THREE DAYS LATER I was in Bulgaria again, buying an airline ticket for the journey back home. The airline office was almost empty but for the two ticket agents, both of whom were young women. I asked them where they were from.

One, it turned out, was an ethnic Turk from southern Bulgaria. The other had come down from Belgrade: She was a Serb. Her office had been closed because of the NATO bombing, and the company had temporarily transferred her to the office in Sofia.

I remarked with some surprise that this was rather unusual, having a Muslim and a member of the Serbian Orthodox Church working side by side. “Surely,” I ventured, “and particularly now during the war, you must find working together very difficult indeed?

The women laughed, as if they had been asked this question once too often already.

“No, don’t be absurd,” one of them said. ‘We get along just fine.”

And then they did something they had clearly rehearsed before, and had rehearsed well. Each of them raised her left arm and held it out straight, for me to see.

On each there was a gold wristwatch, by Cartier.

And that, of course 3/4 that they had money, that they could buy things, that they could escape the rigors of Balkan poverty 3/4 was the reason. And maybe, in time, and for everyone, it would be the answer.

From THE FRACTURE ZONE. Copyright © 1999 by Simon Winchester. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.