what can one buy for 5,000,000,000 dinars?

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As I walked the streets of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city, I ran across a street vendor who was selling various baubles and trinkets. Among the less valuable items were some coins and old currency. Serbia finally gained its independence in 2006 after being a part of various unions such as Yugoslavia [Socialist Republic], Yugoslavia [Serbia & Montenegro], then Serbia & Montenegro. Confused? I think the Balkan people are too.

During the time of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, in 1993 a few years after Slovenia had gained it independence and during the civil war in Croatia and Bosnia [one of many in the Balkans during this period], Serbia experienced a period of hyperinflation partially as a result of an embargo. As has been the case in many countries that have experienced this type of economic stress, the cost of goods skyrocketed and the number of zeros on the currency followed suit.

The 5,000,000,000 [five billion] dinar note was actually not the biggest. It was in fact possible to have a five hundred billion dinar note. If you were fortunate enough to have the smaller note in your dzep [your Serbian pocket] and if you woke up early enough, you would have been able to buy a full loaf of bread. Unfortunately, you would not be getting any change.

If, like me, you are not a morning person, you would have had to kiss goodbye any dreams of toast with your breakfast for that day. Or that week. Or that month. There was no guarantee, even after standing in line for hours, that there would even be a crust of bread left to buy. This was also true for staples such as milk, oil, sugar, flour and potatoes, and butter was nonexistent.

Once home, you would enter your house with no electricity and no hot water from the tap, and make an “inflation cake.” You would simply take water, flour and salt, mix in a pan, cook or bake it somehow, and enjoy with a nice cold nothing.

I don’t mean to mock this experience, but instead illustrate some of the realities of living in Serbia during the hyperinflation of the early 1990s. Once the hyperinflation was under control, a few years later you would have bridge bombings to look forward to, particularly in Novi Sad. The political situation in the region was and is quite complex, so I encourage anyone who is interested to read more about the region during this period.

Today, five billion dinar notes can be found, most often as bookmarks. This alone signifies progress.

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