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.]

Amsterdam hot dog review: THE CHUBBY!

Sometimes a food’s name says everything you need to know about it. Tucked away in the museum part of Amsterdam, the Lunch Kiosk is a mobile operation intended to feed the tourists in need of some fast grub. I was in that spot on my visit earlier this month, and I do like to sample a hot dog wherever I go. It seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

At the Lunch Kiosk, the Chubby Hot Dog on the menu caught my attention immediately. How could it not? The big dog is wrapped in bacon and cheese, making it (what I thought would be) an artery-clogging delight. I had visions of Vancouver and Reykjavik, which made me salivate all the more. After waiting in line for what felt like an eternity, I placed my order and waited some more. I took this as a good sign, too. After all, immediate doesn’t usually equate to culinary quality (not even with hot dogs).

When my order was up, I snatched it with excitement and headed over to the ketchup and mustard. The latter was particularly interesting, as Amsterdam tends to do mustard well (I do suggest smearing some on any of the local cheeses).

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My first bite was nothing but … disappointment. The Chubby Hot Dog nailed the aesthetic, but it failed to deliver on taste. The dog was lukewarm at best, a risk inherent in eating hot dogs from vendors that have four wheels. It didn’t snap as much as hot dogs from the likes of Gray’s Papaya or even Banger Bros in London. And for flavor, it just held flat. At best, the Chubby tasted like lukewarm bologna. While I was able to tolerate the dog at first (I was incredibly hungry), I wound up abandoning it at the half-way mark.

Foreign hot dogs tend to be a role of the dice. Where East Anglia (England), Madrid and Amsterdam fell short, Stockholm, Reykjavik and Montreal came through in style. Though considered to be among the lowest forms of food, it’s nonetheless tough to master the hot dog. The Chubby just failed to execute on its delectable plan.

The most exclusive hamburger in the United States

Hamburgers at NYSENew York is home to some amazing burger joints. The Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien hotel, a handful of Shake Shack locations and Burger Burger down on Stone Street topped the list for me … until I found some incredible sliders in an unusual place.

Skip all the city’s hottest dining destinations, and march yourself down to Wall Street. No, I’m not joking. There’s an amazing hamburger at 11 Wall Street, just in from the corner of Broadway and Wall. Those of you who work in the neighborhood are probably feeling a bit confused right now. That’s the address for the New York Stock Exchange!

Yep, exactly.

One of the most recognized and important financial centers in the world is also where you’ll find some incredible eats.

Though you’re probably most familiar with the bustling exchange floor that you’ve seen on CNBC, there’s a lot more going on inside that building, which is closed to the general public. To get into the NYSE, you need a reason, and to sample the fare, it has to be an important one.

I found myself at the NYSE a few weeks ago for a closing bell ceremony with IR magazine. After the bell announced the end of the trading day, I joined the other guests at a cocktail reception in an elegant space clearly designed to exude the gravity of both the building and the reasons people have for being in it. The hors d’oeuvres passed by carefully clad waiters was of a caliber you’d expect to find only at the most prestigious restaurants in the city, and nothing disappointed.

But, those burgers

Despite the fact that I find myself at some upscale eateries, I have a penchant for pedestrian grub that I’ll never overcome. I can’t resist a great hot dog, and a carefully crafted hamburger, for me, is heavenly.

A waiter walked by me with a tray of sliders, and it never occurred to me to decline. Confession: passing on these tasty treats didn’t occur to me after this scenario was repeated several times.

The burgers were tiny (duh – sliders), taking a mere two bites to consume. The fact that they disappeared so quickly is probably part of the reason why I had so many, though both taste and my absurd appetite doubtless contributed. Perfectly prepared, they were somewhere a tad south of medium, leaving them juicy but not dripping … perfect for eating with nothing more than a cocktail napkin between the burger and your hand.

The meat itself came just short of the edge of the bun. At first thought, this may seem meager, but experience proves otherwise. When I chomp into a big burger, I want the flesh to pass the bun and hang over the side, reinforcing the feeling that I’m biting into something that’s undeniably substantial. With sliders, however, this doesn’t work well. Passed hors d’oeuvres mean eating while standing, and a higher risk of spilling something on yourself. The lack of overhang reduces this risk, allowing you to eat and enjoy worry-free. While this is a plus for the average person, it’s incredibly important to me (I tend to spill).

Nothing, frankly, compares to sinking your teeth into one of these sliders. The burst of flavor is powerful. The outside of the burger is slightly crisp, though the inside is soft and moist. In two bites – three or four if you’re a normal person – it disappears, and you’re left hunting for a waiter. After all, you don’t want to wait for everyone else to take one!

So, how do you get the chance to dine on these delicacies?

While it helps to know somebody who knows somebody, your best bet is to have a friend (a) whose company is going public and (b) who is important enough at that company to be able to score an invitation for a guest who doesn’t work for that company at all. Good luck with that

Of course, you could always come up with a great idea, start company, make it fabulously successful and go public on the NYSE.

Until then, however, you’ll have to be content to drool.

[Photo courtesy of IR magazine]

Photo of the day (12.31.10)

Photo of the day
It’s New Year’s Eve, a time to make (and eventually break) resolutions for the incoming year. Time to start exercising, cut down on junk food and alcohol, keep a journal longer than 2 weeks this time, etc. Even us at Gadling have some travel resolutions to keep. These girls on the sands of Tel Aviv, Israel are fitting in some yoga with their day at the beach and it looks like their friend on the left has made a resolution to get in shape as well, or maybe just get a girlfriend. Thanks to Flavio@Flickr for this resolution inspiration and Happy 2011!

See any resolutions in action on your vacation? Submit your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool and we might just choose one as a future Photo of the Day.

Four views of Shake Shack burgers in New York City

The line always seems to be long in Madison Square Park. Shake Shack, known for its burgers as well, always draws a crowd, and it isn’t unusual to spend an hour or more waiting to sink your teeth into its greasy delights. I’ve done it, and I know I’m not alone. Well, the stand’s popularity has led to expansion, and there are now four locations across Manhattan, with a fifth in Queens at Citi Field. Since those that follow never compare to the original, I was curious as to how they all compare. Could the concept withstand such rapid growth?

I set out with the noblest of intentions. Fellow travel blogger and friend Laurie DePrete (who took some of the photos) and I planned to hit the four Manhattan Shake Shacks on one Saturday afternoon. Scott Carmichael reached out to me over Twitter just wish me luck and let me know I was nuts (thanks, Scott). With my heroic appetite, I planned to down a double cheeseburger and fries at each location: Upper West Side (Columbus Ave and W. 77th Street), Upper East Side (E. 86th Street between Lexington Ave and Third Ave), Madison Square Park (Madison Ave and E. 23rd Street) and Midtown (Eighth Ave and W. 44th Street) – in that order.

My plan was to start on the Upper West Side, where I live, cut across Central Park to the Upper East Side, shoot down to Madison Square Park and then cut up and over to Midtown. Fatigue and the prospect of getting full never entered my mind. Neither ever does.

Below, you’ll find the results of my excursion, a look at the four Shake Shacks in Manhattan:

Eating all this @shakeshack food will be tough. 4 in all! RT @ScenebyLaurie: Stop #2 on the #NYC @shakeshack crawl http://4sq.com/covAmRless than a minute ago via ÜberTwitter

1. Upper West Side

This was the second Shake Shack to pop up, and I was excited to have an option close to home. The line frequently stretches around the corner onto W. 77th Street, though it’s rarely as intimidating as the original at Madison Square Park. On the Saturday I undertook this endeavor, the line was short, and I was able to order in about 10 minutes. Seating was tight, as expected, by Laurie and I were able to grab a spot on the counter, standing but with some space.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the cheeseburger, a double, but it struck me that I’d have to change course to survive the day. Though the burgers are a bit small (at all locations), they are filling. On the Upper West Side, expect to find the fare a little less greasy but still enjoyable. The taste was a bit flat. You’ll still be happy as you chomp away, but there better Shake Shack options in the city.

Where the Upper West Side restaurant stands out is in seating. There is plenty of it indoors, and don’t forget to look downstairs if you find the street level to be crowded. Also, there’s a bathroom on the premises, which is always helpful when you eat burgers and gulp lemonade.

After this first stop, we agreed to walk to the next location. To make it through four, it seemed like a good idea to move around a bit in between to keep the blood flowing … and the extra pounds at bay.

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2. Upper East Side

Unlike the first stop, I wasn’t hungry when I got to this one – but I wasn’t not hungry. I switched to a single cheeseburger and fries, cognizant of the road ahead. From across E. 86th Street, I saw that the line was out the door, but my concerns receded as I got closer. The stretch up the stairs from the cash registers to the front door isn’t long, so I figured the line would move quickly (it did). To help the process along, there are menus hanging outside, and a Shake Shack staffer walks by periodically to hand them out.

Seating inside is a bit scarce, but there’s plenty outside, perfect on a day like the one we used to tackle the four Shake Shacks. And, like the Upper West Side, there are bathrooms on the premises. The décor is a bit sleeker on the Upper East Side than in the other locations, and the staff was swift: the lines moved quickly because they moved quickly, too.

I was impressed by the burgers on the Upper East Side. They were soft and moist – nice and greasy, which is how a burger from the Shack should be. Hold yours with the wrapper to keep your shirt from getting drenched (learn from mistake I’ve made a number of times on visits to Shake Shack). As for taste, this spot’s burger was bursting. I devoured it shamelessly.

When I tried to stand from the bench in the outdoor dining area, I came to the realization that I didn’t want to. I was three burgers and two orders of fries into the adventure, and I was full … with two more locations to go. I was satisfied – and I definitely wasn’t hungry any longer. I was also tired. I turned to Laurie and saw a look implying the same feeling, but we decided to soldier on, slogging over to the subway for a ride down to Madison Square Park.

This project was becoming work.

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3. Madison Square Park

The original was our third stop simply for logistical reasons. Given the starting point and the way the subways work, it made sense to take this one on third. Also, we’ve both eaten there countless times, so we had a reasonable benchmark against which to compare the Upper East Side and Upper West Side locations.

As we walked through the park, a familiar sight emerged: a long line. We braced ourselves for a wait of at least half an hour before realizing that we needed it. I’d be able to rest my stomach for a while, try earnestly to build up an appetite again and prepare myself for the home stretch. I sat on the ground for a moment to gather my courage.

You’ll find free water at every Shake Shack location, and at this point we needed it. I headed over to pick up a few cups from the urn (the other three have running water) and rehydrated, something I’d been neglecting. Slowly, we advanced to the counter, where I ordered another single and fries. I wasn’t eating to alleviate hunger at this point, I was just looking for the taste.

The original remains the best. Grease dripped from the burger (though not as much as on the Upper East Side), and the familiar flavor erupted in my mouth. The first bite was incredible – everything you’d expect a burger from the Shack to be. It was soft, warm and thoroughly enjoyable. Then, I looked down at my tray and saw that I still had the rest of the burger in front of me. I was only able to make it through half – likewise for my fries – before deciding I had enough information and giving up.

While Madison Square Park wins on taste, the surroundings can be a challenge. There is lots of seating, but it’s all outdoor. Given that the crowds tend to be largest here, they fill up quickly. During the lunch rush, with people spilling out of the nearby office buildings, you may have trouble finding a chair anywhere. Protect your food from the occasional bird (I speak from experience), and bring change for the bathroom (a freestanding public one is your only option, and it’ll set you back a quarter).

After giving up before finishing, groaning and shaking our heads, we decided to keep going. Again figuring it would be a good idea to keep the blood flowing, my burger buddy and I started the trek back uptown, dreading the final stop. It was getting close to 10 PM, leaving us just enough time to get to the Midtown location – our final stop on the Shake Shack tour. My feet felt heavier with each step. My stomach hinted that a mutiny was on the horizon. After swapping knowing glances, Laurie and I decided to leave the Eighth Ave location for another day.

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4. Eighth Ave

We waited a little over a week before resuming the tour, a natural reaction to overloading your body with some of the finest burgers New York City has to offer. Situated on Eighth Ave, I expected this restaurant to have frightening wait and no available seating. It’s close to Times Square and Port Authority, which led me to believe there would be endless tourist traffic. To my surprise, however, the line lasted only about 15 minutes. As on the Upper East Side, Shake Shackers armed with menus came out periodically to help people make their decisions before getting up to the counter to order.

The Midtown Shake Shack offered a tasty burger (I found Madison Square Park and the Upper East Side to be better) that came fairly quickly. It wasn’t terribly greasy but was enjoyable nonetheless. Seating was tough, as people seemed to take a bit more time with their meals while the kitchen was able to turn over orders quickly.

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Like the other indoor locations, the Midtown spot had bathrooms for customers. To use them, though, you needed to enter a code on the door. Unlike most places, which use a token or a key from the counter, Shake Shack was savvy enough to put the code on every receipt, minimizing the time it takes to get where you need to go. The Eighth Ave restaurant also had a more powerful faucet for water, which led to shorter lines for those fighting thirst. It’s clear that the company learned a few lessons before opening its newest space.

Getting the last of the #manhattan @shakeshack stops in!!! (@ Shake Shack w/ @scenebylaurie) http://4sq.com/dhBg7Bless than a minute ago via foursquare


And that was it.

Toiling through four Shake Shacks, even if the last was left for a later date, was far more challenging than I expected, and I learned just how much my stomach can hold. If you’re headed to Manhattan, it’s worth visiting one Shake Shack – but only one. Don’t try to cram them all into a demented burger tour. You really are only hurting yourself if you do.