A Traveler in the Foreign Service: the lovesick American who needed a loan. Twice.

Did you know that the U.S. State Department provides emergency repatriation loans (ERL) for destitute Americans overseas that need help getting home? The loans are intended for Americans who find themselves short of cash or a return ticket home due to some unforeseen circumstance- theft, illness and the like. If approved, the State Department will provide travelers with a one-way ticket back to the U.S. and money to cover their expenses prior to their departure. The rub is that their passport is limited for a single entry back to the U.S. and if they don’t repay the loan, they won’t get a new one.

The State Department doesn’t advertise the program for obvious reasons. In FY 2008, State processed 893 ERL’s worldwide, with a majority coming to assist travelers in Europe and Latin America. From what I gather, most loans are repaid as travelers don’t want to lose their right to get a new passport.

When you work at an American embassy in a country that “normal” American tourists don’t visit, you have an opportunity to meet some, shall we say, unique travelers who often have quite unusual stories of how they washed up in that country. When I worked in Macedonia, we were also responsible for Americans in Kosovo, not exactly a tourist magnet, particularly in the wake of the war there.

Most of the American citizens who came into the embassy for one reason or another were naturalized Americans of Albanian or Macedonian origin, but the American-born citizens who came to Macedonia or Kosovo despite having no connection to the region usually had the most interesting stories. One woman, whom I’ll call Juliet, became such a familiar face that she was practically an honorary member of our staff.

Juliet turned up one day in 2003 at the U.S. Office in Pristina (now an embassy) and fainted after causing a fuss about needing money to get back to the U.S. After helping revive her, local staff there instructed her to visit us down in Skopje.

Juliet told me that she was in Kosovo “just to check the place out.” Her explanation for why she had only a one-way ticket to Kosovo made even less sense.

In order to process a loan for an American traveler, the traveler has to provide the names and phone numbers of three persons who might agree to help them first. Juliet, who was 51 at the time, gave me the contact info for her mother, an adult daughter, and her brother. But she warned that “they ain’t going to give me a dime.”

Nonetheless, I was required to try.

“Good lord, I’m on a fixed income and she is taking years off of my life!” Juliet’s mother said. “Tell me, is she over there screwing around with some young man?”I had no idea and moved on to the brother and the daughter, both of whom told me to get lost.

“She’s been fleecing all of us for years,” her brother said. “She is the world’s biggest 50-year-old child.”

With the three rejections in hand, I was able to process her loan of about $800. When she walked out of the embassy, I assumed I’d never see her again, but about six months later she resurfaced at the embassy.

“What brings you back to the region?” I asked.

“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “But I fell in love.”

She went on to detail how she’d fallen in love with a handsome 20-year old Kosovar whom she’d met on a website for the band The Doors. As soon as she said this, Jim Morrison’s voice popped into my head. Hello, I love you won’t you tell me your name.

Juliet said she had married the young man and wanted to file an immigrant visa petition to bring her young lover, more than thirty years her junior, back to the U.S. But first she wanted another loan to get home, only this time she said she wanted to go to Hawaii, rather than Tennessee.

“I paid the last one,” she reassured me.

“But why on earth did you come back here with another one-way ticket?” I asked.

“I thought we were going to get married and live happily ever after in Kosovo,” she said.
But her young lover had visions of Hawaiian palm trees dancing in his head and insisted they get out of Kosovo. He was obviously marrying her for the right to live in the U.S. but Juliet seemed to be the only person who didn’t understand this.

I checked with contacts back in Washington and was told that we could give her a loan to get to Tennessee but not Hawaii, since she had no proof that she was domiciled there. I called her mother, brother and daughter again and they told me the same thing as six months before, only more forcefully.

“Hell no!” her brother said. “I’m not paying so she can travel around with her boy toy.”

Juliet got her loan, but this time my boss told me that she wanted me to physically escort her to the airport to make sure she actually left the country. As luck would have it, her flight left Skopje at 7 A.M. on a Saturday morning, so I had to meet her at her hotel at 5 A.M.

I turned up at her budget hotel at the appointed time and asked the reception clerk to ring up to her room. The phone kept ringing but she didn’t answer. I hoped that she was in the shower and hadn’t skipped town. I had her plane ticket, so I assumed she was there, but couldn’t be sure. Eventually, I walked up to her room and knocked on the door. She answered in a bathrobe, looking haggard and un-showered, and I could see her young partner lying on the bed in a pair of boxers. Yikes.

“We’re almost ready,” she said, not very convincingly.

Her husband, whom I’ll call Blerim, wasn’t going to the States, at least not yet. She needed to get her financial house in order to sponsor him, but apparently he was coming along for the ride to the airport.

They eventually emerged from their love nest but resumed their ostentatious cuddling and smooching in the back seat and then in the terminal itself, before she boarded the plane. About a year later, Juliet finally had her paperwork together and Blerim joined her in her new home in Hawaii, where she’d found work as a nurse. I assume that they lived happily ever after, at least until he got his green card and left her for someone his own age.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via mtarlock on Flickr.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Ding Dongs and danger pay in Kosovo

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.]

Western Kosovo: Peja and Decan

western kosovo peja decan

In the west of Kosovo sits Peja (in Serbian: Pec), a comfortable city of over 80,000, framed by enormous peaks. Peja isn’t really ready for significant numbers of tourists, with just a handful of what the eager fellow at the tourist information office called “tourist standard” hotels.

Even given the paucity of beds for tourists–and despite the fact that a film festival was ongoing during our visit–we only had to spend ten minutes hitting the pavement before finding rooms at Hotel Gold, a perfectly acceptable, very Mitteleuropa sort of place.

In point of fact, Peja is a very appealing city, considerably more pleasant to wander than Prishtina, Kosovo’s hurly-burly capital city. Peja’s immediate appeals include its central downtown area, the green and mountainous Rugova Valley, and the Pec Patriarchate, a monastic complex viewed as the spiritual core of Serbia.

That this final site is located within the boundaries of Kosovo, recognized by most European countries as independent from Serbia since 2008, underscores the complexity of the tussle over territory and sovereignty in this corner of the Balkans.

Peja is also home to a lovely restaurant called Art Design (Rr Enver Hadri), where the local dishes are very good. Order the filling local meze platter and ignore the more international offerings.
western kosovo peja decan

It is, however, the remarkable monastery of Visoki Decani, several miles away in the town of Decan, that is the region’s most impressive site. Guarded by Italian KFOR (NATO-led Kosovo force) peacekeepers, the church itself is a large medieval structure that dates back to the 14th Century.

While the interior frescoes, intricate and overwhelming, are particularly striking, the entire complex is of interest to pilgrims and tourists alike. The monastery’s shop has a fascinating inventory, selling religious items, cheese, honey, and other products from Visoki Decani as well as from other monasteries in the region.

Tourist agencies in Prishtina often suggest to visitors that Visoki Decani be visited on a day trip from the capital. It may be simpler for rushed visitors to proceed in this manner, though such an approach also means missing out on the opportunity to overnight in delightful and relaxed Peja.

You should be able to bargain a taxi between Peja and Visoki Decani monastery down to €5, or around €10 if you ask your driver to wait to return you to Peja following your visit.