I was standing on a stage in an auditorium in front of about 500 people frozen in terror at Nota Fest, which is like the Grammy awards for Macedonia’s ethnic-Albanian community. The organizers of the event had invited our Ambassador, Larry Butler, to present a lifetime achievement award and when he, and several other more important people at the embassy declined, the duty was punted down to me, a lowly first tour diplomat.
Attending b and c list events in host countries is a big part of life in the Foreign Service and the more junior you are, the more likely you’ll end up at Tajikistan’s national day (think warm, generic cola and greasy mutton) instead of Italy’s. (think prosciutto and fine wine). It was a command performance but I was assured that I wasn’t going to have to say anything in Albanian.
“All you have to do is get up on stage, smile, and hand someone an award,” said Lindita, a charming local employee from the embassy who probably could convince the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to muster “you go girl” enthusiasm for the Ellen DeGeneris Show.
I had only been in the country for a few weeks and was still feeling insecure about speaking Albanian one-on-one, let alone in front of an audience of hundreds of people, so not speaking was a key point in the negotiations.
After sitting through three hours of live performances, many of them shockingly bad, with nary an alcoholic beverage in sight, I was finally called up on the stage, ostensibly to present the lifetime achievement award. Immediately the jazzily dressed hostess handed me a microphone, sending a wave of panic straight up my spine. Please do not ask me a question, I thought.
Suddenly a torrent of Albanian words filled the air and my mind raced to understand what was being said. I froze as the sold-out crowd waited to hear my response. But what the hell was the question? I didn’t understand it, so I made some general remark about what a great evening it was, in Albanian. She repeated the question and on the second go-around I realized that she was asking me for an opinion on what had been the best performance of the night. Good grief.
The only two redeeming acts of the night were folk groups that I couldn’t conjure the names of for the life of me. In that instant of panic, the only song I could recall the name of was a ridiculous little ditty called Ciao Macho Man. The number featured a slutty-looking, bleach blond, Spice girl wannabe, nicknamed “Tuna,” bopping around the stage encircled by about 7 or 8 break dancing (yes break dancing) teenage boys wearing wife beaters and auto mechanic costumes. It was more or less akin to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl video, only there was break dancing rather than singing into wrenches.The hostess and five hundred impatient Albanians demanded to know my opinion on the best song of the night, so I said, in Albanian, “Maybe it was Ciao Macho Man,” to a hearty round of applause. This seemed to satisfy the hostess and, thankfully, I was allowed to leave the stage.
I made a beeline for Lindita, who was accompanied by Rita, another one of our colleagues.
“I am so embarrassed,” she said, before I could speak.
“What the hell happened?” I asked.
“The person who was supposed to get the award didn’t show up, so she was ad libbing,” Lindita explained.
“Well, please don’t tell me that Ciao Macho Man is going to get the award on my account,” I said.
Moments later, the hostess reappeared on stage and announced that Ciao Macho Man had indeed won the award for best performance. The three of us fled into a taxi as snowflakes began to fall all over the macho men and women of Skopje. Rita got a phone call and then gave me some comforting news.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I just found out that Ciao Macho Man won because one of the Albanian political parties here fixed the contest, not because you said they should win.”
I felt momentarily relieved that Macedonia’s pervasive corruption, rather than my linguistic ineptitude had won the day for the macho men, but then my phone went off. It was Marija, one of the local employees I supervised at the embassy.
“Hey, macho man, I am so proud of you,” she said.
“Wow, word travels fast, how did you hear about it already?” I asked, totally confused.
“I didn’t hear about it, I just saw you on T.V.” she said.
Apparently I had just expressed a preference for Ciao Macho Man on live national television. I should have been ashamed but the beauty of living in a foreign country is that you can make a complete fool of yourself on television and feel safe in the knowledge that none of your friends and relatives will ever know about it. That is, unless you write about it, ten years later on a blog.
Read more from a Traveler in the Foreign Service here.
Image via flickr user Tibchris.