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.

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

european passport stamps
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.
european passport stamps
Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.

Weekending: Prague


While I’m living in Istanbul, I try to take advantage of all the amazing destinations a few hours’ flight away and travel there as often as possible. I like to focus on destinations that are harder to access from the US for just a few days (such as Turkey’s beach town Bodrum) and places best explored while I’m still relatively young and unencumbered (to wit: Beirut). Traveling as an expat takes on a different flavor as well, seeking culture and cuisine not found in my new city.

The place: Prague, Czech Republic

I really had no intention of going to Prague. Not that it doesn’t interest me, I’ve heard it is enchanting and a must-see city, but this particular weekend we were all set to go to Kosovo, one of the world’s youngest countries (by self-declared independence as well as population). A series of minor events caused us to miss our flight by minutes, but as we were already at the airport and ready to travel, we asked to be re-booked on the next international flight somewhere, which turned out to be Prague. We arrived in the Czech Republic with no reservations, research, or plans and through the magic of social media (and the Prague Airport’s free wifi), I was greatly assisted and reassured by the great advice and insight from travel writers and friends Evan Rail, Alexander Basek, and Gadling’s own David Farley. Turns out it’s not an overrated country and I can now say, “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.”

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  • Two words: pork and beer. Ask any meat-eating expat in a Muslim country what they miss most about home and they will invariably say pork. While it’s available in Turkey, it’s scarce and pricey. Alcohol is easier to come by, but anything imported will cost you and while Turkey’s national Efes satisfies, it tastes like watered down Bud Light after drinking Czech beer. Arriving in a city thronged with sausage carts and beer halls was like visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The beer isn’t just tasty and cheap, it’s available anywhere, pretty much anytime. For tips on the best pubs to drink at, trust anything by Evan Rail – Tony Bourdain did earlier this year. My last night in Prague was spent at the lovely Meduza Cafe, a near-perfect spot to have a coffee or glass of wine, write in your journal, and revel in Bohemia.
  • The city’s beauty is well-known, and one of the greatest pleasures is just strolling the streets and bridges and soaking up the atmosphere. It’s interesting to contrast the romantic castle and ornate Old Town Square architecture with some of the old Soviet buildings, like the modern art Veletzni Palace museum, and the wacky sculptures of David Cerny. Small but worthwhile attractions include the Museum of Communism (if only for the darkly funny posters such as “Like their sisters in the West, they would’ve burnt their bras – if there were any in the shops”) and the Museum of Decorative Arts, featuring a fascinating collection of costumes, design, and knick-knacks – as well as a great view of the always-crowded Jewish Cemetery from the bathrooms (a tip from Evan, thanks!).

Downgrades

  • Even after seeing Paris, London, and New York, Prague is the most touristed city I’ve been to yet. Long after being discovered as a “budget” European destination (it’s still cheap by Europe standards, but not quite the bargain it was in the ’90s), the streets are packed with package tourists from all over the world, backpackers, and worst of all – pub-crawling college students. True story: one night a shirtless American kid walked in a mini-market, talking on his cell phone about how drunk he was and how he tried to hook up with some other girls in his hostel. He hung up and told his friends he was talking to his MOM. By day in the areas around Old Town Square and Prague Castle, you’d be hard pressed to hear anyone speak Czech and it’s difficult to find a spot not mobbed with tourists, which all takes a bit away from the city’s authenticity.
  • Not quite a downgrade but perhaps due to the aforementioned tourists, service at restaurants can be brusque and some less scrupulous taxi drivers have been known to take passengers for a ride. If possible, let your hotel book taxis to ensure you get a fair price and find out what approximate prices are around town. Other than a few waiters having a bad day, I’d hardly condemn the Czech people as being anything other than friendly and helpful. The bigger deterrent is the disrespectful, entitled, and obnoxious tourists.

Getting there

Delta flies direct from New York to Prague Airport, and British and American Airlines fly via London Heathrow. Budget carriers bmiBaby, German Wings, easyJet, and WizzAir service Prague from Europe. It’s an easy and cheap bus and metro ride into the city center from the airport.

Make it a week

Prague is surrounded by beautiful countryside (remember the sunflower fields in Everything is Illuminated? Filmed outside Prague) and the city is well connected to towns and cities around the Czech Republic. Spend a few days in the capital and then get out and explore Bohemia.

Weekending: Beirut


One of the best things about life as an expat in Turkey is easy access to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, with many previously far-flung destinations only a few hours’ flight away. I might not plan a week-long vacation in, say, Kosovo, but if I can be there for Friday happy hour and home Monday morning, why not? My main criteria for choosing weekend trips are easy access, no advance visa required, and access to sights and culture I won’t find in Istanbul. Other than that, I pore over the Turkish Airlines timetable like a Stieg Larsson novel, choose a destination, and start planning.

The place: Beirut, Lebanon

All the travel mags have recently hyped Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East,” a title the city has long boasted but only recently regained after the 2006 bombings. Now it’s *the* place for nightlife in the Middle East, a hot bed of new construction with luxury hotels opening like the Four Seasons and Le Gray, and a diverse mix of culture (Lebanon has 18 official religions, representing Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and the Islamic Druze sect), where you can often hear church bells and the mosque’s call to prayer on the same corner. The downtown district has been beautifully restored, though it lacks a little soul; the Corniche waterfront is pleasant for strolling among Muslim families and locals drinking tea and smoking nargileh pipes; and the university area of Hamra is dotted with cozy pubs and cafes.

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  • As the summer gets more oppressively hot in Turkey, I find myself in search of a beach and despite the fact that Istanbul is surrounded by water, options are slim and expensive. Beirut offers many options for refreshment in the form of beach clubs (really a glorified pool complex with restaurants), where you can also take in the daytime social scene with young Lebanese chatting each other up in the pool with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other (smoking is pretty much the national sport of Lebanon, so be warned). If you’re not wearing stilettos and a bejeweled, designer bikini that probably shouldn’t come into contact with liquid, you’re probably under dressed.
  • The shopping scene downtown has the usual gang of international brands, but nearby Saifi Village has cool boutiques with local, up-and-coming designers. Even more interesting is the Sunday Souq el Ahad flea market, with everything from live chickens to bootleg DVDs to antique clocks, with nary a souvenir or fanny pack in sight. Try saying that about the Grand Bazaar.
  • Expat ease: English is widely spoken and US dollars are used everywhere in addition to Lebanese lira, though getting change in two currencies requires some finely honed math skills. Alcohol is quite readily available and cheaper than in Turkey, with particularly good local wine and laughably cheap duty free prices.

Downgrades

  • With all the hotel openings, the cost of accommodation is pretty steep, with few hotels under $200 in high season and a dearth of good budget options. Looking for a hotel with a pool (a must in summer), I ended up at the Riviera Hotel, where the main draw was the attached beach club and quick walk to Hamra, for $165 a night. Beirut could use a chain like Istanbul’s House Hotels, which has converted historic buildings in trendy neighborhoods into chic and cheap accommodation.
  • As sprawling and inconvenient as Istanbul’s public transportation is, Beirut is even worse with a confusing and rundown bus system and taxi cabs which have no meters (tricky to agree to a price in advance when you don’t speak Arabic or understand what price you should pay). Service taxis are shared cars most locals use to get around, but they are virtually indistinguishable from private taxis and difficult to navigate, as you have to ask where they are going.
  • Beirut has a handful of good museums and good access to day trips, but otherwise your sightseeing can be done in a day or two, which can leave you for more time for people watching at the beach or at a cafe. Contrasted with Istanbul’s endless array of palaces, museums, historical sights, and markets, Beirut works best as a stop on a larger trip or as a relaxation and nightlife-centric getaway.

Getting there

Beirut International Airport is served by flights from Europe and the Middle East; budget carriers Air Baltic and Pegasus connect with most of Europe, and bmi flies from 7 cities in the US via London. Most countries get a free 1-month visa on arrival. There’s no public transit from the airport; arrange a taxi pickup with your hotel, or try to bargain to around $30 – 40. Along with Syria and a dozen other countries, Lebanon will not allow entry to anyone with an Israeli passport stamp, but you shouldn’t have many problems going into Israel with a Lebanese stamp.

Make it a week

Beirut is an exciting, sad, glamorous, and hopeful city, all at the same time and depending on your perspective. It would be worthwhile to extend your trip to explore more of Lebanon or combine with a visit to Syria (also a “go there before it gets discovered” destination but requires you apply for a visa in advance).