A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Queue Jumpers and Diplomatic Parking Scofflaws

free parkingThe line of cars waiting to cross the border was, in fact, no line at all. It was an unruly scrum of cars, wide at the back end yet narrowing into a single line near the immigration booth, with battered old Yugos and brand new BMWs jockeying ahead, inch-by-inch, for supremacy.

We were waiting to enter Macedonia – Greek Macedonia, from Macedonia – Macedonian Macedonia, as in The Republic of Macedonia, or for Greeks, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And as I sat in the logjam, wondering how to cut the line, I thought back to what Blake, my social sponsor at the American Embassy in Skopje, had said about the border.

“You don’t have to wait like all the other slobs,” he boasted. “As diplomats, we have the right to go right to the front of the line.”

And according to Blake there were other vehicular perks as well: park wherever you want, drive as fast as you like and zoom right through toll booths all over the country. But what Blake didn’t explain was how to cut the line at the border, and I didn’t ask, because at the time, it sounded like a very arrogant and stupid thing to do. Why would I cut the line at the border? Only a complete ass would do that, I thought. I didn’t join the Foreign Service because I wanted to be a scofflaw or line cutter, and the idea of drawing attention to myself by conspicuously cutting a line was not appealing. But I’m also highly impatient, and when I first traveled down to the Greek/Macedonian border and saw how long the line was, and how slowly it was moving, I quickly reconsidered my options. The time I’d save would be worth the momentary embarrassment.

But there were only two lanes open at the border, one heading in each direction, and there were scores of cars everywhere. On my first attempt at being a diplomatic line cutter, I was out of my depth and had no idea how to physically do it. So I sat in line like everyone else, plotting my next move.

After a few minutes, I saw a late model Mercedes Benz with tinted windows and diplomatic plates speed past the queue, then stop right before a large concrete median. A man hopped out of the passenger seat, said something to the Greek immigration officer in the booth and then, another Greek official came by and halted progress in the line and waived the diplomatic vehicle up to the booth to be serviced next. A-ha, I thought. So that’s how you do it.

But that was a beautiful new Mercedes Benz that commanded respect. I was driving a 1994 Nissan Altima with all four hubcaps missing, and a side view mirror that was held together with duck tape. I had the diplomatic plates, but I looked more like the assistant manager at Sanford & Son than a legit embassy official.

Nevertheless, I gave it a go, but when I tried it, a couple of cars started honking at me, making me feel like the bum that I was. I looked straight ahead, not wanting to make eye contact with any of the other drivers, and when I parked in front of the median and arrived, on foot, at the booth, the Greek official took a look at my car, then exhaled deeply, rolled his eyes and took a drag on his cigarette.

It appeared as though he planned to accommodate me, but unlike the previous VIP, there was clearly no rush for a low level official driving a junky old car like mine. Over the course of the next two years, I became far more adept at cutting lines at the various borders but I never felt very good about it. Not bad enough to stop the practice, mind you, just a little guilty.

The public has a general perception of diplomats as scofflaws who invoke diplomatic immunity at any opportunity to cover their asses. I think this perception stems from the bad press foreign diplomats in the U.S. get each year due to unpaid parking tickets, particularly in New York, where some foreign diplomats who work at the United Nations tend to park wherever they damn well please.

Last year, the Freakonomics blog posted the following table of outstanding parking tickets for NYC and D.C.-based diplomats.

New York

Egypt – $1,929,142
Kuwait – $1,266,901
Nigeria – $1,019,998
Indonesia – $692,200
Brazil – $608,733

Washington, D.C.

Russia – $27,200
Yemen – $24,600
Cameroon – $19,520
France – $19,520
Mauritania – $8,070

And the Daily Telegraph posted their own league table for diplomatic scofflaws in Great Britain.

China, 257 fines outstanding, £27,690 owing
Afghanistan, 245 fines outstanding, £25,820 owing
Turkey, 253 fines outstanding, £25,590 owing
Saudi Arabia, 169 fines outstanding, £15,440 owing
Cyprus, 140 fines outstanding, £14,500 owing
Pakistan, 128 fines outstanding, £13,120 owing
France, 120 fines outstanding, £11,900 owing
Ghana, 107 fines outstanding, £10,760 owing
Uzbekistan, 102 fines outstanding, £9,680 owing
Malaysia, 89 fines outstanding, £8,950 owing
Ukraine, 86 fines outstanding, £8,260 owing
Russia, 71 fines outstanding, £7,920 owing

In 2006, a study by Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, economists at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that diplomats from the world’s most corrupt countries were also the most likely to be parking scofflaws. I think there’s some truth to that.

I think my social sponsor in Skopje, Blake, was the only Foreign Service Officer I knew who parked their car wherever they pleased. At all three overseas missions I served at, we received very clear messages from each front office specifically warning us against this kind of boorish behavior.

I’m biased but I think that American diplomats are among the world’s best behaved. Not because we’re the most virtuous, but because, as Americans, all eyes are on us overseas, waiting for us to slip up. The stereotype is that we’re arrogant and ignorant of other cultures, so we need to work a little harder to overcome that.

I did my part in the posts I served at – Skopje, Port of Spain and Budapest – by parking on the sidewalks, just like everyone else and cutting the lines at the borders in the nicest way possible.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[Photo via Alan Cleaver on Flickr]