to drink -- whiskey, two bottles and perhaps even three -- and he wants to smoke and talk, just as he does every evening during his visits to Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union. His country.
Kurt drives past an abandoned train station and run-down stockyards. The house where he was born, 32 years ago, stands right at the beginning of the village of Slivo Pole. It's abandoned now, and the bar next door, which he used to frequent, has gone out of business. He passes the grocery store where villagers buy their food on credit. The only reason the barbershop is still in business is that there is a Western Union counter in the storage room. "Hardly anything would work here anymore without the money from Wilhelmsburg," Kurt says as he drives past the buildings in his blue BMW. They would all starve to death."
He is referring to the few residents who have remained behind. The parents of those who left, those sons and daughters who now live in German cities like Berlin, Erfurt and Hamburg. Kurt is one of the ones who left Slivo Pole.
And yet he keeps coming back. He has become a mover of sorts, but instead of furniture he moves people -- people who have nothing left but the hope of starting a new life in a German city. If they are lucky, they travel with Kurt to Wilhelmsburg, a blue-collar neighborhood in Hamburg's port district. Wilhelmsburg is Kurt's territory, where he runs a logistics company that supplies German companies with day laborers.
Meco Gül, a friend of Kurt's who still spends most of his time in Bulgaria, is sitting in the passenger seat. Kurt needs Gül for his operation, because Gül owns a minibus with which he drives the 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from Bulgaria to Germany and back once a week. Gül brings Kurt new workers.
The two men have known each other since childhood. They were born into communism, grew up on the same street, and became impoverished when Bulgaria transformed into a democracy. They were both cattle traders in Bulgaria and later picked strawberries in Greece together, where they shared a plastic tarp at night. "We were poor day laborers," says Kurt. But that was then. Today the two men are known in Slivo Pole as "the cleanup guys." Their role today is to empty out villages.
'Slaves of Globalization'
Kurt gets out of his BMW and walks through the narrow, empty streets of Slivo Pole. He doesn't usually like to walk, but he wants to show off his achievements. He points to a house on the left and says: "They're in Wilhelmsburg." He points to a house on the right: "Wilhelmsburg." Across the street: "Wilhelmsburg." A few villagers still sort grapes in Spain, pick strawberries in Greece or roll pizza dough in Denmark. Kurt calls them "slaves of globalization." They were once his neighbors, but today they are his merchandise.
Kurt knows that his people are unwanted in Germany. They are poorly educated, rather than being doctors and engineers, they don't speak German or English, they are not members of any elite and they are not even skilled workers. But none of this has deterred them from coming to Germany.
There are many villages like Slivo Pole in the EU's new Eastern European member states. For their residents, the EU's poorest citizens, the freedom to travel has become the freedom to escape. After spending decades living on the outskirts of Bucharest, Sofia or Russe, they are now leaving, hoping to cash in on the promise of prosperity that went hand-in-hand with EU accession. Since then, entire villages have moved to German cities, villages like Romania's Fântânele. Virtually its entire population now lives in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood. Or Barbulesti, which has been relocated to the western city of Duisburg. And Slivo Pole, whose former residents now call Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg home.
Kurt has come to Bulgaria during the vacation period, when his workers return to Slivo Pole from Germany. They are now standing outside the village car repair shop, drinking instant coffee from plastic cups and arguing with Kurt and his driver Meco Gül over whether gasoline is cheaper in Romania or Hungary.
Gül was the subject of a story published in SPIEGEL three years ago, which described what was then his somewhat improvised business of transporting temporary workers. Those humble beginnings have become a professionally managed business today. "We haven't struck it rich," says Kurt, "but we have created a system in which we no longer go hungry."
When he talks about the past, he most often refers to the years before 2007, when Bulgaria joined the EU. They were all still living in Slivo Pole then -- when the milk from Kurt's cows suddenly became worthless.
Today there are expensive German cars with German license plates parked in front of the village repair shop. They include a black BMW X5 and Audi station wagon. The BMW has 700,000 kilometers on its odometer, but that isn't a relevant benchmark here in Slivo Pole. A BMW, no matter how old, is synonymous with upward mobility. Kurt's work begins when the cars from Germany pull up outside the repair shop. "It's the best time to recruit fresh meat," Kurt told us as we were driving into the village.
In Slivo Pole, good fortune is expressed in visual terms. Those who drive German cars or have painted their houses pink or green are fortunate. Someone who hosts a three-day wedding party and can then afford to pay the singer 5,000 ($6,920) is fortunate. To be fortunate in Slivo Pole, money is a necessity. And to get money, you have to leave.
Kurt and Gül talk to the men about Germany. They tell them that Döner kebabs taste better in Wilhelmsburg, that you can fill two large bags with groceries at Aldi for 50, and that a package of sliced cheese costs 0.55, not 2.50. Kurt approaches drunkards by the side of the road and says: "You have to get out of here. You won't make it with six kids."
Kurt is constantly shaking hands. A gold watch is visible under his leather jacket, and he smells of Paco Rabanne "1 Million" cologne, which he bought at Kaufland, a German hypermarket chain.
Kurt campaigns on behalf of Germany like someone promoting free credit cards. Unemployed villagers ask him about work, and then they ask Gül if he has space for them on his bus. Kurt's cellphone rings periodically. Logistics companies from Wilhelmsburg are calling to order packers.
Like any village losing its residents to the West, Slivo Pole has its pioneers who went first, returned and infected their village with stories about German doctors who treat you in return for a plastic card -- no cash required. They talked about the buses that run on time, and they brought along medications and the first Christmas tree anyone in Slivo Pole, a Muslim village, had ever seen.
Kurt was one of those pioneers who, together with his brothers and cousins, took a chance and went to Germany, long before Bulgaria joined the EU. They were initially illegal, then they applied for asylum, and now they are EU citizens.
Kurt points to a cousin's house and says: "That was a shack. Just look at it." Today it's a freshly painted three-story house with a balcony off of every room. There is a leopard-print carpet in the foyer, German bath salts in the bathroom cabinet and wireless Internet that even works in the basement. There are German laminate floors, and even the kitchen cabinets are from Germany. The daughter is studying finance, and the son grows mint and has applied for subsidies from an EU fund to grow American worms. Their father, Kurt's cousin, works in a warehouse in Wilhelmsburg while his wife cleans the houses of wealthy Germans on Hamburg's Alster Lake. "Anyone can do it," says Kurt.
He laughs loudly, raising his hand and throwing his head back, his mouth wide open -- revealing that half of his teeth are missing. When Kurt speaks, everyone else is silent. And he likes to talk -- to tell his own story. It's all part of his campaign to promote a new family model, one in which the parents leave their children at home, make lots of money and eventually return home, rich and happy.
"It's an illusion," says his partner Gül. He knows of no one who has returned from the West. He has continued walking and is now standing at the village's wishing tree. He pulls a thread from his scarf and ties it to a branch, making a wish.
The tree has been there for as long as the village has existed, since the early 1900s. It is protected by a wall and a green metal gate; yellow and red threads are tied to its branches. Scarves, bras and underwear blow in the wind. Sometimes the people in Gül's bus want to make one last trip to the tree to make a wish before being taken to their new lives. Gül waits in his van. He is a patient man with a quiet voice and coarse hands -- hands that are often used to repair car heating systems and replace batteries.
The people from Slivo Pole aren't traveling into the unknown; they know what awaits them in Germany, unlike many others from impoverished southeastern European countries. Those who leave Slivo Pole usually have a brother, a sister or a cousin already living in Wilhelmsburg. They have neighbors whose wives have become prostitutes, siblings who live in basements in Wilhelmsburg, paying 250 a month to sleep on a mattress or acquaintances who sleep under bridges. They are familiar with the stories of bosses who pay 3 an hour and beat their workers when pallets aren't being packed quickly enough, or of construction foremen who suddenly leave without paying their workers.
And still they board Gül's bus.