A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Dreaming Of The Balkans From A ‘Tropical Paradise’

trinidad man lounging in hammockI might be the only person in human history to move from Macedonia to Trinidad. But in the peculiar world of the Foreign Service, unusual transitions across the globe are par for the course. I have Foreign Service friends who have recently moved from Ecuador to Poland, Paraguay to Bangladesh, Hungary to Zambia, and from the Philippines to Ireland. It’s a nomadic lifestyle, where Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) generally stay in each country for just 1-3 years and when they leave an obscure, hard-to-get-to post, they have to swallow the fact that they’ll leave behind some friends and colleagues they might never see again.
Overseas tours are relatively short because the State Department doesn’t want FSOs to “go native” while overseas. The reality is that by the time you get comfortable in a place, it’s just about time to leave. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how much you like your post and where you’re headed next.homeless man in trinidadWhen I found out I was headed to Port of Spain, Trinidad, for my second assignment mid-way through my two year tour in Skopje, my Macedonian colleagues joked that I was soon going to be leading a Jimmy-Buffet-like life of leisure with warm breezes, cold, tropical drinks and long afternoons spent swaying in hammocks on a beach. But one of the senior-level FSOs at post knew better.

“I’d never bid on Trinidad,” he said. “You never want to get stuck in a country you can’t drive out of, unless it’s Australia or New Zealand.”

And I knew he was right, but there was nothing I could do. The first two tours for FSOs are “directed assignments” and I’d been directed to Port of Spain, after being told that spending two years in Skopje hadn’t given me enough “bidding equity” to go to any of the posts I’d bid on. I grew up in Buffalo and, although I like going to a beach on vacation, I’m not a tropical country guy.

But the Foreign Service is a bit like the military in that you pretty much have to go where they send you, so that’s how my wife and I found ourselves on a flight from Miami to Port of Spain eight years ago this month, on my 32nd birthday. Arriving at a new post in the Foreign Service is a singular experience that’s hard to relate to if you’ve never done it.

Someone meets you at the airport, usually a driver and a family that’s been assigned to be your social sponsor, and, in most cases, you’re taken to your new home. In some cases, a post might reach out to you before you’ve arrived to see what your housing preferences are – city versus suburbs, location versus commute, house or apartment, etc. But in many cases, they do not, and on this day I had no idea where “Bird” the Trini driver who’d come to pick us up was taking us.

prostitute in trinidad port of spainMy heart sank when I saw our depressing neighborhood and our tacky, cramped apartment. In Skopje, we had a beautiful, spacious apartment that was 5 minutes from the embassy. It wasn’t a pedestrian friendly city by any means, but you could walk just about anywhere in town. And if you didn’t want to walk, you could call a taxi that would arrive within five minutes and take you wherever you wanted to go for the equivalent of $1.

In most career fields, you expect to have an upward trajectory in terms of income and living standards, but that isn’t always the case in the Foreign Service. You can find yourself going from a mansion one day to living in a hooch in Afghanistan the next, and your pay can go up or down dramatically depending on the hardship and cost of living ratings of each post and whether your spouse can find work.

Within a day or two of arriving in Port of Spain we were able to take stock of how our fortunes had fallen. Our apartment was smaller and much less nice than where we moved from and we were 30 minutes from the embassy in a downscale suburb where there was nothing of interest within walking distance and cabs might or might not arrive hours after you called them. My pay was reduced by more than 20% because Skopje improbably had more hardship and cost of living pay, and my wife’s pay had been cut in half because she went from a full time job in Skopje to a part time job in Trinidad.

woman in tobagoMoreover, the cost of living in Trinidad was far higher than Skopje and, though there were beaches about 30-45 minutes away, Port of Spain had a much higher crime rate and a city center that was both shabby and depressing, not to mention dangerous after dark. (V.S. Naipaul, a native of Trinidad, couldn’t wait to leave and seldom returned to visit once he left.) I liked the local people very much, but the city of Port of Spain? Not so much.

We also went from a post run with Swiss efficiency by a career diplomat to a completely dysfunctional post run by a college friend of George W. Bush, with, well Caribbean efficiency. (The Ambassador, like several other high-ranking W. appointees, was a fellow member of Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale.) It was a post that people either loved or hated and, to be fair, there were indeed people who enjoyed the place.

For FSOs, bidding research is a serious issue. You try to gather all the intell you can on the jobs and places that appear on your bid lists. But the reality is that if you’re living in Bosnia or Mali, there’s only so much you can find out about what life is like in Mongolia, Paraguay or wherever. Sites like Real Post Reports are helpful for trying to get a feel for what a post will be like, but for many posts, like Port of Spain, you might find that the half the reviews say that a place is wonderful while the other half say that it’s awful.

And since the Foreign Service is a three-degrees of separation kind of institution, many people aren’t willing to share the negative aspects of a post with bidders unless they know the person well and trust them, for fear that people will find out that they bad-mouthed a post. The other mistake some people make in bidding, especially travelers like me, is using travel guidebooks to research countries.

The problem with this approach is that there are a lot of countries that are wonderful to visit but not so great to live in and vice versa. If I had arrived in Trinidad for a two-week vacation, my opinion of the place would have been totally different. Your perspective on a place changes depending on how long you’re supposed to be there.

We read “The Rough Guide to Trinidad & Tobago” while in the research stage of bidding and when I later brought this book to post, my local co-workers considered some of its advice laughable. For example, the book praised a tough area called Laventille as being the “beating heart” of the city but my co-workers told me that Laventille was so dangerous that even telephone repairmen and other municipal workers refused to go there.

The reality is that you never really know what a place will be like to live in until you actually go there, and a post is, in many ways, only what you make of it. In most occupations, if you like your job, your house and your overall situation, you simply stay put and enjoy it. But the Foreign Service is not like most careers, and there is no option to simply stay put and enjoy a good thing when you’ve got it.

Our mistake was dwelling on what we had in Skopje rather than just trying to make the best of the hand we’d been dealt in Trinidad. But shortly after we arrived at post, I got very sick and suddenly our complaints about Port of Spain were put in stark perspective. An illness can be both a curse and a blessing. For me, it made me realize that in life, you can lose a lot more than just a good job or a nice apartment, so you have to be grateful for what you have and forget about what’s gone.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

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: 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.]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Ciao macho man (or how to help Albanian breakdancers win a grammy)

I was standing on a stage in an auditorium in front of about 500 people frozen in terror at Nota Fest, which is like the Grammy awards for Macedonia’s ethnic-Albanian community. The organizers of the event had invited our Ambassador, Larry Butler, to present a lifetime achievement award and when he, and several other more important people at the embassy declined, the duty was punted down to me, a lowly first tour diplomat.

Attending b and c list events in host countries is a big part of life in the Foreign Service and the more junior you are, the more likely you’ll end up at Tajikistan’s national day (think warm, generic cola and greasy mutton) instead of Italy’s. (think prosciutto and fine wine). It was a command performance but I was assured that I wasn’t going to have to say anything in Albanian.

“All you have to do is get up on stage, smile, and hand someone an award,” said Lindita, a charming local employee from the embassy who probably could convince the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to muster “you go girl” enthusiasm for the Ellen DeGeneris Show.

I had only been in the country for a few weeks and was still feeling insecure about speaking Albanian one-on-one, let alone in front of an audience of hundreds of people, so not speaking was a key point in the negotiations.

After sitting through three hours of live performances, many of them shockingly bad, with nary an alcoholic beverage in sight, I was finally called up on the stage, ostensibly to present the lifetime achievement award. Immediately the jazzily dressed hostess handed me a microphone, sending a wave of panic straight up my spine. Please do not ask me a question, I thought.

Suddenly a torrent of Albanian words filled the air and my mind raced to understand what was being said. I froze as the sold-out crowd waited to hear my response. But what the hell was the question? I didn’t understand it, so I made some general remark about what a great evening it was, in Albanian. She repeated the question and on the second go-around I realized that she was asking me for an opinion on what had been the best performance of the night. Good grief.

The only two redeeming acts of the night were folk groups that I couldn’t conjure the names of for the life of me. In that instant of panic, the only song I could recall the name of was a ridiculous little ditty called Ciao Macho Man. The number featured a slutty-looking, bleach blond, Spice girl wannabe, nicknamed “Tuna,” bopping around the stage encircled by about 7 or 8 break dancing (yes break dancing) teenage boys wearing wife beaters and auto mechanic costumes. It was more or less akin to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl video, only there was break dancing rather than singing into wrenches.The hostess and five hundred impatient Albanians demanded to know my opinion on the best song of the night, so I said, in Albanian, “Maybe it was Ciao Macho Man,” to a hearty round of applause. This seemed to satisfy the hostess and, thankfully, I was allowed to leave the stage.

I made a beeline for Lindita, who was accompanied by Rita, another one of our colleagues.

“I am so embarrassed,” she said, before I could speak.

“What the hell happened?” I asked.

“The person who was supposed to get the award didn’t show up, so she was ad libbing,” Lindita explained.

“Well, please don’t tell me that Ciao Macho Man is going to get the award on my account,” I said.

Moments later, the hostess reappeared on stage and announced that Ciao Macho Man had indeed won the award for best performance. The three of us fled into a taxi as snowflakes began to fall all over the macho men and women of Skopje. Rita got a phone call and then gave me some comforting news.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I just found out that Ciao Macho Man won because one of the Albanian political parties here fixed the contest, not because you said they should win.”

I felt momentarily relieved that Macedonia’s pervasive corruption, rather than my linguistic ineptitude had won the day for the macho men, but then my phone went off. It was Marija, one of the local employees I supervised at the embassy.

“Hey, macho man, I am so proud of you,” she said.

“Wow, word travels fast, how did you hear about it already?” I asked, totally confused.

“I didn’t hear about it, I just saw you on T.V.” she said.

Apparently I had just expressed a preference for Ciao Macho Man on live national television. I should have been ashamed but the beauty of living in a foreign country is that you can make a complete fool of yourself on television and feel safe in the knowledge that none of your friends and relatives will ever know about it. That is, unless you write about it, ten years later on a blog.

Read more from a Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via flickr user Tibchris.