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 light sleeper’s lament: six things you shouldn’t do in a hotel

I used to be able to sleep well in the humblest of places. But the older I get, the harder it is for me to get a good night sleep while traveling. I don’t know if it’s because I usually travel with two toddlers, or if travelers are becoming increasingly ignorant of basic hotel etiquette, or if I’m spoiled by my Tempurpedic mattress at home, but I often find myself sleeping like a baby while on the road. That is, waking up every few hours and wanting to cry.

Here are six things you shouldn’t do in hotels.

Sleep Crimes

Hit the snooze bar. As a light sleeper, I don’t think hotel rooms should come equipped with alarm clocks, and certainly not ones with snooze bars. I’ll never forget a truly diabolical traveler sleeping in the room next to mine in a hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few years back. His alarm clock woke us up at 5 A.M. on a Sunday morning. It went off, like a siren, for about 30 seconds before he finally turned it off.

Eight minutes later, there it was again. And eight minutes after that. And again, eight minutes after that. We called down to the front desk and they sent someone up to the room, but their pounding failed to rouse the slumbering maniac. The alarm-snooze-alarm cycle continued until 6 A.M. when our neighbor finally decided to grace the world with his consciousness. But even then, it was hard to get back to sleep, because I was so irate.

Travelers’ kangaroo court verdict: ten years in prison in a cell that shows nothing but Samantha Brown reruns on the Travel Channel.

Converse loudly in the hallway outside my room. It’s amazing how oblivious people can be when it comes to the sound of their own voices. I once had the misfortune to say in a hotel with a huge group of senior women who belonged to a club called the Red Hat Society. On a Saturday morning at 7 A.M. two red-hats were conversing loudly about how annoying someone else was, directly outside my room. I could hear every word. I sat up in bed and listened for about ten minutes, assuming they’d soon go away. They did not, so I got out of bed, and confronted them, bleary eyed in boxers and t-shirt.

“Excuse me, but we’re trying to sleep,” I said. “Do you think you could keep it down, or go in a room, it’s 7 A.M.”

One of the red-hatted women (they really did wear red hats) smiled broadly at me and chirped, “7 o’clock, it’s time to get up!”

Travelers’ kangaroo court verdict: banishment to a monastery that requires a vow of silence.Call me. During a recent one night stay at a chain hotel in Ocean City, Maryland, I fielded more phone calls from the front desk than I’ve received from various family members over the last year. Right after check-in, they called to ask if I liked the room. No worries. Around 8 p.m. they called again, as we were working on getting our children to sleep, to ask if we needed anything. No thanks. At 10.30, about an hour after we’d finally managed to subdue our little ones, the phone jolted them back awake.

“Mr. Seminara, we’re calling to remind you of the hotel’s no smoking policy,” the woman said.

“You’re calling to remind me about the non-smoking policy at 10.30 at night?” I asked, incredulous.

“We’ve had a complaint from someone on your floor who smelled smoke,” she explained.

“So rather than come up to investigate, you’re calling everyone on this floor to remind them of the no smoking policy?”

“That’s right,” she said.

It made perfect sense to her, but then again, she wasn’t going to have to put my kids back to sleep.

Travelers’ kangaroo court verdict: 30 days of solitary confinement.

Banish your children to the hallways. I would rather gouge my eyes out with a monkey wrench than stay in a hotel on a floor with a youth sports team, who are the worst offenders to this rule. I can deal with people who wake me up, but when you spend hours trying to get small children to bed and then they are roused awake by marauding teens and tweens, living it up on the night before their soccer tournament, it’s hard not to get into a homicidally crazy frame of mind.

I once asked a group of little monsters, who were running up and down the halls knocking on doors at random near midnight, what room their parents were in.

“They’re in there,” one said, pointing to a room down the hall. “But they told us not to come back until twelve.”

Travelers’ kangaroo court verdict: for the parents- sixty days in a North Korean labor camp.

Hygiene Faux Pas

Emit uncovered hacking coughs or blow your nose near the breakfast buffet. This should be common sense, shouldn’t it? But why do I see people who look like they’ve got Bubonic Plague fingering every roll on the breakfast table?

Travelers’ kangaroo court verdict: 90 days of eating bizarre foods with Andrew Zimmern.

Discharge bodily fluids on the bedspreads and blankets. An ABC News investigation of hotel chains in 2006 found bodily fluid stains on the floor, bedspread and walls. Really folks, if you must discharge bodily fluids, do so in the toilet or on the sheets, which are actually changed.

Travelers’ kangaroo court verdict: 60 days of baths in an open sewer.

Image via Fairy Heart on Flickr.