A Traveler in the Foreign Service: My Secret Foreign Service Wedding

wedding photoToday is my ten-year wedding anniversary, sort of. Does it make sense to celebrate a wedding that was a secret, five-minute affair that was capped off at a nearby Taco Bell over chalupas and 99-cent churros?

I asked my wife to marry me just days before joining the Foreign Service in 2002 and we had to set a wedding date without knowing what country we would be moving to or when we would depart.

When you join the Foreign Service you start out in a two-month long training class called A-100, which takes places in Arlington, Virginia. At the conclusion of the course, you’re given a flag representing your assignment and, depending on the job and the country, you can spend the next one to nine months in job and/or language training.

This uncertainty makes it difficult to deal with landlords but even harder to plan a wedding. Nonetheless, we planned an August 10 wedding in Chicago, and tried to bid on jobs that entailed as much training as possible. In late March, I was assigned to Skopje, Macedonia, with six months of Albanian language training. This meant that I’d be in the U.S. for the wedding, so we initially felt relieved.

But we soon learned that nothing happens in the Foreign Service without a mountain of red tape and logistical hurdles. Our departure for post was scheduled for early October and old Foreign Service hands, including “Dink,” our kindly A-100 course coordinator, told us that a mid-August wedding might not leave enough time for the bureaucracy to get Jen (my wife) on our travel orders.In layman’s terms, this means that the government wouldn’t pay for her travel to Macedonia or ship her household effects. Spouses of Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) need medical and security checks, and all these things take time, so Dink advised us to go to a courthouse and do a legal marriage ceremony before the real deal to get the ball rolling.

Jen was initially resistant to the idea but eventually her practical side and our desire not to pay to move to Macedonia won out. The sole condition she laid out was that we wouldn’t tell any of our friends and family members. We could get married in a legal sense but would pretend as though the event never happened.

On Tuesday, March 19, 2002, we visited the office of a kindly octogenarian named Joe Newlin, who married couples right down the hall from the Arlington Country Court House in Virginia. Joe was a delightful old man who wore plaid golf pants and had his office decorated with streamers and articles about his practice. He claimed to have married more than ten thousand couples, “some of which were still together,” he joked.

Joe married us right in his office, for a small fee, right underneath some plastic signs, streamers and a paper, wedding bell. Joe also took a couple photos of us and on the way out gave us a complimentary pen, which was emblazoned with his slogan: “I Mary (sic) U.” We’ve moved six times in the last decade and I have no idea where those photos are, but somehow, the pen has magically stayed with us (see photo).

free pen for getting marriedWe celebrated our sham wedding with a fine banquet at the adjacent Taco Bell and headed back to the Foreign Service Institute, where we bumped into Dink.

“Dink, we took your advice and got married,” I told him, knowing that Jen wouldn’t care if he knew of our scheme.

Dink’s eyes bulged out of his head and he crouched down to hug both my wife and I.

“Congratulations,” he bellowed, before turning around and telling several of my classmates the “good news.” Before we knew what was happening, a host of colleagues came over to congratulate us. Jen was not pleased.

“This was not our wedding,” she reminded me before adding, “not a word about this when we get back to Chicago.”

And there wasn’t a word about it – not to our families, any of our wedding guests or even the minister, who did not know that we had already been married legally for six months at the time he pronounced us man and wife. In fact, most of our friends and family members will be reading about our “appetizer” wedding for the first time here.

We’ll never know if our first “wedding” was necessary or not but it was a fitting introduction to what some call the Foreign Circus. Over the years, we’d come to learn that lots of Foreign Service couples end up rushing to the altar because of impending departures for posts or other reasons. The nomadic nature of the job can force relationships to either progress or end, sometimes before they would otherwise. We plan to celebrate our anniversary twice this year, almost certainly at someplace nicer than Taco Bell.

Photo 1 is from our “real” wedding in Chicago.
Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Help us get away with murder

police tape

For Bashkim, a 25-year-old Albanian-American dishwasher, the trouble all started after he started having an affair with his boss’s wife. When his boss heard the rumors, he immediately confronted his wife.

Luljeta claimed that Bashkim, who was nearly 20 years younger than her, had raped her in the diner, after hours, on several occasions. Her husband, Illir, called the Anchorage police, who investigated the claims and discovered that Luljeta had actually paid for motel rooms used for afternoon trysts with Bashkim. The police dropped the charges but Ilir was irate and unsure of whom to blame.

Several months later, Bashkim traveled to Kicevo, a small city in Macedonia, the country of his parents’ birth, for the first time, along with his father, Nick, and cousin, Tony. Arranged marriage is still common amongst Albanian-Americans and Nick wanted his son to meet a woman they wanted him to marry.

The trio met with the young woman and her family in a café in downtown Kicevo, a shabby, provincial city with a substantial ethnic-Albanian community, and wedding plans were sealed over coffee and cigarettes in the traditional Albanian custom. But as the group walked out of the café, a masked man dressed in a joggers outfit opened fire on them, with bullets hitting Nick and Bashkim in the head.

Tony was hit in the buttocks, but managed to disarm the gunman, who fled into a getaway vehicle. The victims were rushed to a local hospital, where Nick, 46, was pronounced dead on arrival. Bashkim was seriously wounded but made a full recovery, as did Tony. A few months later, Ilir was extradited from Alaska to Macedonia to stand trial for murder.

When Americans are locked up abroad, American Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) will visit them in prison and will typically attend their trial, if possible. But what many travelers and expatriates often fail to understand is that Americans are always subject to local laws and judicial proceedings – even if they are capricious and backward.

FSO’s can provide detained Americans with a list of local attorneys, help the American get in touch with people in the U.S., and try to ensure that the American isn’t being mistreated in the prison. They can also explain the local law and what the court proceedings are likely to entail but they can’t do much more than that, and this often creates friction.I once had to deal with a recently naturalized American citizen from Bulgaria who was arrested in Macedonia on an Interpol warrant for mail fraud, among other offences. He spoke no English and his ties to the U.S. were sketchy at best, but his son was on the phone every day harassing us about why we weren’t “doing more” to get his father out of prison.

“He’s an American citizen,” the son cried. “You are the American embassy! Do something. Get him out!”

The son kept telling me that his father’s imprisonment was a violation of the Geneva Convention and he encouraged me to study that document more closely to find ways to get his father released. I wanted to tell him that there were no special provisions for Bulgarian mafia thugs in the Geneva Convention and that I hoped his dad rotted in prison, but as a civil servant tasked with “helping people” I would simply mutter platitudes like, “Geneva Convention, OK, I’ll look into that.”

America may be the world’s lone superpower, but, no, we do not have the power to get oversea Americans out of prison, even if we believe that they’re innocent. (And in that case, there was overwhelming evidence against the Bulgarian-American and he was convicted.)

Shortly after I arrived in Macedonia for a two-year tour at the American embassy, my boss asked me to follow Illir’s trial in Kicevo, a two-hour drive south from the Macedonian capital, Skopje. Despite the fact that Illir owned two restaurants in Alaska, we found out that he was actually living in the U.S. illegally, on a long-expired tourist visa. So as representatives of the U.S. government, he wasn’t our problem. But since the victims were U.S. citizens, we wanted to follow the trial.

Two years before I arrived in the country, Illir was acquitted of the murder charge. But in Macedonia, the prosecution can appeal an acquittal, and a year later, in the appeal he was found guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison. As Bashkim exited the courtroom, a 65-year-old woman, who was later identified as Luljeta’s mother, lunged at him with a large kitchen knife but was knocked down by a bystander.

Illir appealed the conviction and I was in attendance for the court proceedings, along with a local employee from the embassy named Ljupka. It was my first time in a Macedonian courtroom and I couldn’t help but wonder why there was a huge pile of at least 100 old typewriters in the corner of the room.

“This is Macedonia,” Ljupka said. “Who knows?”

After getting shot on his first visit to Macedonia, and nearly getting stabbed by Luljeta’s mother on his most recent visit, Bashkim elected to stay in Alaska for Illir’s appeal, so Illir was the focal point of the proceedings. He had two defense strategies. The first was to highlight his illegal status in the U.S. He argued that he couldn’t have left the U.S. to come to Macedonia to kill Bashkim because then he wouldn’t have been able to re-enter the country to attend to his restaurants.

But after the prosecutors showed evidence that Illir had used his old Macedonian passport to cross into Macedonia by land from Albania less than 24 hours before the murder took place, he tried a different tact. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and began to read off a list of names.

“What’s going on?” I asked Ljupka.

“He says that he’s spent the last year trying to bribe his way out prison,” she said. “And he’s naming all the people he gave bribes to and how much he paid.”

Some of the people he was naming were in the room but it didn’t matter. The conviction was upheld and Illir spent the next seven years in prison. I’m told that Bashkim, the former dishwasher, now owns his own restaurant in Fairbanks. His father is gone but not forgotten.

Twelve years have passed since the murder took place and I’m told that Illir, who never confessed to the crime, more or less has his old life back. He somehow found a way to get back into the U.S. and is keeping a low profile in Alaska, presumably keeping a close eye on his wife.

Note: the names of the individuals mentioned in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

Photo via Tony Webster on Flickr.

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: 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.