A Traveler in the Foreign Service: the lovesick American who needed a loan. Twice.

Did you know that the U.S. State Department provides emergency repatriation loans (ERL) for destitute Americans overseas that need help getting home? The loans are intended for Americans who find themselves short of cash or a return ticket home due to some unforeseen circumstance- theft, illness and the like. If approved, the State Department will provide travelers with a one-way ticket back to the U.S. and money to cover their expenses prior to their departure. The rub is that their passport is limited for a single entry back to the U.S. and if they don’t repay the loan, they won’t get a new one.

The State Department doesn’t advertise the program for obvious reasons. In FY 2008, State processed 893 ERL’s worldwide, with a majority coming to assist travelers in Europe and Latin America. From what I gather, most loans are repaid as travelers don’t want to lose their right to get a new passport.

When you work at an American embassy in a country that “normal” American tourists don’t visit, you have an opportunity to meet some, shall we say, unique travelers who often have quite unusual stories of how they washed up in that country. When I worked in Macedonia, we were also responsible for Americans in Kosovo, not exactly a tourist magnet, particularly in the wake of the war there.

Most of the American citizens who came into the embassy for one reason or another were naturalized Americans of Albanian or Macedonian origin, but the American-born citizens who came to Macedonia or Kosovo despite having no connection to the region usually had the most interesting stories. One woman, whom I’ll call Juliet, became such a familiar face that she was practically an honorary member of our staff.

Juliet turned up one day in 2003 at the U.S. Office in Pristina (now an embassy) and fainted after causing a fuss about needing money to get back to the U.S. After helping revive her, local staff there instructed her to visit us down in Skopje.

Juliet told me that she was in Kosovo “just to check the place out.” Her explanation for why she had only a one-way ticket to Kosovo made even less sense.

In order to process a loan for an American traveler, the traveler has to provide the names and phone numbers of three persons who might agree to help them first. Juliet, who was 51 at the time, gave me the contact info for her mother, an adult daughter, and her brother. But she warned that “they ain’t going to give me a dime.”

Nonetheless, I was required to try.

“Good lord, I’m on a fixed income and she is taking years off of my life!” Juliet’s mother said. “Tell me, is she over there screwing around with some young man?”I had no idea and moved on to the brother and the daughter, both of whom told me to get lost.

“She’s been fleecing all of us for years,” her brother said. “She is the world’s biggest 50-year-old child.”

With the three rejections in hand, I was able to process her loan of about $800. When she walked out of the embassy, I assumed I’d never see her again, but about six months later she resurfaced at the embassy.

“What brings you back to the region?” I asked.

“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “But I fell in love.”

She went on to detail how she’d fallen in love with a handsome 20-year old Kosovar whom she’d met on a website for the band The Doors. As soon as she said this, Jim Morrison’s voice popped into my head. Hello, I love you won’t you tell me your name.

Juliet said she had married the young man and wanted to file an immigrant visa petition to bring her young lover, more than thirty years her junior, back to the U.S. But first she wanted another loan to get home, only this time she said she wanted to go to Hawaii, rather than Tennessee.

“I paid the last one,” she reassured me.

“But why on earth did you come back here with another one-way ticket?” I asked.

“I thought we were going to get married and live happily ever after in Kosovo,” she said.
But her young lover had visions of Hawaiian palm trees dancing in his head and insisted they get out of Kosovo. He was obviously marrying her for the right to live in the U.S. but Juliet seemed to be the only person who didn’t understand this.

I checked with contacts back in Washington and was told that we could give her a loan to get to Tennessee but not Hawaii, since she had no proof that she was domiciled there. I called her mother, brother and daughter again and they told me the same thing as six months before, only more forcefully.

“Hell no!” her brother said. “I’m not paying so she can travel around with her boy toy.”

Juliet got her loan, but this time my boss told me that she wanted me to physically escort her to the airport to make sure she actually left the country. As luck would have it, her flight left Skopje at 7 A.M. on a Saturday morning, so I had to meet her at her hotel at 5 A.M.

I turned up at her budget hotel at the appointed time and asked the reception clerk to ring up to her room. The phone kept ringing but she didn’t answer. I hoped that she was in the shower and hadn’t skipped town. I had her plane ticket, so I assumed she was there, but couldn’t be sure. Eventually, I walked up to her room and knocked on the door. She answered in a bathrobe, looking haggard and un-showered, and I could see her young partner lying on the bed in a pair of boxers. Yikes.

“We’re almost ready,” she said, not very convincingly.

Her husband, whom I’ll call Blerim, wasn’t going to the States, at least not yet. She needed to get her financial house in order to sponsor him, but apparently he was coming along for the ride to the airport.

They eventually emerged from their love nest but resumed their ostentatious cuddling and smooching in the back seat and then in the terminal itself, before she boarded the plane. About a year later, Juliet finally had her paperwork together and Blerim joined her in her new home in Hawaii, where she’d found work as a nurse. I assume that they lived happily ever after, at least until he got his green card and left her for someone his own age.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via mtarlock on Flickr.

The Gadling “stranded at the airport” survival guide

What better time to remind you of the possibility of being stranded at the airport, than in the aftermath of the Eyjafjallajoekull ash cloud disruption?

During that dark period of air travel, 7 million people were stranded at airports all around the world. Flights were canceled as far away as New Zealand, and even passengers just two hour flights away from home found themselves taking $5,000 cab rides just to get home.

So – what are the best ways to deal with a situation like this? What can you do to get yourself on the first available flight, and how can you compete with 7 million others, who all want the same thing? We’ve collected the best tips – but remember the most important one: stay calm, take a deep breath and make the best of a bad situation. Getting mad won’t get you home any sooner.Money – make sure you have some

This is a tough one – without money, being stranded can turn from an inconvenience into a nightmare. During the Icelandic volcanic ash disruption, there were countless stories of people that were stuck at the airport without a penny left. In those cases, tourists suddenly found themselves begging for food at the airport and sleeping on a cot for a week. Always make sure you have access to some backup funds in cash or on a credit card.

Another important tip is to save all your receipts – if the airlines are held responsible for the delays, you may be able to claim refunds. Before you go spending money, ask whether your airline is issuing hotel and food vouchers. If delays are no more than a day, many airlines will help their passengers, but don’t expect anything past that 24 hour period.

Always pack to be prepared

This rule applies to any trip – stranded or not. Any time you hand over your bags to the airline, make 100% sure there is nothing in it that you may end up needing.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people still pack wallets, laptops, phones or medication in their checked luggage. If the airline goes on strike, or cancels flights, your bags may be stuck in the luggage basement for days with no way for you to retrieve them.

Mobile technology is your best friend

Put your technology to good use – if you have a smartphone, make sure you install all the apps that can help you out. Check out our iPhone airport survival guide for some tips. Similar applications are also available for most other platforms. Your most important resources will be access to online search and the mobile site of your airline.

Once you are at ease with the idea that you are going to be stranded for the time being, use your phone to keep yourself entertained. Just remember that your battery won’t last all day, so keep an eye open for outlets, and read our airport power guide for tips on keeping your gadgets going.

Know your way around

When disaster strikes, spend 10 minutes to find your way around the airport. Some situations may require you to make a mad dash from gate to gate, and only those people that know their way around will be on time. Use smartphone tools like Gate Guru to find airport amenities, and on your way around, be sure to make a mental note of the quietest airport security checkpoints or other time saving tricks.

Find the most effective way to rebook yourself

During massive air delays, social media sites like Twitter are full of people complaining that they had to spend an hour or more on hold with the airline. Sadly, this is par for the course when thousands of people are stuck – you’ll be competing with every other stranded passenger on your airline.

Airlines will be dealing with thousands of passengers on hold – so don’t expect things to magically happen on their own. In the aftermath of the volcano, it took some airlines two weeks to clear their backlog of stranded passengers.

So – you’ll need to be smart and find the best way to get in touch with the airline. If you are abroad, make sure you find local access numbers. If the airline has a toll free number, use it. If your only option is to call the United States on a pricey international call, find WiFi and use Skype.

Some airlines have electronic rebooking options available on their kiosks. Other quick ways to find an employee not being harassed by 100’s of passengers is to check the airline lounge or even ask whether employees at the baggage desk have access to reservations systems. Remember – a smile goes a long way. Don’t whine, rant, grunt or complain. Just ask whether the employee would be willing to help and compliment them on their fantastic hair.

Need a hotel? Be quick and book ahead

As soon as you realize something is going wrong, find a hotel. Seriously – don’t worry (too much) about cost or whether the hotel has a room available with a jacuzzi tub.

When you call the hotel, book a night, and ask whether you can add extra nights without any cancellation penalties – then book these extra nights right away. This way, you can prevent spending one night at the hotel for $100, and having to pay $400 a night when the hotel realizes they can start gouging stranded passengers.

Got friends in high places? Use them!

Do you know someone who is an elite member of the airline? Now may be the time to ask them for that one big favor they owe you. They may not be able to magically call for a new plane, but they may be able to call their own elite desk and beg for a little help. Use the power of the Internet to find the elite passenger helpdesk numbers – yes, elite passengers will yell at me for this tip, but when you are in trouble, you do everything you can to fix things.

Get away from the airport for a bit

Do you already know that your next chance to get back home won’t be for another couple of days? Get away from the airport! Pick a hotel away from the airport area, but close to a rapid public transport system. This will get you a cheaper room, cheaper food and less stress from all the other stranded passengers.

Make the best of a bad situation

Look, everyone knows that being stranded is a waste of time – but getting upset about it isn’t going to help anyone. Make the best of a bad situation and have some fun. Make new friends at the airport and try to cheer others up. If you can help someone else – do it. I’ve been stuck at the airport several times, and despite the major inconvenience and cost, I ended up flying back home with new memories and new friends.