When I worked at the American Embassy in Skopje, I looked forward to visiting Kosovo. Not because I liked the place, but because I wanted junk food. American junk food. I’m talking Hostess cupcakes, Chips Ahoy, Jif Peanut Butter and the like. And trips to Kosovo, if you were crafty, meant a visit to Camp Bondsteel, a huge American military base with a P.X. that was sort of like a mini Wal-Mart.
Aside from the availability of American goodies, Pristina was still considered a hazard post with 25% danger pay, and one could collect this extra cash, on a prorated basis, even if you were there for as little as a half day of “work.” At the time, Kosovo was part of Skopje’s consular district, so it wasn’t difficult to drum up a reason to go there, and our local employees there were well schooled on the drill: make sure to set up some contrived meeting or a tour at Camp Bondsteel, so we could have lunch at Burger King and shop at the P.X.
I traveled extensively in developing countries before joining the Foreign Service but I never felt the need to hunt down American products while overseas. Part of the joy of travel is in buying unfamiliar products and eating different foods. But within a few months of living in Skopje, I found myself craving not just American products but also the American shopping experience I was familiar with. Why?
I had a local supermarket called Vero close to my apartment in Skopje but I dreaded going to the place. Aside from the fact that they didn’t have things that I thought were staples- fresh low-fat milk, lettuce and the like- navigating the parking lot was always an experience.
Upon arrival, Roma would rush over to your car and start washing it. Even if you’d protest that you didn’t need a wash, they’d ignore you. Generally they’d be satisfied with a small tip after you returned with your groceries, but on one occasion, a Roma entrepreneur balked at the 100 denar ($2) payment I gave him.
“Five euros,” he said, no doubt exhausting his entire English language vocabulary.
“You don’t want this?” I said, pointing at the crumpled bills that he was disdainfully holding up in the air.
“No, no,” he said. “Five euros.”
So I took my money back and hastily got in my car to leave. He called out to two colleagues who were washing other cars on the far side of the parking lot, and, as I tried to flee the scene, the three of them chased me, waving their sponges in anger.
When I told this story to some locals at work the next day, they howled in derision.
“See, you foreigners are so stupid!” they said. “The gypsies think you’ll pay anything for a car wash!”
And if the car wash guys didn’t get to you, the cart guys did. In order to secure a shopping cart, you had to put a 1 denar coin into a lock in the cart. After you returned the cart, you got your coin back. So the Roma would stand outside the store and accost people who looked like easy marks. I had no problem letting them take my cart to get the coin, but they also would grab my groceries and try to put them in my trunk for a fee. Needless to say this routine got old very fast.
Aside from the contrived meetings at Bondsteel, my wife, who worked as the Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer, organized monthly shopping field trips at Bondsteel. We didn’t collect danger pay for those forays, but our van would always be literally packed to the brim with Hungry Man dinners, Twinkies and various other things that none of us would dream of eating in the U.S.
Once the war in Iraq broke out, I would sometimes feel a tinge of guilt over the fact that we could collect the same level of danger pay in Kosovo that our intrepid colleagues in Iraq were getting. But in the Foreign Service, compensation is often based more on the ability of an embassy’s management officers, who compile the reports that result in adjustments to things like hardship, danger and cost of living allowances.
For example, when I arrived in Skopje, we were receiving hardship pay of 15% above our salaries and no one complained about this until we discovered that Sofia, our neighbor to the East, had just been bumped up to 20%.
“Sofia?” we cried. “They have Dunkin Donuts for Christ’s sake!”
If our Munchkin’ eating colleagues in Sofia were getting 20, we thought we deserved 25. An informal task force was developed to try to document why we too deserved more money. The key was to make the place sound as dreadful as possible, and as the resident amateur photographer, I was asked to do my part by taking photos of stray dogs, litter and peeling Communist apartment blocks. The uglier, the better. A good management officer can make Paris sound like Mogadishu and thanks to the efforts of our task force, we were soon bumped up to 20%.
The flip side is that some dysfunctional posts had no clue how to document hardship- real or imagined. After Skopje, I was posted to Port of Spain, which, by my account, was much more of a hardship than Skopje, but was classified as a 5% post, largely because we had Roy Austin, a political appointee and friend of George W. Bush as ambassador. Mr. Austin believed that everything was just fine in Trinidad, much to our chagrin.
A look at the State Department hardship and danger pay tables offers some insights into the perceived difficulty and danger of living in various places around the world. Khartoum is 25% but Vladivostok is 30. Moldova is 20% but Ciudad Juarez is only 10, the same as Reykjavik and Tallinn! Go figure.
And the poor souls in Skopje are now down to just 10%, while the danger pay in Kosovo is a mere 5%. Barely enough cash to buy a package of Ding Dongs at the P.X.
(Note: the hardship and danger pay allowances aren’t as generous as they sound. State Department employees in D.C. receive locality pay, currently 24%, and overseas employees do not. So, if an FSO is posted to a country with 10% hardship pay, they are actually making 14% less than they would in D.C., though they have their housing paid for.)
Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.
[Image via ohdarling at Flickr.]