“. . . as others see us.”

Life in Europe is not the same as life in the United States.  There is an inter-dependence here among people, regardless of their roots.  The American mindset of go-it-alone individuality is as alien as it is absent – a phenomenon which manifests itself in many ways for a life spent in Europe.

It was a European, Robert Burns, who wrote:

“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

I share the little pieces that follow to try to do just that for my fellow Americans who may not have had this privilege.

HOUSE HUNTERS INTERNATIONAL – BALKAN EDITION

(Cue music…..pictures of world landmarks, cut to two men walking down a muddy street….)

Welcome to House Hunters International – Balkan Edition

American lawyer Robert, after ten months of unemployment, has found a job which requires him to leave his adored wife Laurie in the United States and relocate to the former Yugoslavia, a warn-torn and economically depressed collection of a half dozen dysfunctional and corrupt countries.

Robert is here in Pristina, Kosovo, and will be looking at three apartments.  He has a low budget and wants to get something so he can maximize the money he sends back to Laurie.  He hopes to use less than 5% of the couple’s monthly income.  Helping him is his new friend, real estate agent Hazir, who speaks only Albanian and a few words of English, and Hazir’s crippled son, Deniz.  Robert has a modest wish list which includes a separate bedroom, internet, cable TV which includes English and French language channels, and a reasonably clean condition.   Hazir asks:

You want one, three or four rooms.

One.

OK Bravo. You need park?

No.

OK Bravo, we look three apartment. We walk.

They make their way up the rubble-strewn street in the Rosenta Tossi district and turn left into a construction area to find House #1.  Hazir opens  an elevator and they rise to the 6th floor where the landlord is waiting with the key.  They enter the apartment.

Here is sleeping room.

Nice.  Is that a waterbed?

Yes, bed from water. Fun OK. Bravo.

The living room, kitchen, closets and dining area are in one room furnished with bright orange slipcovers loosely thrown over three sofas left here by the retreating Ottomans.

Hazir, there is no TV.

Yes one come.  After you buy.  See here balcony.

Nice, but there are no chairs or table on the balcony.

Yes one come after you buy.

There is no table to sit at in the dining area..

Yes one come. After you buy.

Is there internet.

Yes, but one come after you buy.

How much is this place?

Five hundred Euro month.

Is electricity included?

Yes.  Included, but you must pay.

What about internet?

Include also.

Internet is included?

Yes, but is only 20 euro.

What about cable?

Also include 15 euro.

And heat?

Who?

Heat.

Eat.

No, heat.

Ok, no heat.

No, is there a way to heat apartment?  To make apartment not cold.

Oh, I know! Warming.

Yes, warming.

Warming included.

So who pays for warming.

Landlord pay warming.  Is include.

Included?

Yes, include in electricity.

Who pays electricity.

You pay. But internet not include.

Internet is not included in what.

In warming, so you pay.

OK, I need to get this straight.  For 500 euros I get what.

Everything.

For 500 euros everything is included?

Yes, include, except TV come later after you buy.

Who pays for TV.

Landlord pay.

Cable?

Landlord pay.

Internet?

Landlord pay.

Warming?

Landlord pay.

Water?

Landlord pay.

So for 500 I get everything?

Except garbage.  You have to pay for garbage.

I don’t want any garbage.

Then you no pay.

How you like apartment?

Nice.  But I notice no microwave.

No.

Or dishwasher.

No.

Or laundry.

No.

Or television.

OK bravo. After you buy.

Robert is beginning to discern the difference between “included” and “available.”

COMMERCIAL BREAK FOR CIALIS, VIAGRA AND FORD PICKUP TRUCKS

(cue music…..)

American lawyer Robert is looking for an apartment in the run down, bombed out capital city ofPristina, Kosovo, in the former Yoguslavia.

So far his Albanian real estate agent, Hazir, has shown him a sixth-floor one bedroom in the Rosenta Tossi neighborhood for 500 euros, well above Robert’s ridiculous Third-World budget and without some of the amenities on Robert’s short wish list.  Robert is also concerned about the possible presence of vermin in the upholstery and whether the promised improvements will actually materialize.

Music.

House number Two is located in the down-scale region of Trink Ismail.  It is on the tenth floor of a Tito-era apartment building which has been completely renovated.  They have to walk up a flight of stairs because the lift goes only to floor 9.

They enter the apartment and find a collection of IKEA knock-offs manufactured locally from recycled plastics.  The bedroom contains a bed with a floor mattress.  It has spacious closets.

Nice closet Robert.

Yes, nice closet.

Nice closet Robert.

Yes, nice closet.

Yes, nice. Bravo.

The rest of the apartment includes a two burner stove top, a dining table that serves as an end table for the one sofa, and two televisions.

Hazir? Why two televisions?

Last apartment have zero television.  This apartment have two.

Yes, I see that.  Why?

Because one on heat go.

One on heat go?

Yes, one on heat go.

Oh, ok.  (Robert thinks that this means that the television which is presently on the heater will be removed.)

The balcony has a panoramic view of Pristina from 10 stories up.  But Robert does not like heights and does not like the fact that earthquakes have happened in this region as well as just across the Adriatic inItaly.

How much for this place?

300 euro.

What does that include.

Everything include.

Who pays heat?  Warming?

You pay. 30 euro.

Water?

You pay. 30 euro.

Cable?

You pay. 20 euro.

Internet.

You pay. 15 euro.

Garbage?

10 euro.

So that’s  405 euro.

Ok.

Hazir, there is no shower.

No shower?

No.  Only a bathtub. See?

Only?

Robert makes showering gestures.

Oh! Ok no dush.  Only vaske.

Right.

Vaske more good only.

Right.

You take?

No.  I look more.

On the way out as Hazir fumbled with the lock Robert noticed an invoice from a company called “KEK” on the floor in front of the next door apartment. From his experience in the region Robert knew that KEK was the Kosovo Elektrik Kompani.  He picked it up and read the monthly charge for electricity.  Sixty-seven euro.

That would make it 442 euro.  Also over budget.

(Cue music….commercial for Cialis, Viagra and Nascar)

Welcome back to Househunters International, Balkan edition.  We’re with expat American lawyer Robert in Pristina, Kosovo, as he and local linguist and real estate giant Hazir search for an apartment.  So far, they have seen a one bedroom with no TV on the sixth floor in the Rosenta Tosi district for 500 euros, and a one bedroom with no shower on the tenth floor in the Trink Ismail neighbourhood for 300. But Robert is concerned that the add-on charges will increase the cost to over 450 euro and cause him to spend weekends running about paying water, TV, garbage and other bills.

House Number Three is located on Gustave Mayer Streetnear Robert’s first office in Kosovo.  Due to potholes and erosion the street is nearly impassable to vehicular traffic and boasts what seems to be an abundance of excess wiring dangling in clusters from its leaning telephone poles.

Hazir says “it is nice apartment” as he enters the dirty hallway and climbs the first flight of stairs.  There is graffiti scratched into the walls which seems to be critical of something.

Is on second floor Robert. OK? No problem.

But Robert has spent a great deal of time in Europe and knows that the second floor is really the third floor because the ground floor inEuropeis not floor #1, it is floor # 0.

Winded as they gasp at the door to the apartment, they hear the landlord.  He shouts in Albanian that he is resting on the first floor for a minute which, of course, means he is resting on the second floor.

When they open the door the landlord removes his shoes.  Typical in Muslim countries.  Hazir and Robert follow suit.

Robert looks into the only bedroom and sees a typically European size room with a full wall of deep closets.  They turn right down a short hallway and into the main area.  To the left is an arrangement of three deep blue sofas in like-new condition decorated with bright French yellow pillows.  There is a TV, and an internet station attached to a small desk.  To the right is a small, clean kitchen separated from the living room by a wooden bar behind which are ample counters.

Bekim, the landlord, speaks pretty good English and is proud to point out the new stove with a full oven, the first oven of the many apartments Robert has rented inEurope.  Bekim also shows the dishwasher and washing machine, also new.  There is a new microwave.

Bekim shows Robert the balcony which overlooks not only the wiring and the potholes, but also theCityParka few meters away.

Robert sits at the dining table to make some notes.

Bekim.  How much for this apartment?

400.

Who pays for Cable?

I pay cable and internet.

Who pays warming?

I pay central heating and electricity and garbage. And I pay water.

What do I pay each month in total.

400.

How much do I need to give you to move in next week?

400.

(cue music…..commercials for Cialis, Autofair and Ippolito’s Furniture)

We’re with American lawyer Robert in the poverty ridden country of Kosovo as he looks for an apartment from which he can walk to his new job and rebuild his life after the global economic collapse.

So far local real estate agent Hazir has shown him three properties:

House Number One is in the Rosenta Tossi neighborhood.  It is a one-bedroom with a large balcony, but no TV and more promises and ambiguities than Robert was hoping for.  Its 500 euro price tag is more than Robert had budgeted.

House Number Two, also a one-bedroom, is in the Trink Ismail region and is more affordable at 300 euros.  However, it does not have a shower and is on the 10th floor with a ninth floor elevator.  Robert calculated that add-on charges increase the cost to over 450 euros.

House Number Three on Gustave Mayer Streetis the quietest because cars can’t get down the street.  There is a view of the park from a small balcony and some surprises such as a dishwasher and laundry.  Of the three, the décor is a little French and most to Robert’s liking.  It carries a price tag of 400 euros.

AND HE CHOSE . . . . . .

The French décor of House Number Three onGustave Mayer Street.

Three weeks later . . . .

Ding dong

Hi.  I haven’t changed anything.  The best part of this place is watching the little, whiteLhasaApso puppy who lives in the fourth floor apartment across the street.  He reminds me of our doggies back in the States.  Especially when he lifts his leg on the fourth floor balcony onto unsuspecting pedestrians.   I tell people not to walk on that side of the street.

Bekim and I have become friends despite the fact that one week after moving in all 14 of the recessed light bulbs built into the ceiling burned out at the same time.  My friends think Bekim came in while I was at work and replaced them with broken ones.  They suggested legal action, but I can’t imagine bringing it.  It will cost less to replace them and, as a stranger in a strange land, a friend, even an unscrupulous one, is worth more than a light bulb or two.

 

To Stand in the Place

Just to Stand in the Place

After giving a short lecture on diplomatic immunity I went out to lunch with a few of the students.  All were new employees.

One, Jonathan, was Irish by birth and had spent 30 years with the London Metropolitan Police Department.  Scotland Yard.  It was his first visit to South-eastern Europe.  When I asked if he had done any travelling in the region he said no, not yet, but that he very much would like to.

There are many things worth seeing in the region. Vienna and Istanbul are two hours away with good connections.  The Croatian coast attracts many vacationers.  The monasteries in Kosovo and Albania have immense historic and cultural importance.  The Greek Orthodox compounds at Meteora, made famous in the James Bond flick “For Your Eyes Only” are reachable in three hours by car.

So, where did Jonathan want to go first?

His answer: Sarajevo.

Why?

He said “Just to stand in the place.”

I understood.

“The Place” he was talking about was near the Latin Bridge in downtown Sarajevo where, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sofia, were shot dead by a Serbian assassin, Gavrilo Princip.  The diplomatic back and forth after the assassinations led to the First World War about a month later and, in the years that followed, more than twenty million casualties.

But why this place?  Because, Jonathan explained, when you go to a place like that, and concentrate, and maybe close your eyes, you can feel it.

He’s right.  You can feel it.  And there are many places which could easily make it on to the list Jonathan no doubt keeps.  Here are some of my top ones:

Saint Mere Eglise, France.  The first town liberated by the Allies and the spot where John Steele, an American paratrooper, got snagged on the church steeple.  A mannequin of Steele hangs there to this day.

Kosovo Pjole, Near Pristina, Kosovo.  The site of the 1389 battle that put this part of the world under Ottoman rule for centuries, and, the site of Milosevic’s speech 600 years to the day later that launched the Balkanization and a series of brutal regional wars which included the siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in modern military history.

Little Round Top, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  My great-great grandfather was shot in the hand here and lost his thumb.

The War Rooms, King Charles Street, London.  Where Churchill sat, smoked and planned.

Chateau de La Roche Guyon, La Roche Guyon, France.  Erwin Rommel’s HQ on the day of the invasion and the building where he had tea with captured British Commando George Lane.  Rommel did not allow the flying of the Nazi banner in the village.

Heiligenberg Mountain, Heidelberg, Germany.  An enormous ancient Celtic fortress of stone is still here.  Parts of it were dismantled to build a Christian Church in the 12th century and a stone amphitheatre in the 1930s which the signs say was used for “political observances.” It was a Nazi rally venue.  Three civilizations using the same stones for vastly different purposes.

23-29 Washington Place, New York,New York.  Site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Château de Chalus-Chabrol, Chalus, France.  The spot where Richard I, the Lionheart, was struck by an arrowed fired by a boy.  The wound proved fatal within days.  Richard forgave the lad, but his orders not to harm the boy were disregarded after his death.

Wok ‘n Roll Restaurant, 604 H. Street, NW, Washington, DC.  This is the Surratt Boarding House where the Lincoln conspirators met and planned.  Combine it with a trip to nearby Ford’s Theatre and the sight of Mary Surratt’s hanging near the tennis courts at Ft McNair.

Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich, Germany.  Talk about feeling the place.  There is an eerie energy here which you take with you and you keep forever.  It is impossible, and irresponsible, to simply drive by.  This place stays with you.

Your list is different.  And mine would probably be different if I had ever been to Jerusalem.

Jonathan goes to Sarajevo this weekend.  I was glad to hear him talk about feeling places.  It’s good to know you are not the only one.

What’s on your list?

A Walk-in Closet

What are the big differences between life in the United States and life in Europe?

It depends upon who you ask.  A European gives different answers than an American.  An American who has been to Europe only as a tourist provides different answers than an American expat who considers Europe his home.

Some of the differences are obvious, even the stuff of stereotypes.  Cars are larger in the US, there are no speed limits on the German Autobahn, French women are more slender, and the olive oil tastes delightfully different.

But it is the differences in culture, politics, and quality of life that distinguish the peoples on either side of “the pond”.

After years of studying and living these differences I have distilled it to a top ten list.

1.  Walk-in closets are a rarity in Europe.  This is actually an important phenomenon.  It’s not about the closets. It’s about clothes.  Europeans generally own fewer articles of clothing than Americans.  Women vary their looks by adding less expensive accessories, a scarf, a hair ribbon.  Some men wear nearly identical outfits to work everyday.  Europeans tend to buy fewer clothes, but of very high quality.  Another reason why big closets are rare is because big houses are rare.  Europe is not a land of McMansions.

2.  Europeans touch each other more.  A “kiss” on each cheek is common upon greeting someone you know.  Even for men a strong handshake and an embrace is commonplace.  The same is true on parting.  In offices most will embrace or shake hands with colleagues they have not seen in a few days.  Women walk down the street with their arms around each other.  They’re not lesbians, they are friends.

3.  Europeans do not advertise pharmaceuticals on television.  You can actually spend an evening watching television and not have to explain to your 10 year-old daughter what “erectile dysfunction” is.

4.  Things are closer.  There are places in Europe where you can reach a dozen national capitals in less than 3 hours.  Rail service is fast, inexpensive, comfortable, and keeps you out of airplanes.  The nice thing about trains is that if the engine breaks down the only thing that happens is that the train stops.

5.  In Europe we have socialists, and we’re not afraid of them.  We’re not even afraid of the word.  We do not think that “socialism” and “communism” is the same thing. In the last few weeks six European countries have voted socialists into high public office.  Oh, we also have communists.  They create governments that provide social fabric for all including things like housing, education, public transport, universal health care, retirement, employment protections, and public parks.  By doing so, they build an interdependent “society” in which people depend upon each other for safety, security, and quality of life.  It’s about taking care of everybody.

Americans, on the other hand, are by and large capitalists.  They create governments that provide them with an opportunity to capitalize themselves and earn enough money to obtain things like education, transport, health care, retirement.  By doing so, they build an independent, individual security.  It’s not about taking care of everybody; it’s about taking care of me.

6.  In Europe the world news is about the world.  Over 90% of the airtime on European newscasts is used to cover global events; about 10% goes to national and local stories.  It’s the opposite in the United   States.  The result: they know more about us than we know about them.

7.  Bumper stickers.   You don’t see them in Europe.  Self-advertising is considered unseemly. No need to broadcast your religion, politics or patriotism.  In fact, only a minority of Europeans are religiously active and only 17% think that you have to believe in God to be a moral person.  In the US the figure is over 50%.

The same is true of patriotism.  In America 56% of us think that we may not be perfect but our culture is superior to others.  In France the number is a surprising 17%.

You just don’t see many flag stickers – except in the Balkans.

8.  There is no capital punishment inEurope.  None.  They don’t understand the American need to punish and to do so severely, and they don’t understand why the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  They particularly don’t get why you can be put to death in Texas and New Hampshire, but not in Vermont.

9.  Europeans do not share our national obsession with firearms.  Not at all.

10.  In Europe, the governments are afraid of the people.

It doesn’t come down to which is better.  There isn’t a “better”, there’s simply a difference. Europe is an acquired taste.  While everyone can enjoy a European vacation which includes the Crown Jewels, The Eiffel Tower, and the Coliseum, getting deep into European life in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, or the Balkan Peninsula takes a bit more of an adjustment.

The same is true in the United States.  Our friend Rene Rocher who lives in Paris and spent his teenage years under Nazi occupation will only vacation in theUnited   States.  He loves it. He even loves the Ohio State Trooper who gave him a $100 speeding ticket and wound up buying him a McDonald’s lunch because Rene’s culture had failed to teach him how to use the Drive-Thru.

Ten Years Ago The Shooting Stopped. The Pain Did Not.

 

Last  weekend I had three days off from the diplomatic mission where I work.  It seemed like a good opportunity to treat myself a little, so I decided to take a cab out to the United Nations camp and pick up a few treats at the PX.  It is difficult in the formerYugoslavia to find goods from the United States or Western Europe.

The small Post Exchange serves the diplomatic community and a few thousand NATO troops who remain here.  It has a modest selection of things which Americans miss and yearn for with an intensity that grows as the months pass.  Real corn flakes instead of the yellow ones from Montenegro.  American ketchup.   French mustard, cheeses and wines.  Jack Daniel and lots of Scotch Whiskey, but I’m not a whiskey guy.

I imagined a nice Friday night with a plate of fresh pears, some local bread, and a decent Bordeaux.

I flagged a taxi in front of the mission and asked the ancient driver, in English, to take me to the UN complex.

Do you speak German? He asked me.

No, but I do speak French.

He lit up.  So did he.  We talked about the weather and the weekend.  He was a Catholic who had been raised in Germany near Strasbourg, so French had become essential.  His was not good, but it was better than my Albanian.

We drove down Agim Ramadani and took the right turn which leads to the airport road.  Traffic was horrible.  It was 5:00 PM on a Friday.

As we approached the clogged intersection at Bill Clinton Boulevard the usual crowd of youngsters swarmed around the stopped cars with spray bottles and rags to do a quick windshield or two for a few cents.  It’s a common feature of Balkan life.

Among them was a man unlike any I had ever seen.

He was not yet thirty years old.  He propelled himself with crutches wearing a pair of pants that had only one pant leg.  The other had been removed to accommodate an enormous stainless steel contraption a full meter in length.  A long rod ran parallel to his leg about six inches from his skin.  From it protruded long steel rods which entered the muscles of his leg every few inches and at varying angles.  There were three deep depressions in his leg.

Bullet wounds?  A landmine?

The man’s face was twisted in pain as he hobbled from car to car with his hand out.

Every car produced a few small coins.  My cab driver fished through the coins in his ashtray as tears rolled down his face.  He shook his head from side to side and in French he told me:

Il etait un enfant pendent le guerre.  He was a child during the war.

He rolled the window down as the injured man limped toward us.  I held out a few euros  and dropped them into the driver’s palm.

The wounded man forced a smile and a thank you through his pain.

Traffic began to move.  We headed toward the UN.

I looked out the window in the direction of the Pjole.  The field where the Ottoman Empire overcame the locals in 1389.  It was the same spot where  Slobodan Milosovic, 600 years to the day later, had rallied his people and stirred them toward a decade of wars in the region.

We had just seen one of the casualties.   I didn’t know his story.  He could have been one of the thousands of soldiers who hid in forests and tried to repel their oppressors.  He could have been one of the children walking behind their refugee parents.  There were hundreds of thousands.

The pain doesn’t stop just because the story is no longer on the nightly news.

Suddenly, my cheese and wine didn’t seem important at all.  It seemed I had briefly forgotten why I had come here.

I went home.

Go Ahead and Take the Rest of the Year Off

I have done work in Europe for years, but always for an American company or organization.  Until now.

This is my first position for a European group, founded and run by Europeans, paid in Euros, and subject to the European approach to life and work which can be summed up with an often used observation:

“Americans live so they can work.  Europeans work so they can live.”

Every day I see this in action.  The workday starts at 8:30AM, although I am usually in the office by 8:00.  Within an hour everyone in our legal department leaves the office, locks the door, and adjourns to one of the nearby corner cafes for coffee.  We take about half an hour.  We do the same thing at about 3:00PM.

I get 40 paid days off every year.  It’s called “vacation”.  The 40 days are working days – Monday through Friday – the weekends do not count against them so they wind up equating to 8 weeks off.

There is also an extra day for a special religious holiday, even if I’m hardly religious, and two other days for “personal reasons”.

Oh, since these nice folks buy me two plane tickets each year so I can go home to theUS, they also add two travel days to my time off.

That’s nine weeks of paid leave each year.

So, if I started taking time off on January 1 (that doesn’t count either, it’s one of seven holidays which are added to my free time) and used all of my time consecutively, I would have to report to work on March 7.  Or, I could leave work on October 29 and not work again for the rest of the year.

There are other European practices which I prefer to those back home.  When I travel on business I don’t front the money for airfare, hotels, meals, or even taxis.  At US companies business travel always costs money which you never get back.  You have to keep receipts, fill our forms, justify that you stayed in a hotel within some bureaucrat’s guidelines and bought the cheapest plane ticket.  You never recapture this completely, at least I never did.  I was always racing for a plane and not bothering with the taxi receipt.  Over the course of my worst year, when I crossed the ocean 15 times, it amounted to thousands.

Here, on the other hand, the administration of this outfit buys the plane and train tickets.  (There are many trains inEurope.)  They then book and pay the hotel and hand me a cash allowance in advance which, depending upon the destination, varies from €115 to €260 per day.  There are no claim forms, no expense reports, I simply turn in the boarding passes and hotel receipt to show I was there.

Then there is the health insurance.  Back in the USA it ran about $1400 per month and it paid 75% to 80% of some medical bills.  When you filled out the forms and sent them in it took weeks, sometimes months, before you learned that all or part of your claim was denied.  There were times, before this European appointment, that we went without health insurance altogether and kept our fingers crossed that no one would get sick.  There were other Americans in the same boat.  Fifty million of them.

But that is different now.  We have European health coverage which pays 80% of outpatient care and 100% of hospitalization, and it does so within 30 days.  It covers me, and my wife, no matter where we are in the world.  I still have to pay for the coverage.  My monthly cost is € 84.  That’s about $110.

I make less money now that I did as an attorney representing Wall Street bottom feeders.  In fact, I make a lot less.

I also spend less time worrying.  It’s almost like someone is trying, just a little bit, to make me feel cared about and valued.  I’m working now.  In  Europe. To live.

I no longer live just to work.

Some small progress

“There’s got to be a way we can make this more complicated.”

Alan used that expression often, but today it seemed particularly appropriate.

We were setting up polling stations for the Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections, but we weren’t setting them up in Serbia.  We were doing it in the neighboring country of Kosovo.  Or at least that’s what the people in the neighboring country of Kosovo thought.  The Serbs believed that we were doing it in Serbia since they do not accept that Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 2008.  More than 80 countries have given diplomatic recognition to Kosovo but Serbia is not one of them.  The International Court of Justice has ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence on 17 February 2008 did not violate international law. Meanwhile, the scars of the 1998 war and the NATO bombings which ended it are everywhere.  Only yesterday a new mass grave was discovered.

To say there was tension in the air understated the situation.  Some of the streets were barricaded.  The main city bridge which connects the Serbian dominated northern part of the city to the Kosovar south was also blocked and rendered impassable.

Alan’s problem with the process was easy to understand.  We were conducting what we hoped would be free and fair elections for the Republic of Serbia inside what many thought of as the Republic of Kosovo.  The voters would be electing officials which they believed would govern Kosovo as well as Serbia, while the police who escorted and protected us were Kosovo police and considered themselves not subject to Serbian authority.  It was like two separate governments functioning side by side in the same territory.

The entire convoluted history of the region had added a new word to the diplomatic lexicon: “Balkanization”.  It means the process by which a once prosperous nation, Yugoslavia, had been fractured into 8 independent states: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and something generally called “FYROM”, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.  This prompted Alan to invent “FECUS”, the Former English Colonies of the United States.

Despite the humor, it was a complicated place about which few foreigners knew much and fewer still understood the history and the interplay between the cultures.  There were muslims here, Sunni for the most part; and Christians, Eastern Orthodox for the most part.  There were also Catholics, Jews, and an enormous number without any religion.  There were also Croats, Slovenes, Bosniaks, Ashkali, Roma, Italians and an assortment of other ethnicities.  They spoke Croatian, Slovenian, Serbian, Albanian, English, Romanian and several other languages.

Alan’s problem was that things did not line-up in the kind of straight line order that he, as an Englishman, would like to see.  Some of the boundaries between these nations are physical: mountains, rivers and such.  Some are religious – where Islam stops and Christianity begins.  Others are based on language and are found where Albanian begins to fade out and another tongue becomes dominant.  Still others are simply political lines drawn long ago, or just a couple of years back.

Then it gets complicated.  In some locations deep within predominately Muslim south Kosovo the holy sites of Orthodox Christians are found.  These days they are little islands of one faith in the middle of a rival’s ocean.  Oddly, they are guarded by NATO troops, in many cases Roman Catholics from Italy.

Despite it all, the elections both inside and outside Serbia (however you define it) went smoothly.  There was no violence, only a couple of minor incidents, and no injuries.  In the Balkans this is a smashing success.

That is not to say there were no difficulties.  A number of voters could not find their names on the rosters.  The lists supplied by Belgrade were not alphabetical, they were what you might call “alpha-geographical”, meaning that they were alphabetical by loosly defined neighborhoods.  Sometimes it would take 4 to 5 minutes to find a single voter.  With 120 people in the line our ability to move them was sometimes as slow as a rate of 12 per hour.

By seven PM, with an hour left before the scheduled closing, we announced that we would remain open until all who were there had voted.

As I nudged my way through the crowd I felt a hand on my arm.  I turned and looked down to see a 96-year-old Serb with a striking head of white hair.  He wanted to know why the delay.

I told him, as respectfully as I could, and took my time about it so he did not feel ignored or dismissed.  As I spoke his smile grew.  So did those pn the faces watching us.

A few minutes later he left the building along with his aging wife, but he stopped in front of me, and saluted.  I smiled as he extended his hand, which I shook as I looked into his ancient eyes.  Then, he brought my hand up to his face and kissed it.

It seemed that some small progress was being made.  At least on some level.

We’re number 37.

The employees at my workplace come from several dozen countries.  It is not unusual in the course of a working day to hear eight or nine different languages.

They are, in general, a well-informed and intellectually curious group eager to understand each other and each other’s cultures.  As an American, I get far more questions from other internationals than do our colleagues from Ireland or Spain.  It seems that everyone wants to know about the United States.  They ask about capital punishment, how Obama is viewed in America, how American baseball works and what the most recent developments in the presidential race could mean.

Today, a chap from the UK was at our table for morning coffee.  He told us that he saw an American politician at some event (I won’t name the politician) who shouted to a cheering and approving crowd, “America is the greatest and best country in the world!”

“Why,” he asked the group, “do Americans feel the need to utter such nonsense.”  Then he turned to me and I answered him.  I had the facts and figures ready from a series of economic lectures I had prepared.

“Well, we are not the largest country in the world, or the most populous, or the oldest.  We don’t have the longest life expectancy; in fact, we fit in between Slovenia and Cuba at 37th.  Our infant mortality rate is not number one, the best, it is number 33, sneaking in ahead of Croatia but behind Brunei.

Our health care system, at 37th, falls short of Costa Rica but, again, we edge out Slovenia.  We beat the Slovenes a lot.

We’re also 37th on the list of top human rights abusers.   We are bracketed in that category by Morocco and Uganda.  We have the same ranking in literacy.

We don’t make the top ten list in gender equality or the top twenty in child safety.  We also do not have a single city on the top ten list for best quality of life.  Nine of those cities are in Europe, one is in Canada.  We are number 14 on the global well-being list, which indexes the percentage of the population that is thriving. We squeak in ahead of Turkmenistan and Mexico but can’t quite reach the same level as Panama.

There are some categories where we do rank a bit higher.  We are a proud number 2 in teen pregnancies per 100,000 girls, and we edge out Yemen, Syria and Lebanon for the number of death sentences and executions.

In some sectors, of course, we are the world leader.  We are number 1 in health care costs per person.  We spend more than any other country on health care.  How do you think we got to 37th place in health care quality?

We are number one in military spending where we burn more money than the next 15 countries combined.  In fact, 43% of the world’s investment in warfare is made by the United States.  We are number one in gun ownership and in deaths by firearms.  This may account, in part for our other number one spot – the highest incarceration rate in the world.  You have a better chance of going to jail in the US than in any other country.

So, those are the things that make the US the greatest and best in the world.”

My British colleague was smiling.  He reminded me that I had not answered his question:  “Why do Americans say this kind of thing?”

“Well, as Americans, we love to win, and we love to achieve.  That’s our nature.  It’s part of our national character.  The politician you heard is running for President.  He can’t tell the truth, he has to tell the crowd what it wants to hear.  So, like good Americans, when things don’t turn out the way we want, we just make stuff up.”

Looking at the faces of history

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The more time you spend in Europe the less it feels exotic and strange. After about six months it begins to feel normal. Sounds that once were unfamiliar become expected, even comforting, like the call to prayer coming from mosques several times each day.

You begin to forget what the TGI Fridays sign looks like, what a pickup truck is, and you even forget that back in the US you heard a dozen commercials a day selling cures for erectile dysfunction. The normal sights and sounds of American culture disappear from your immediate reality as soon as you get here. Soon, they vanish altogether.

I have not heard Sarah Palin’s voice for months. I can’t hum the theme music for Entertainment Tonight. I don’t know The Bachelor’s name or who is on Dancing with the Stars. It’s all gone. No matter what side of the ocean you are on, television not as big a deal for expats as it is for locals. It gets replaced by learning the local language and the local culture. Even though I have spent two years here in the Balkans there is still plenty to learn – like the local legends. We have them in the US of course. The handful of Pilgrims who were seeking religious freedom (for themselves, not for everyone). The Minute Men. The noble way westward carved by brave “pioneers”.

Here, the legends go a bit further back in time. It is taught that the earliest people in these mountains appeared about 3,500 years ago, but legend has it that they were here long before that. We use the 3,500 year figure because that is the best guess at the age of the crumbling foundations and the crude agricultural terraces along the floors of many mountain valleys. The locals think that their ancestors were here for thousands of years before they left any sign of construction.

The Romans came. They established settlements, displaced the locals, and remained until their own collapse. The medieval period descended, followed by the Ottomans for several centuries, and then the modern era with its convoluted dynamics which led to one of the more complex histories on earth.

This entire history is written on the faces of the people who walk the streets of the towns and villages. You can see it. It reminds you that this is only an instant in the human journey and that it is your privilege to witness it. There are Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Roma, Egyptians and Ashkali to name a few. Some have their roots in North Africa, some in Pakistan and the sub-continent, still others can trace themselves to Italy and Greece. In fact, the minority Ashkali assert that the name “Athens” finds its roots in their ancient language and that their forbearers were responsible for bringing learning to early Grecian civilization.

There are traces of the Middle East on the faces in the Balkans, and, occasionally, features from Central Asia. Some say that the bloodlines here trace themselves to those sold into slavery by Julius Caesar during his Egyptian campaign. The historical records may be lacking, but the faces tell the story. In recent years these legends have been borne out by detailed DNA analysis. Genetic identifiers have linked Balkan populations to their ancient origins in Europe, Africa and Asia.

We all are painfully aware that war and conflict have long been a part of life in the Balkans. The region was a global intersection. The Silk Road and the Persian Royal Road brought Asia to the door of Europe right here in the Balkans. And yet, from time to time, and often for long periods, Ashkali, Roma, Croats and others have lived together in peace in their villages. There are places in the Balkans where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived alongside each other in perfect harmony. And that is another of the legends. Even today you can find veterans of these eras who invited their neighbours to share their religious holidays and in turn shared theirs.

So, it remains to be seen what legacy the region will create. It has a history of conflict and of co-existence. It contains a blend of bloodlines so broad as to be able to unite the world. Yet it continues to blur ethnicity with nationality when the two are not equivalent, and have not been, since the earliest ancestors of the present day residents turned their feet toward the Balkans.

. . . merely a polite suggestion.

When my legal career began it was perfectly fine to smoke in your office at the Justice Department.  You could smoke in the court room; even offer a light to witnesses or jurors.  You could smoke on airplanes.  You could sit anywhere on the plane, watch the take-off, and expect that the first thing the pilot would do after leaving the ground, even before he raised the landing gear, was to turn off the “no smoking” sign.

Eventually, smoking was limited to the last two or three rows in the back of the airplane.  Then, it disappeared altogether.  No smoking on airplanes, or even in the entire airport, except for certain civilized connections in Europe.  Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Naples, DeGaulle, Vienna, and Ljubljana in Slovenia all have smoking areas for those passing through. Rome, Heathrow, and most of the terminals in the United States do not.

It got even more rigid when some clever guy invented fake cigarettes that ran on water vapor.  Even those were banned.  The Americans, it seemed, not only didn’t want to smoke, they didn’t want anybody else to smoke, and they didn’t want anybody to even look like they were smoking.  So the “no smoking” signs went up all over the world. Britain capitulated to the pressure, even France knuckled under in 2007.

But it didn’t happen in the former Yugoslavia.  Here, smoking is everywhere, expected, and even a social ritual.  It’s inexpensive and available to everyone.  Cigarettes are $1.50 a pack.  Not the $7.50 they pay in the US.  Going out for a smoke is a business event, an occasion to share and talk.

Which is why I was surprised to see “no smoking” signs on every  wall of the tiny coffee shop where I stopped this morning on the way back from the outdoor vegetable market.  I took a table next to the window, ordered a coffee, and then got up to retrieve an ashtray from the stack of them adjacent to the cash register.  I returned to my table.

The three Albanian men at the next table were all smoking.  Two women at the table behind me were smoking, and a couple in front of me were smoking.

So it surprised me when the head waiter scooted quickly to my table, grabbed the ashtray, and said, “Sorry, no smoke.”

I was surrounded by smokers actively smoking and this guy had the temerity to announce the foggy café’s clean air policy.  Was it because I was obviously an international, the term for foreign aid workers, NGO employees and diplomats?  Was is because I was an American?  I doubt it.  They love Americans here.  But I often get mistaken for a German.  Could that be it?  I obviously was not a Croat, an Albanian, a Serb, a Bosniak, a Roma, or an Ashkali – the main ethnic groups in the region.  What was it?

Then he came back with a saucer.  It should have had my coffee on it, but it was just a saucer.  No coffee.

“No problem” he said.

A minute later another waiter brought the coffee in a cup.  No saucer.  Just the cup of coffee.

I looked around.

No one who was smoking had an ashtray.  They all had saucers.  Most of the saucers had crushed out butts in them.  But there were no ashtrays.

I figured it out.

The restaurant inspectors would come by from time to time to make sure that “no smoking” establishments were in compliance.  If they were permitting smokers to light up (by providing ashtrays), they would get fined or their tax status could change.  But if they prohibited smoking and the defiant clientele lit up with impunity, then that was someone else’s problem.  No fine for the café, a mere warning to the client.

It reminded me of when I was working near Salerno in Italy.  I would often visit a friend’s restaurant that was full of “no smoking” signs.  One night as a group of us were sipping our wine and smoking as the warm summer air poured through open windows, two women came in with baby carriers.  Without a word, the four gentlemen at our table extinguished their smokes as a courtesy to the ladies and their children.  The conversation never faltered and I was the only one who noticed.

I looked at Gianluca, who was smiling.

“In your country,” he explained, “the law is the law and that’s that.  Here in Europe we think of the law as merely a polite suggestion.”

The two women lit their cigarettes.