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.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Escape from a rock-star elevator in Skopje

Trapped in a private, “rock-star” elevator in a seemingly half-finished apartment building on my first day in Macedonia, I turned, in desperation, to a phrase book. I had spent the previous six months in language training at the Foreign Service Institute, studying full time in a class of two, to prepare for an assignment at the American embassy in Skopje. But I didn’t know how to say, “HELP!”

I was the lone member of the embassy trained in the country’s minority language- Albanian- which is somewhat akin to posting a diplomat in Washington, D.C. with only Spanish training and no English. I lived in a part of town where Albanian was useless and, at this moment, was happy to have found the word for “help” in Macedonian in a phrasebook I had fortuitously stuffed in my backpack before leaving my apartment.

“U-Poh-MOSH!” I yelled. “U-POH-MOSH!”

I’d later learn that I shared my “rock-star” elevator with 3 apartments beneath me, but these other residences were all under construction. I had heard someone hammering just outside the elevator and the noise ceased for a minute after I let out my cry.

There was silence for a moment and then I heard a most unwelcome sound: laughter. I considered the fact that I was pronouncing the word wrong, so I tried various other iterations of the word. Eventually the laughter ceased and the workman started talking to me, in Macedonian. I had no clue what he was saying.

“Please, just get me the hell out of here!” I yelled.

But the man seemed either powerless or disinterested. After about a half hour trapped in the elevator I started to feel claustrophobic and short of breath. It finally dawned on me that I had the cell phone number of my new boss, whom I’d met at the airport just an hour before. We had only exchanged pleasantries and now I had to call her, at the start of a three-day weekend, to bail me out of an elevator. Only in the fishbowl world of the Foreign Service could such an uncomfortable supervisor-subordinate introduction take place.

“Hi Karen, it’s Dave Seminara, we just met at the airport,” I said, making my very first call on a new mobile phone I’d been given.

“I seem to be stuck in an elevator at my apartment building.”

“Stuck in an elevator?” she asked, incredulous. “Well are you sure you hit the right buttons?”I was 29 years old and, by that point in my life, felt reasonably certain that I knew how to go up and down in elevators. But given the circumstances, I refrained from making a sarcastic response and my new boss said she’d make some phone calls to try to get me out.
I sat down on the floor of the small elevator box, and listened to the workman’s music as he ignored my occasional ravings. After about twenty more minutes, I felt a sudden jolt and I was hurdling down, presumably towards the lobby, at top speed.

I stepped out of the elevator, feeling very much like a released prisoner, and Karen was standing there looking concerned, alongside an attractive, nearly six-foot tall young woman named Saska, a local employee at the embassy who also lived in the building. They were both nice to me but I think they suspected that my elevator mishap was somehow my own fault.

After they left, I took a long, depressing walk down Vasil Gyorgov, the street my apartment was located on in Skopje’s Kapistec neighborhood. The sidewalks were filled with parked cars so I had to walk in the street. I kept getting splashed by demented Yugo drivers who targeted me, the lone fool out for a walk in a city of some 500,000 inhabitants.

I passed row after row of shabby Soviet-era apartment blocks before coming upon what looked like an oasis: The Beverly Hills Shopping Center. I walked in and meandered up to a pizza kiosk. Teenagers were taking turns unloading the contents of a ketchup bottle onto slices of pizza that looked hard enough to knock rabid dogs unconscious.

There were cafés with names like Prestige and Trend and a whole host of dark, drafty little shops selling burned cd’s and software. The higher-end shops were selling pirated cd’s that had photocopied liner notes, but a few others were simply selling what appeared to be burned copies of their own personal collections. I bought a homemade cd of Nirvana’s Greatest Hits for 100 denars, a bit less than $2, and returned to my apartment. I took the stairs.

That night, my embassy social sponsors, Blake and Adrianna, took me out for pizza and a brief tour of the downtown. The highlights were the country’s only working A.T.M. machine (or so they claimed), the two best pubs- creatively called the Irish Pub and the English Pub, one on each side of the Vardar River- and the Gradski Trgovski Mall, which offered a slightly better selection of burned CD’s and pirated software than the Beverly Hills Mall.

We met up with a young, local, married couple, and when I told them that part of my duties at the embassy would include interviewing visa applicants, the young woman concluded, “You’re going to be the most popular guy in Macedonia.” Or perhaps the least popular, I thought.

The following day, Blake offered to take me hunting, and when I declined, he seemed put out. The three day weekend passed slowly and on my first day at work at the embassy, I was already famous. Over and over again I heard the same thing.

“You’re the guy who got stuck in the elevator, right?”

It was a perfect introduction to the Foreign Service- a peculiar little world where there are no secrets. The local employees in the consular section asked me to recount the story and all gathered around me in rapt attention. They howled in delight; it was as though my debacle was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. I liked them immediately.

I would spend the next two years of my life living and working in this fishbowl. I never socialized with Blake again, Saska’s husband became a good friend, and I never ventured back into my rock-star elevator.

Next: Ciao Macho Man

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: My rock-star elevator in Skopje

The first thing I noticed about Macedonia was the Marlboro man and a group of short men smoking cheap alternatives. Six months after being handed the country’s distinctive yellow and red flag, signifying a two year assignment to the American Embassy in Skopje, I’d finally landed in the city’s forlorn little airport.

I was standing by the lone baggage carousel, looking at the Marlboro billboard and the smokers ignoring the no-smoking signs in the smoke-filled terminal. A tall, reed thin man with a receding hairline and a chest full of dangling badges approached me. He had no sign, but it was pretty obvious that I was the American on the flight he was looking for.

“The name’s Zoran, but everybody calls me ‘Ninja,” the embassy driver said, by way of introduction.

I’d soon learn that half the men in Macedonia are named Zoran or Goran, so nicknames come in handy.

Outside the terminal, we had to push our way through an unruly scrum of cabbies and people waiting for friends or relatives. At the time, only departing passengers were allowed inside the airport, so everyone else waited outside. My new boss and my social sponsors, Blake and Adrianna, were waiting just behind the mob to greet me.

The boss introduced herself and left in her own car, but Blake and Adrianna piled in a van with Ninja and I as we sped off to my new home. Blake was a heavyset, baby faced, thirty- something with an air of self-importance. Adrianna was an attractive Salvadoran with an endearing accent. They met and married on Blake’s previous tour in San Salvador.

“I understand you work in the political section,” I said to Blake.

“Actually, I’m the head of the political section,” he said, correcting me.

There were only two Americans in the political section, but it was an important distinction for him.

Skopje circa 2002 was a homely place, not elephant-man ugly, but shabby, unkempt and dreary, particularly on a rainy day. We passed a strip of shops called “Plastic Alley” where Roma sold seemingly identical collections of cheap garbage cans, pots and pans and knickknacks. Dilapidated Yugos shared the unmarked streets with stray dogs and Roma steering horse drawn carriages. I made a mental note to take an alternate route from the airport when my wife arrived in the country in a few months time.

We passed row after row of dilapidated Soviet apartment blocks, most with peeling paint and overflowing garbage bins. It was a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. I was lucky to have three days to settle in before reporting to work at the embassy. Foreign Service Officers are expected to get right off the plane and drive straight in to work the first day, jet-lag and all.

Ninja pulled up in front of the newest, spiffiest apartment building I’d seen during the twenty minute ride. The place seemed half-finished though- there was no grass in front- just a big pile of mud we had to wade through with my bags to get to the front door.

“Mr. David, you have your own private elevator- like a rock-star,” said Ninja, who was a karate champion and law school graduate, in addition to being a driver at the embassy. The four of us jammed shoulder to shoulder into an elevator that whisked us straight up into my fourth floor apartment.

It was a bit odd- we stepped out of the elevator and were in my new foyer/coat closet area, which had two bullet proof doors to the left and another one to the right. Ninja handed me a set of massive set of keys (I later counted 18, 13 of which seemed unnecessary) and we took a look around my new two bedroom apartment.

I couldn’t help but take stock of how surreal it is to arrive at a new post in the Foreign Service. Someone picks you up at the airport and drives you to your new home. Your preferences and tastes are irrelevant, but the rent is free. My new place was quite satisfactory, but looked like the kind of space where one of Tony Soprano’s junior level lieutenants would have felt right at home.

The centerpiece of the living room was a gigantic, twenty foot long, empty, gilded, golden picture frame covering the entire wall. It was so gaudy and ornate, that it would have been too fancy for Michelangelo’s The Last Supper. I also had some very complex kitchen appliances, a hot tub, two bidets, ornately tiled bathrooms, and a view of a church and a gigantic, illuminated cross which sits atop Mt. Vodno overlooking the city.

There were two kinds of people in Skopje who could afford such an apartment: a gangster or a diplomat. All the fixtures were fit for a gangster, but in the Foreign Service, you get the same insipid Drexel Heritage furniture everywhere, so my place was half Sopranos and half Leave it to Beaver.

Still, it was a step up from the drafty $600 per month, 1 bedroom apartment we lived in on the northwest side of Chicago. With some time to kill before Blake and Adrianna returned to take me out to dinner, I decided to examine my new neighborhood. I got into my private little elevator, pushed the button, went down for a few seconds and then jolted to a noisy, screeching halt.

A few minutes passed before I realized that I was stuck in a rock-star elevator on my first day in Macedonia.

Next: Escape from a rock-star elevator

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

[flickr image via bogenfreund]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: The list, the call, the flag- assignments in the Foreign Service

The most common question I get from people who have a passing interest in joining the Foreign Service is: how hard is to get posted to Rome, Paris, Prague, Sydney and other popular vacation destinations. The best way to get a feel for your chances is to have a look at the complete list of U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.

There are more than 200 posts in the Foreign Service and for every Prague there are at least ten places more like Karachi or Bujumbura. The largest U.S. embassy in the world is Baghdad, so your chances of donning a flak jacket by the Tigris over the course of a career are infinitely greater than enjoying a tour in Rome.

On the first day of my career in the Foreign Service, I was sitting in an auditorium next to my fiancée, and in the company of 94 other Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and their families, waiting for the list. All incoming FSOs start their careers with a two-month long class called A-100, a sort of intro to diplomacy, and on the first day, everyone had already heard that the list was coming.

The list would contain all the jobs around the world we’d have to bid on, and I had butterflies in my stomach as I sat waiting to see ours.

“There are ninety-five jobs on this list- one for each of you,” said John Dinkelman, our course coordinator whom we came to know as “Dink.” “All of these jobs will be filled.”

Dink went on to proscribe the rules: each of us had to bid on twenty-five of the ninety-five jobs; near the end of the class, we’d have a Flag Day, in which we’d be given a flag, representing our assignment. The Career Development Officers (CDOs) would try to send us all to posts we had bid on, but if that wasn’t possible, they’d make what Dink referred to as the call. If you got the call, it meant that you were going someplace that wasn’t on your bid list.

When Dink finally passed the list out, I scanned through the listing of ninety-five jobs and felt a surge of excitement. Tblisi. Tashkent. Buenos Aires. Skopje. New Delhi. Guangzhou. The idea that I’d soon be living in one of these places seemed a bit surreal. But there were also some sobering spots on the list that I wasn’t keen on as well: Kingston, Port au Prince, Karachi, Tijuana, Addis Ababa and Dhaka to name a few.

Just prior to Flag Day, we were taken to a downscale “resort” in West Virginia for a retreat and it was fascinating to watch people kiss up to the three CDOs who would decide our fates. They were like rock stars for the weekend but I didn’t court them because I was afraid that it might backfire.

Most of my classmates had the good sense to compile their bid list based primarily on the jobs and their career interests. There are five career tracks in the Foreign Service, called “cones”- consular, economic, management, political and public diplomacy. FSOs enter the service as junior officers; the first two assignments are directed by the CDOs and one of the first two tours has to be consular.

But I wasn’t thinking about the list in terms of career tracks. For me, it was like a big travel brochure and I used Lonely Planet and other guidebooks to research the various posts. My first choice was Tashkent because I’d been to Uzbekistan the year before and had fallen in love with Bukhara. I’d later come to realize how silly this mindset was, but at the time I was blissfully unaware of the fact that what makes a place great to visit doesn’t necessarily make it a place you want to live in for 2-3 years.

In the days leading up to Flag Day, I lived in fear of getting the call, but thankfully it never came, and as we assembled in an auditorium at the Foreign Service Institute for the moment of truth- Flag Day- Dink told us he had good news.

“No one got the call, so you are all headed somewhere you bid on,” he said, standing at a podium next to a long table filled with dozens of flags from all over the world.

Dink started calling names and handing out flags and it was fascinating to see how people responded to their assignment. Most smiled, a few looked mildly disappointed, a couple jumped up and down on the way to the podium, as if they’d just been told to “come on down,” on The Price is Right, and one young woman was seen actually shedding tears shortly after being handed her flag. (Destination: Kingston, Jamaica)

A couple that met and fell in love during A-100 requested tandem assignments to the same post and the lovebirds were both handed Polish flags. (Never mind the fact that they broke up a few days later and approached the CDOs to request split assignments, which were granted.)

Dozens of names were called and a whole slew of posts I’d bid on fell by the wayside. Tashkent. Moscow. Stockholm. Buenos Aires. Almaty. Minsk. And then I heard my name called while Dink was clutching a flag that looked like….what the hell flag was that? For an excruciatingly long moment I heard my name and saw the flag but couldn’t figure out what country I was headed to. It looked like the flag of imperial Japan, but then Dink uttered the words.

“Consular assignment, Skopje, Macedonia,” he said.

Skopje was my sixth choice, so I was relatively pleased. My fiancé, Jen, was back in Chicago finishing up a graduate degree, so while everyone else celebrated or grieved in the auditorium, I snuck outside to make my own version of the call.

“Where are we going?” she asked, breathlessly.

“Skopje, Macedonia,” I said.

There was a very long period of silence while we both digested this news, until, finally, Jen spoke.

“Is that good or bad?”

I had no idea but knew we were about to find out.

(Note: The call has now gone the way of the typewriter. FSOs now have to bid on everything on their list.)

[Flickr image via Haysels]

Next: Stuck in an elevator- a perfect metaphor for life in a fishbowl.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Not much of a diplomat

My journey into the U.S. Foreign Service started as a Colonel Muammar Gaddafi impersonator in a school auditorium near Buffalo, New York in 1986. I was taking part in an 8th grade Model U.N. assembly, and had been given the difficult brief of dressing up like a citizen of Malta and delivering a speech advocating Maltese interests, whatever those were during the Cold War.

According to my trusty Encyclopedia Britannica, (remember those?) Libya was one of Malta’s primary trading partners, and since it appeared to be relatively close to Libya on the map, I went ahead and donned a flowing white Arab-style robe with matching headdress and aviator sunglasses for my speech. A photograph of me in my Gaddafi costume appeared in The Buffalo News, and someone at my school decided to send a copy of the press clipping to the embassy of Malta in Washington, in the absurd belief that they might find some amusement in the fact that a 13-year old boy was photographed grossly misrepresenting their country.

A few weeks later, I received a package from the office of the Prime Minister of Malta with some books about the country, along with a scathing letter, which darkly and absurdly hinted at a sinister, anti-Maltese conspiracy perpetrated by our “so-called free press” in Buffalo. My school was convinced that I’d created an international incident and forwarded the letter to the State Department. Five months later, I received a letter from the State Department’s Desk Officer for Malta, which contained an unlikely piece of advice: consider a career in diplomacy.

My parents bought me a shortwave radio and the crackling sounds of far-off places fed my desire to see the world. After college, I took jobs in advertising and publishing more or less to fund travel opportunities, and took off as soon as my bank account allowed for extended overland trips in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia and China. The trips left gaping holes in my resume but renewed my interest in joining the Foreign Service.

Wanderlust is a romanticized concept but it can also be an affliction, a malady that prevents people from becoming settled, productive members of the rat race. After returning to Chicago, my adopted hometown, after along overland trip in 2000, I resolved to make a serious push to get into the Foreign Service, in the hopes that it would be a career that could channel my wanderlust into something productive. Rehabilitate me, if you will.Others have had much longer and more distinguished careers in the Foreign Service than I have, and this series isn’t meant to be a definitive account of what life in the service is like. There are more than 5,000 Foreign Service Officers working in some 200 posts all around the world, and everyone has their own stories, experiences and perspectives.

When I tell people that I was in the Foreign Service, I get a lot of blank stares and awkward questions. Even well educated people often have no idea what the Foreign Service is.

“Is that like the French Foreign Legion?” a medical doctor and Ivy League graduate once asked me.

In this series, former Foreign Service Officer, Dave Seminara, will attempt to explain what the Foreign Service is and isn’t, share some Foreign Service vignettes, and provide an answer to this question: is the Foreign Service a good career option for compulsive travelers?

Next: ‘You’ve Never Smoked any Marijuana?’ Getting into the Foreign Service

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.