A Traveler in the Foreign Service: My rock-star elevator in Skopje

The first thing I noticed about Macedonia was the Marlboro man and a group of short men smoking cheap alternatives. Six months after being handed the country’s distinctive yellow and red flag, signifying a two year assignment to the American Embassy in Skopje, I’d finally landed in the city’s forlorn little airport.

I was standing by the lone baggage carousel, looking at the Marlboro billboard and the smokers ignoring the no-smoking signs in the smoke-filled terminal. A tall, reed thin man with a receding hairline and a chest full of dangling badges approached me. He had no sign, but it was pretty obvious that I was the American on the flight he was looking for.

“The name’s Zoran, but everybody calls me ‘Ninja,” the embassy driver said, by way of introduction.

I’d soon learn that half the men in Macedonia are named Zoran or Goran, so nicknames come in handy.

Outside the terminal, we had to push our way through an unruly scrum of cabbies and people waiting for friends or relatives. At the time, only departing passengers were allowed inside the airport, so everyone else waited outside. My new boss and my social sponsors, Blake and Adrianna, were waiting just behind the mob to greet me.

The boss introduced herself and left in her own car, but Blake and Adrianna piled in a van with Ninja and I as we sped off to my new home. Blake was a heavyset, baby faced, thirty- something with an air of self-importance. Adrianna was an attractive Salvadoran with an endearing accent. They met and married on Blake’s previous tour in San Salvador.

“I understand you work in the political section,” I said to Blake.

“Actually, I’m the head of the political section,” he said, correcting me.

There were only two Americans in the political section, but it was an important distinction for him.

Skopje circa 2002 was a homely place, not elephant-man ugly, but shabby, unkempt and dreary, particularly on a rainy day. We passed a strip of shops called “Plastic Alley” where Roma sold seemingly identical collections of cheap garbage cans, pots and pans and knickknacks. Dilapidated Yugos shared the unmarked streets with stray dogs and Roma steering horse drawn carriages. I made a mental note to take an alternate route from the airport when my wife arrived in the country in a few months time.

We passed row after row of dilapidated Soviet apartment blocks, most with peeling paint and overflowing garbage bins. It was a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. I was lucky to have three days to settle in before reporting to work at the embassy. Foreign Service Officers are expected to get right off the plane and drive straight in to work the first day, jet-lag and all.

Ninja pulled up in front of the newest, spiffiest apartment building I’d seen during the twenty minute ride. The place seemed half-finished though- there was no grass in front- just a big pile of mud we had to wade through with my bags to get to the front door.

“Mr. David, you have your own private elevator- like a rock-star,” said Ninja, who was a karate champion and law school graduate, in addition to being a driver at the embassy. The four of us jammed shoulder to shoulder into an elevator that whisked us straight up into my fourth floor apartment.

It was a bit odd- we stepped out of the elevator and were in my new foyer/coat closet area, which had two bullet proof doors to the left and another one to the right. Ninja handed me a set of massive set of keys (I later counted 18, 13 of which seemed unnecessary) and we took a look around my new two bedroom apartment.

I couldn’t help but take stock of how surreal it is to arrive at a new post in the Foreign Service. Someone picks you up at the airport and drives you to your new home. Your preferences and tastes are irrelevant, but the rent is free. My new place was quite satisfactory, but looked like the kind of space where one of Tony Soprano’s junior level lieutenants would have felt right at home.

The centerpiece of the living room was a gigantic, twenty foot long, empty, gilded, golden picture frame covering the entire wall. It was so gaudy and ornate, that it would have been too fancy for Michelangelo’s The Last Supper. I also had some very complex kitchen appliances, a hot tub, two bidets, ornately tiled bathrooms, and a view of a church and a gigantic, illuminated cross which sits atop Mt. Vodno overlooking the city.

There were two kinds of people in Skopje who could afford such an apartment: a gangster or a diplomat. All the fixtures were fit for a gangster, but in the Foreign Service, you get the same insipid Drexel Heritage furniture everywhere, so my place was half Sopranos and half Leave it to Beaver.

Still, it was a step up from the drafty $600 per month, 1 bedroom apartment we lived in on the northwest side of Chicago. With some time to kill before Blake and Adrianna returned to take me out to dinner, I decided to examine my new neighborhood. I got into my private little elevator, pushed the button, went down for a few seconds and then jolted to a noisy, screeching halt.

A few minutes passed before I realized that I was stuck in a rock-star elevator on my first day in Macedonia.

Next: Escape from a rock-star elevator

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

[flickr image via bogenfreund]