A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Escape from a rock-star elevator in Skopje

Trapped in a private, “rock-star” elevator in a seemingly half-finished apartment building on my first day in Macedonia, I turned, in desperation, to a phrase book. I had spent the previous six months in language training at the Foreign Service Institute, studying full time in a class of two, to prepare for an assignment at the American embassy in Skopje. But I didn’t know how to say, “HELP!”

I was the lone member of the embassy trained in the country’s minority language- Albanian- which is somewhat akin to posting a diplomat in Washington, D.C. with only Spanish training and no English. I lived in a part of town where Albanian was useless and, at this moment, was happy to have found the word for “help” in Macedonian in a phrasebook I had fortuitously stuffed in my backpack before leaving my apartment.

“U-Poh-MOSH!” I yelled. “U-POH-MOSH!”

I’d later learn that I shared my “rock-star” elevator with 3 apartments beneath me, but these other residences were all under construction. I had heard someone hammering just outside the elevator and the noise ceased for a minute after I let out my cry.

There was silence for a moment and then I heard a most unwelcome sound: laughter. I considered the fact that I was pronouncing the word wrong, so I tried various other iterations of the word. Eventually the laughter ceased and the workman started talking to me, in Macedonian. I had no clue what he was saying.

“Please, just get me the hell out of here!” I yelled.

But the man seemed either powerless or disinterested. After about a half hour trapped in the elevator I started to feel claustrophobic and short of breath. It finally dawned on me that I had the cell phone number of my new boss, whom I’d met at the airport just an hour before. We had only exchanged pleasantries and now I had to call her, at the start of a three-day weekend, to bail me out of an elevator. Only in the fishbowl world of the Foreign Service could such an uncomfortable supervisor-subordinate introduction take place.

“Hi Karen, it’s Dave Seminara, we just met at the airport,” I said, making my very first call on a new mobile phone I’d been given.

“I seem to be stuck in an elevator at my apartment building.”

“Stuck in an elevator?” she asked, incredulous. “Well are you sure you hit the right buttons?”I was 29 years old and, by that point in my life, felt reasonably certain that I knew how to go up and down in elevators. But given the circumstances, I refrained from making a sarcastic response and my new boss said she’d make some phone calls to try to get me out.
I sat down on the floor of the small elevator box, and listened to the workman’s music as he ignored my occasional ravings. After about twenty more minutes, I felt a sudden jolt and I was hurdling down, presumably towards the lobby, at top speed.

I stepped out of the elevator, feeling very much like a released prisoner, and Karen was standing there looking concerned, alongside an attractive, nearly six-foot tall young woman named Saska, a local employee at the embassy who also lived in the building. They were both nice to me but I think they suspected that my elevator mishap was somehow my own fault.

After they left, I took a long, depressing walk down Vasil Gyorgov, the street my apartment was located on in Skopje’s Kapistec neighborhood. The sidewalks were filled with parked cars so I had to walk in the street. I kept getting splashed by demented Yugo drivers who targeted me, the lone fool out for a walk in a city of some 500,000 inhabitants.

I passed row after row of shabby Soviet-era apartment blocks before coming upon what looked like an oasis: The Beverly Hills Shopping Center. I walked in and meandered up to a pizza kiosk. Teenagers were taking turns unloading the contents of a ketchup bottle onto slices of pizza that looked hard enough to knock rabid dogs unconscious.

There were cafés with names like Prestige and Trend and a whole host of dark, drafty little shops selling burned cd’s and software. The higher-end shops were selling pirated cd’s that had photocopied liner notes, but a few others were simply selling what appeared to be burned copies of their own personal collections. I bought a homemade cd of Nirvana’s Greatest Hits for 100 denars, a bit less than $2, and returned to my apartment. I took the stairs.

That night, my embassy social sponsors, Blake and Adrianna, took me out for pizza and a brief tour of the downtown. The highlights were the country’s only working A.T.M. machine (or so they claimed), the two best pubs- creatively called the Irish Pub and the English Pub, one on each side of the Vardar River- and the Gradski Trgovski Mall, which offered a slightly better selection of burned CD’s and pirated software than the Beverly Hills Mall.

We met up with a young, local, married couple, and when I told them that part of my duties at the embassy would include interviewing visa applicants, the young woman concluded, “You’re going to be the most popular guy in Macedonia.” Or perhaps the least popular, I thought.

The following day, Blake offered to take me hunting, and when I declined, he seemed put out. The three day weekend passed slowly and on my first day at work at the embassy, I was already famous. Over and over again I heard the same thing.

“You’re the guy who got stuck in the elevator, right?”

It was a perfect introduction to the Foreign Service- a peculiar little world where there are no secrets. The local employees in the consular section asked me to recount the story and all gathered around me in rapt attention. They howled in delight; it was as though my debacle was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. I liked them immediately.

I would spend the next two years of my life living and working in this fishbowl. I never socialized with Blake again, Saska’s husband became a good friend, and I never ventured back into my rock-star elevator.

Next: Ciao Macho Man

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.