Balkan Summer 2022 Trip, Part I: Heading to Macedonia

At the end of July, I went to an Incubus show a couple of hours south of DC by myself. V and his daughters had already left a couple of weeks prior for the Balkans, and had been enjoying traveling together in Macedonia and Greece while I stayed home alone in Virginia, worked, and held down the fort. I would travel to Macedonia myself for a few weeks the day after the show. I was going to miss my 19-year old stepdaughter D, who had to return to the States before my arrival in Europe to prepare for her sophomore year in college in Tennessee. But V and my 23-year old stepdaughter A, who is in graduate school in North Carolina, would be awaiting my arrival to spend some family time with V’s relatives in Macedonia and Serbia, and the three of us were planning a road trip to cities across the former Yugoslavia, including Sarajevo and the Croatian coast.

The night before the Incubus show, I had served as overnight global duty officer for the Office of Overseas Citizen Services (OCS), a division of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Because I work in the Office of Children’s Issues which falls under OCS, I am part of the weekly rotation of teams that share this responsibility, irrespective of the fact it has little to do with my day job. It is a big job, spread out amongst many officers, to make it more fair. The number of us probably means we each cover the duty approximately six times per year, or around a dozen 24-hour shifts during a standard two-year domestic tour.

At embassies and consulates overseas, duty shifts are assigned to a rotating roster of personnel on a weekly basis from Wednesday to Wednesday, so the same person covers the duty all week. In Ciudad Juárez I oversaw the program closely and trained all incoming duty officers. (While the duty officer program is technically housed in the Management Section of a post, the majority of calls – particularly in a place like Juárez – are related to consular issues, like U.S. citizen deaths, arrests, and welfare.) My boss, the American Citizens Services (ACS) Chief, and I thought it a good investment of my time as Deputy ACS Chief to coach duty officers how to handle calls during their week, in order to cut down on unnecessary elevation of after-hours non-emergencies to the chief and myself.

When duty officers at posts need support, they are supposed to be able to call the OCS duty officer for support. Because our function extends to all post support (whereas post duty officers just deal with matters within their own consular jurisdictions, which we call ‘consular districts‘), we only come on duty at 17:00 and rotate off at 08:00 the next morning. We are grouped into teams that share the weekly load, and are also on-call to stand up a Washington area task force in the event of a broader crisis requiring more policy guidance and phone service than one duty officer could provide. (Examples: the Afghanistan evacuation, the early days of the war in Ukraine.)

I spent a significant amount of time on my duty shift triaging calls, one involving the accidental overseas death of a U.S. citizen in which a Congressional staffer had received a call directly from the family and had been unable to reach the relevant post’s duty officer, and a series of others related to potential international parental child abduction concerns, which is actually in my everyday ballywick.

Preparing to be out of the office on leave for a few weeks always seems to turn into a last-minute clown show anyway, between trying to tie off loose ends in casework, transition my work portfolio to my backup, set an email auto-reply, pack a suitcase with everything I’d need for my trip, and deal with the fact I’d let making arrangements for our cat slip until very late and the plan I had envisioned – without communicating well with the person I’d hoped would help out – had fallen through. Being OCS duty officer on top of all this and having a busy shift added a whole other layer of tasks, and erased time I had been planning on to pack, which I’d also left very late despite having been home alone and unencumbered for two weeks. I am usually not such a last-minute person, as those who know me well would attest, which just highlights again the blurriness of this summer.

So, I was stressed, overwhelmed, and my executive function was pretty low. Three months out from learning of the suicide of my friend T, I still was spending the majority of my conscious thoughts thinking about him, putting together the basic facts of what had happened to him, and trying to grapple with my own feelings of guilt and anger. I found it difficult to organize things at the level they really needed to be organized and skipped over doing a bunch of errands and tasks I would normally do before going out of town. I needed all my brain power just to do my job and not much was left over for life administration.

I still paid all my bills, left detailed instructions for our heroic friend who stepped up at the last minute to cat-sit, and did all my laundry, but some things like shopping and running around just got left until there wasn’t time to handle them. And frankly, I really didn’t care. I was looking forward to returning to the Balkans for the first time since fall 2011 and I couldn’t wait to change the scene and hopefully, my sad perspective.

Flying premium economy to Europe, eating a hot meal, and being super-lucky I had my row of two all to myself!

I enjoyed the show and it was an emotional experience for me, given that T introduced me to that band and most of the songs reminded me of him or things I had experienced with him. When I got back home around midnight, I had 15 hours to finish everything and head to Dulles to catch my flight, and needless to say, I cut it way closer than I have ever cut arriving for international travel before. And I still had time to eat a quick airport restaurant meal before boarding as the feeling of dread wore off that any little thing could have totally hosed me within those tight margins. Sometimes you just need some dumb luck and actually get it.

I had the most comfortable two flights I could have possibly had, first to Vienna and then onward to Skopje, and arrived feeling fairly rested and happy despite having jumped nine time zones.

V picked me up at the airport in Skopje and after dropping my luggage at his mom’s house and saying hello to relatives, we almost immediately went on a hunt for his lost wallet. By way of background, he had lost his wallet in Greece over a week beforehand, a dumb but understandable situation in which he’d driven with it on his lap to avoid dampening it in the pocket of his swim trunks.

When he, A, and D had arrived at their lunch location hungry after a morning of ocean swimming, they exited their rental vehicle and went inside the beachside cafe. It had only taken V about 90 seconds to realize he had dropped his wallet outside the car and return for it, but in the busy area where the wallet had dropped, it was already gone. Fortunately, everyone still had their passports, and A had access to her own funds to get them by in the interim.

However, despite being a seasoned traveler V had not followed a well-known travel adage we often observed on our trips to less-familiar places: to carry only what you need and keep some of your cards and cash separate. He had now lost everything from his U.S. and Australian driver’s licenses to his U.S. health insurance card, and with his two daughters to look after, didn’t have a dime. He was especially regretful that the Post-it note where I had scrawled my name and phone number the day we met, December 12, 2006, had also been stored inside. He was beating himself up about this a lot when he had frantically messaged me to let me know what was happening. I shrugged. It happens. Don’t be so hard on yourself, honey.

I immediately deposited money in A’s account they could withdraw to try and get her off the hook, and sent him scanned images of all of his identification as he set about cancelling his cards.

V had reported his wallet missing to Greek police through the help of a friendly ex-girlfriend who could translate, but didn’t hold out much hope for getting it back. As it turned out, someone had found it, removed the 175 euros, and tossed it through the doorway of a Greek monastery with his ID and everything else still inside. He speculated the finder had been spooked by a religious icon prayer card from his mother, or perhaps his bank cards that said “State Department” on them. But whatever the case, the day after V, A, and D drove back to Macedonia, V received an email in Greek that the police were in possession of his wallet and did he care to pick it up.

A long and somewhat exasperating exchange occurred trying to figure out the best way to retrieve the wallet, as there was no way V could go all the way back to the Greek island at that point in his trip. He had other plans with his daughters, and D would be leaving soon. The Greek police officer agreed to mail the wallet to a post office in Skopje, and appeared to do so immediately. However, the correspondence V received from the post office on the Macedonian side once the package arrived made it unclear to which post office the wallet had arrived, and whether it would be delivered by a mail carrier or needed to be collected in person. Cue another round of exasperating phone calls in which one post office transferred him to another and then another, and someone who was dealing with this was now on holiday, sorry!

V was having none of it and as I arrived, he was literally on the phone trying to sort all this out. He called a taxi to take us to the post office where he thought his wallet was. A and I piled in with him, me laughing and jet-lagged and eager for a little nebulous Macedonian adventure, the type I’ve missed so much. Unbelievably, as our taxi sat idling outside the first post office we went to and V explained to the bored-looking clerk the whole story, she asked him for his passport and the letter from the Macedonian post. She examined them, then, satisfied, disappeared into the back. Moments later she emerged with a package that had Greek writing all over it and – behold! – V’s intact wallet inside, minus, of course, the cash. I was shocked at this good fortune!

I am still amazed this worked out!

So with that big weight lifted off our shoulders we had to celebrate with a delicious lunch. All in all it was a great arrival to begin my first vacation in Macedonia in a decade, and a great reminder that dumb things happen to responsible and careful people, too. I am certain in the future V will empty his wallet and carry only the essentials before such a trip! In fact, before I had left Virginia I had switched to a travel wallet myself as planned, but had culled what I was bringing even more relentlessly after watching all this unfold.

Gostilnica Jug – around the corner from where V grew up

A and V happy with the wallet

V at his childhood home

  3 comments for “Balkan Summer 2022 Trip, Part I: Heading to Macedonia

  1. January 2, 2023 at 12:13

    What a relief that your husband was able to recover his wallet (and more importantly your note!)

    Liked by 1 person

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Sarah W Gaer

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