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.