A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Even corpses get bumped from flights

I was standing over a coffin that contained the corpse of a 76-year-old American missionary whom I was supposed to help repatriate to the U.S., trying to figure out why he was naked. After a long consultation with Stevcho, a sinister-looking funeral parlor boss, my local colleague at the American embassy in Skopje concluded that the man’s clothes were “probably” at a forensics lab.

“Well, is he going to get them back?” I asked.

A long discussion ensued and Ljupka, my colleague, concluded that the man’s clothes were probably gone for good.

“But don’t worry,” she said. “The funeral parlor in the U.S. will get him a nice suit. His daughter won’t have to see him like this.”

The men wanted me to confirm that the body was a man whom I’ll call Joe. But the corpse in front of me bore only a vague resemblance to the passport photo I held in my hand.

“They found his passport on him, right?” I asked. “So I guess it must be him.”

With that, I signed a few more receipts, and then two workers moved into action, using a medieval looking blowtorch to seal the coffin shut for its flight.

We followed a Blues-Brothers-like hearse to a cargo warehouse adjacent to Skopje’s rather unimpressive little airport. The cargo guy had three empty cans of beer on his desk. One of them was flattened like a pancake. He had a calendar featuring photos of nude women hanging above his head. It was 4:30 p.m. on a Friday and my colleagues were, ironically, at a sexual harassment seminar that very afternoon. The mildly inebriated shipping clerk didn’t inspire confidence but he and Ljupka seemed to work out Joe’s travel plans in a matter of moments.

“He’s going to have a three hour layover in Vienna,” Ljupka said, looking to me for approval.

“That’ll be fine,” I said, feeling ridiculous.

Of course, it would be fine; dead people don’t mind layovers.

I half expected them to ask me if he wanted a window or an aisle seat, or if he had any dietary restrictions or a frequent flyer card.As we left the airport, I felt sad and a bit ashamed, as though I’d just been complicit in something tawdry. I felt bad about leaving and asked Ljupka if I owed it to Joe to stay with him, to make sure he made it onto his flight.

“But his flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow afternoon,” she said. “You aren’t going to sit in a warehouse, watching him all night. Come on, who’s going to want a dead body?”

I accepted her logic but didn’t trust the beer-drinking cargo guy. On the way back to the embassy, I called my boss and asked her what she found out about Joe. Other than the fact that he was a missionary from Arkansas, she also ascertained that he was a Korean War veteran and had just been back to Arkansas for a visit one month before. His daughter had told him he ought to come home, but Joe believed in his work and wanted to stay.

I went home and told my wife that I didn’t want to die – especially not in Macedonia. The weekend passed and we heard nothing from the cargo guy so I assumed that everything was fine. But then, a few days later, we got a call from the funeral director in Arkansas informing us that Joe hadn’t arrived.

After making some calls, we determined that poor Joe was still in Skopje, sitting in the cargo warehouse. Apparently, Austrian Airlines had a policy against accepting bodies from “certain countries,” and Macedonia was one of those. The drunken cargo dude had not bothered to call and tell us.

Ljupka spent the next day or two trying to find an airline that would accept Joe. One of them wanted too much money and the family could not, or would not pay what was asked. I thought about using priceline.com to bid for Joe’s ticket home, but thought better of it. Eventually, Ljupka worked it out and almost a week later Joe arrived home safe and sound.

I never met the man but I felt a strange kinship with him. We were two Americans living far from home in a country where we would always be viewed as foreign, no matter how long we stayed. I tried my best to get him home but couldn’t help but conclude that he deserved better.

Read part one of this story and the rest of this series here.

Image via Hugo90 on Flickr.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Try not to die in Macedonia

You never forget your first dead body. One Friday afternoon several years ago, my boss at the American embassy in Skopje informed me that a 76-year-old American missionary, whom I’ll refer to as Joe, had died of a heart attack.

When an American citizen dies overseas and has no immediate relatives in the country, a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) has to identify the body, notify their next-of-kin and help arrange for the body to be transported back to the U.S., if that is the family’s wish. Only the gloomiest traveler or expat thinks about these macabre practicalities before leaving the U.S., but if you die abroad, an FSO is very likely to be involved in what happens next.

My boss agreed to make the notification phone call to Joe’s daughter back in Arkansas but said that I’d have to go out to identify his body and take care of the paperwork. This seemed like a good bargain to me, because my only experience with making death-notification phone calls came in a consular training course at the Foreign Service Institute and had been something of a disaster.

There were six of us in the class, five FSO’s and a ditzy civil servant who worked for some sort of governmental public affairs hotline. We were given scenarios and asked to role-play death notification phone calls. Cruelly, the instructor made the ditzy woman go first.

“Hi, my name is Karen Smith and I’m calling from the American Embassy,” she began, promisingly. (not her real name) “I’d like to speak to the next-of-kin of Tom Jones.”

We all burst out laughing before the instructor piped in.

“Ummm, you don’t ask to speak to next-of-kin,” he said. “That kind of foreshadows what you’re about to tell them.”

We had so much fun laughing about the next-of-kin gaffe that none of us could conjure the seriousness that was needed to make the calls and the exercise degenerated into a farce.

So luckily, my boss made the call and reported back that Joe’s daughter wasn’t particularly surprised that he had died. His wife had passed away a few years before and he got involved with a church that recruited him to serve as a missionary in Macedonia. The daughter wanted his body sent back to Arkansas but indicated that they didn’t have much money and thus needed to get a good price.

Ljupka, one of the embassy’s local employees, accompanied me out to an enormous, desolate area of Skopje called Butel to identify Joe. Inside the funeral home, we were ushered into the cluttered office of a pudgy, sweaty man named Stevcho, who ran the place. Stevcho boasted that he personally took care of all the Americans who had the misfortune of dying in Macedonia.He and Ljupka made small talk in Macedonian as reams of documents were plopped onto his desk. I sat impassively and signed my illegible scrawl as Ljupka instructed. Some documents required only my signature, while others also needed a stamp that had my name on it, or various seals and insignias. Paperwork is inescapable, even in death.

Ljupka and I were led into a warehouse to identify Joe’s body. Almost a dozen men, half of them government inspectors in funny looking communist leftover uniforms, stood around the casket. The men were in grand, Friday afternoon moods, and were chatting and joking with each other. I walked over towards the casket and cautiously looked down. The first thing I noticed was his bare feet.

“Ljupka, where are his shoes and socks?” I asked.

She had no idea. Joe was swaddled in a grubby looking, shaggy blanket. It was one of those cheap, cheesy looking blankets that have images of animals, like eagles or brown bears that you see people selling in abandoned gas stations and vacant parking lots. Joe had no shirt on, I could tell.

A sinister cloud of smoke soon hung lazily over the poor man’s coffin as the men lit cigarettes.

“Can you at least ask these guys to not smoke right on him,” I asked Ljupka.

“Dave, he’s dead, I don’t think the secondhand smoke is going to hurt him,” she said.

She had a point. Yet, somehow I wanted the men to be a bit more somber, more respectful. The only photo I had of Joe was his American passport, which was found on his body. In it, he looked very robust, healthy, and, well, alive. But now his face looked incredibly gaunt and shriveled. His mouth was agape and he had no teeth. Had someone stolen his dentures?

A man wearing a stained t-shirt grabbed hold of the top of the grubby blanket, which covered most of Joe, and asked a question in Macedonian that I couldn’t understand.

“He wants to know if he should uncover the blanket, so you can identify him,” she said. ‘He’s naked underneath.”

Naked? No one had told me anything about having to see an old, dead guy naked.

“Am I required to see him naked?” I asked.

Ljupka didn’t think so, so I told them to spare us.

“But where the hell are his clothes?” I asked.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of this story – Even the dead can get bumped from a flight.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via a.drian on Flickr.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: go native or go postal

Have you ever seen an American walking through an airport in a flowing, beaded sari, a colorful African tribal dress, or Afghan shalwar kameez and wondered, what the hell are they thinking? Expatriates who “go native” while living overseas might seem a bit loopy, but “going native” is actually a fairly common way to cope with culture shock.

A traveler and an expat experience foreign cultures in completely different ways. What can appear novel to the traveler can simply be a nuisance to the expatriate.

After an expat has been in their new country for a while, they inevitably confront aspects of the local culture they dislike. Even in the best places, we Americans can find things to complain about. Some cope with culture shock by retreating into a bubble- surrounding themselves with other foreigners and doing their best to recreate the lives they had before they left home. Others go native- completely rejecting their home culture and everyone who isn’t local. And of course, the majority are hybrids who fall somewhere in between.

Nearly every Foreign Service post has people in both extreme camps- let’s call them cowboys and natives for simplicity’s sake. We had one native in Skopje, whom I’ll call Native Neil, whom I really liked, but he was considered highly eccentric for embracing the local culture a bit too warmly. For example, Neil took public buses to get around Skopje while virtually no other Americans did. At the time, one could take a taxi pretty much anywhere in the city for the equivalent of $1. A bus ride cost 20 cents but the buses were extremely crowded and had erratic schedules.

Occasionally my wife and I would see Native Neil waiting at a bus stop and offer him a ride, and I think it embarrassed him to be seen interacting with other Americans. Native Neil didn’t need to save the 80 cents; he just wanted to completely immerse himself in the local culture, which is perfectly respectable. But for other Americans, that immersion made him a bit flaky.I tried to stake out some middle ground between the cowboys and natives, and, over time, I grew to love Macedonia and its people. (well, most of them) But there were definitely elements of the local culture that I could never embrace, even if I lived there a lifetime. Those who read this column regularly might recall that I’m a light sleeper.

Skopje is not a good city to be a light sleeper in. My apartment building was located at a busy intersection near downtown and we had several large garbage dumps just outside the gates of the building. Roma riding horse-drawn carriages would stop by to sift through the bins at all hours of the day and night and would send the neighborhood dogs into a barking frenzy. Frequently, I’d be jolted awake at 3 A.M. by a chorus of baying dogs, who wanted everyone in the neighborhood to know that our trash was being violated.

Because it would take time for the Roma to sift through all the bins, the barking would sometimes go on for 15-20 minutes, maybe more. I was friendly with the buildings’ caretakers, Blagoj and Nikola, who spent the bulk of their days in a windowless room staring at a wall, so I asked Nikola what could be done about the barking dogs. He agreed to speak to the owners and, in my American naiveté, I assumed that they would do something to try to quiet their dogs, who slept outside in front of their homes.

But Nikola’s détente came to naught.

“They love their dogs, there’s nothing we can do,” he reported back.

“But couldn’t they let them sleep inside?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

They were guard dogs and guard dogs belonged outside. I turned to my good friend and neighbor, Georgi.

“Well, Macedonians have a different way of dealing with such problems,” he said.

He went on to tell a story about how, as a youth, a favorite family dog had been poisoned with tainted meat by a neighbor who was annoyed with its barking. So rather than knock on the neighbor’s door to complain, they had simply killed the dog. I was told that this was not an uncommon approach in the Balkans. But I wasn’t about to annihilate the neighborhood dogs over lost sleep, so I just lived with it.

But a bad neighbor whom I dubbed Evil Atso was another matter. Evil Atso was a Mafioso thug who lived directly above us. He and his obnoxious wife used to let their little rat of a dog out into the hallway to piss and shit in the common area and would often park all three of their luxury cars in such a way that they’d block other residents in their spots. No one said a word because everyone was afraid of him.

Evil Atso was doing a major renovation of his apartment, and, despite being very wealthy, was actually doing a lot of the work himself- always at odd hours, like midnight during a work week, or at 6 A.M. on a Saturday or Sunday. The building had a no noise/construction on nights and weekends policy, but everyone was afraid to call Evil Atso on it. Except me. Our bedroom was directly below the room he was renovating and we would often awaken to the sound of jackhammers, literally right above our beds.

At first, I complained to Blagoj and Nikola, who were supposed to enforce such matters, but they were terrified of him.

“He has a lot of money,” Nikola said. “He can do whatever he wants.”

But as an American, I simply couldn’t accept that sort of grim fatalism. No, we Americans think that we can confront any problem, any nuisance, while people in other countries, like Macedonia, just learn to cope.

The first few times I confronted him, I was pretty civil, but that approach didn’t work, so one early weekend morning, when he was jackhammering away above our heads, I went up to his apartment building carrying a big old ghetto-blaster with a Metallica c.d. in it. After I knocked, the noise ceased and he let me in. Rather than start in with my usual complaints, I simply hit play and held up the ghetto-blaster with both arms outstretched just inches from his fat, villainous-looking face. The volume was all the way up and the angry words to “Sad But True” came spilling forth, half distorted, impossible to avoid.

He thought I was nuts and told me that he’d “break my neck” if I came back up to his apartment again. The disturbances continued for a couple more weeks and then, eventually, did cease. All along, the Macedonians had been right. There was no point in going postal over some lost sleep.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Photos via Flickr, Todd Huffman, blhphotography, Wonderlane, and B Rosen.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: A birthday that went up in smoke in Belgrade

There’s nothing like having a sealed train compartment full of Serbian farmers blowing smoke in your face on your 30th birthday. One of the strangest elements of expatriate life is that you sometimes find yourself celebrating major occasions with people you just met, rather than friends and family.

I had just started a tour as an American Foreign Service Officer in Macedonia right before my 30th birthday and my wife, who was completing a graduate degree in Chicago, hadn’t yet arrived at post. So my options were to spend the auspicious occasion with people whom I barely knew, or spend it alone. I told Marija, one of my Macedonian colleagues, that I planned to take the train up to Belgrade, but didn’t mention that the trip would take place on my 30th.

“Nobody takes the train,” she said. “They gas the compartments and then rob everyone.”

I ignored her and turned up at Skopje’s forlorn train station on Saturday morning November 9, for my birthday trip to Belgrade. I love train travel and thought that it would be a pleasant way to spend the day. I had a compartment all to myself for the first hour of the trip, but shortly after we crossed the Serbian border, a group of four boisterous Serbs barged into the compartment.

There was a teenager named Ivan, two haggard, middle aged women whose names I didn’t catch, and a middle aged man named Slavica who wore a garish jacked with the words CHICAGO HAPPY MEMBER CLUB emblazoned in a huge font across his back. I couldn’t help but note the irony: I was spending my 30th birthday with a member of the Chicago Happy Member Club, rather than with my wife in Chicago.

Immediately after sitting down, Slavica slid the compartment door shut, lit up a cigarette, and blew the smoke right in my face. I pointed to the no-smoking sticker on the door. He gave me a puzzled look and a shrug and kept smoking, so I opened our window. In the Balkans, and in other parts of the world, fresh air is seen as a dangerous thing- perhaps akin to spending a holiday at a leper colony or having unprotected sex with an H.I.V. positive prostitute-which causes all sorts of illnesses.Slavica slammed the window shut and when I protested he got up and crouched over me, menacingly hovering with his rancid breath so close to my face that I noticed he had cat-like whiskers growing implausibly up near his eye sockets. He barked at me in Serbian and then stormed out into the corridor to finish his smoke.

The uglier of the two women, who had greasy spiked hair and wore baggy leather pants, went out, grabbed Slavica’s cigarette from him, came back in, took a puff on it and blew the smoke ostentatiously in my face. Happy Birthday.

My new friends spoke no English, and I spoke no Serbian, but I had a trusty phrasebook. The spike-haired woman wanted to see my passport, in order to determine where I was from. After our unpleasant introduction, the last thing I wanted to do was pull out a black, diplomatic passport from the United States, a country that had just bombed the Serbs only three years before.

In order to confuse and repel them I start speaking Albanian but they refused to believe that I was from Albania. Slavica eventually came back in and tried to make nice by riffling through my phrase book in an attempt to get to know me.

After an enormous amount of phrasebook effort, I gathered that neither of the two women were his wives, although he indicated through various crude pelvic thrusts that he was interested in introducing the less homely woman to the HAPPY MEMBER CLUB, should the opportunity arise. They had all just come from a market town and were headed home to Leskovac.

They were paprika farmers, who had been trying to sell their crops at the market. Slavica wanted to know how much a kilo of paprika went for in the U.S., and was disappointed that I did not know. I eventually admitted to them that I was American and this seemed to please everyone, most of all, spike hair, who seemed to be the only person in the compartment who hadn’t warmed to me.

By the time they departed, we were all old friends- doing shots of rakija, singing songs (them, not me), and giggling about dirty words in the phrase book. Before she alighted onto the platform, the slight-less ugly woman handed me a scrap of paper with a hotmail address on it. We shared no common language, but vowed to stay in touch. Sure we would.

A few hours later, I arrived in Belgrade and after only a few minutes of walking around the town center, formulated a snap impression: Belgrade may have the world’s most beautiful women. After eating a dismal plate of General Tsao’s chicken, I repaired to a crowded basement bar, where I was invited to sit with a group of three twentysomethings who spoke English- brothers, Marko and Nikola, and Nikola’s girlfriend, Tanja.

Marko said they had beckoned me to their table because I looked foreign and they wanted to practice their English. When I told them I was American, Tanja said, “don’t worry we won’t talk politics.”

Instead, we talked about cutlery.

“You probably didn’t know that the Serbs were the first people to eat with knives, did you?” Nikola asked.

I admitted that I hadn’t known that, but Marko quickly corrected his younger brother.

“It was spoons, you idiot, not knives!”

A lengthy discussion ensued in Serbian, and Tanja finally concluded, “we were the first to use knives AND spoons.”

“What about forks?” I asked.

After another lengthy Serbian language discussion, Tanja said, “probably forks too, but we’d have to check about that.” After the cutlery claims, Marko boasted that the Serbs had also founded Paris, and had “given the Romans their technology.”

“Really?” I asked. “What were all of your neighbors up to when the Serbs were doing all these things?”

Not much, according to them. Montenegrins were lazy and would cheat you. Macedonians were country bumpkins and really shouldn’t even exist as a nation. Albanians were sub-human and prone to crime. Bulgarians smelled bad and were ugly.

I tried to change the topic, and was encouraged to “study Serbian history, learn the Serbian language, eat Serbian food and take a Serbian wife.” When I mentioned it was my birthday, Nikola said, “Happy birthday, now buy us some drinks!”

Read more from a Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via Flickr, Velja123.

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.]