Saturday, October 30, 2004

Living Overseas

I've lived outside the U.S. for about 15 of the last 18 years. That includes four years in Germany (two in Frankfurt, two in Berlin) while I was still in the Army. After I left the Army, I worked mostly on short-term contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in American Embassies in countries in Europe and Africa.

I lived and worked for less than a year in Yerevan, Armenia; Tirana, Albania; Dakar, Senegal; and Luanda, Angola. I was in Moscow for two and half years, first with USAID for a year, then with an American telecommunications company for six months, and after that for a year without working. I was in Budapest, Hungary for a year and a half. I'm now living in Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia), and I've been here for a total of about five years.

In addition to living in the capital cities of these countries, I traveled to other areas of each country and in other countries in each region. I've always looked at this kind of life as a form of continuing education, reading as much as possible and talking to people about history, politics, and culture.

I left USAID in Belgrade over three years ago and started a small management consulting company. (Our website is www.beoadmin.com.) The company is oriented toward supporting foreigners, but there really hasn't been that much business. There were originally three of us, and now we're down to two. But it's fun, and we're involved with interesting people.

What most people don't realize is that almost all of our embassies couldn't function without large numbers of local citizen employees. In most embassies, the number of local citizens employed is greater than the number of Americans in the Embassy. So, working in an American Embassy means working very closely with them and forming close and often enduring friendships. That's the real value in being part of an embassy, and too often some of the Americans assigned to embassies don't understand it.

In every country, and sometimes in different regions of the same country, there are unique and fascinating cultures and ways of thinking and living. But there's always a common humanity. Smiles and laughter are the same, and pain hurts. Children are precious and protected, as much as they can be. And everyone clings to life, as difficult as it may be, fearing its loss above virtually all other threats.

Beyond that common humanity, people in different cultures see things differently. A good example is Bill Clinton's travails during Monicagate. For an American living in Europe, that was an embarrassing period, not so much because of what he did but because of what we made of it.

Americans may be disliked sometimes for specific reasons, but beneath that people usually feel good about us and respect us, and our culture is everywhere. I've seen Chicago Bulls jackets and American university sweatshirts in some of the most remote regions imaginable. I've found people who barely know who their own president is, but they know who Michael Jordan, Britney Spears, and Michael Jackson (unfortunately) are. And you can eat at McDonald's almost anywhere in the world, including one I visited in Craiova, Romania (look it up).

The United States is a wonderful, powerful country where almost everyone lives better than most other people in the world. Being an American is a very lucky accident of birth, and we shouldn't forget that. Whether your ancestors arrived on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, you're damned lucky to have been born in America. So quit your bitching.

But the U.S. doesn't exist alone on this Earth. In some metaphysical sense, everyone is part of everyone else. When you see a picture of a miserable, traumatized woman huddled beneath a scrub tree on the hot desert of Darfur with a starving baby clutched to her breast, remember that everything she feels is exactly what you would feel in that circumstance. Help your fellow human beings as much as you can, and don't forget how lucky you are. And quit your bitching.

I wouldn't want to have missed the experiences I've had living overseas during the past two decades. They haven't always been pleasant, of course. I was caught in the middle of a firefight between two rival gangs using AK-47s in Albania, I lived under constant threat of violence and gunfire in Angola, and I almost froze off important appendages in the misery of winter without electricity or hot water in Armenia. I also spent lots of time in Kosovo before it became the cause for NATO (mostly the U.S.) to attack Yugoslavia, and I was back in Kosovo after the war ended. (This will be the subject of a future item.)

Other experiences have been fantastic, such as living in Berlin before, during, and after the time The Wall came down; roaming around the far outback of Armenia, meeting and talking with people who had never seen an American before; passing nervously through checkpoints in areas held by Unita rebels in Angola, only to find that people in rebel-controlled areas were as warm and friendly as those in areas controlled by the government; and living in Russia in those critical years just after the fall of the Soviet Union and communism itself, finally coming to understand just how fundamentally flawed the whole idea of communism always was.

Over the years, friends have sometimes asked me if I miss living in America. Naturally, sometimes I do miss it. But I know it's always there, and I know I can go back whenever I want to. But I wouldn't have missed this life, and I don't plan to leave it any time soon.

12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uncle Tom I have really enjoyed all your writings and gotten to "know" you alot,I feel. I just wanted to say That I love you and I hope your coming back to the states is sooner than later. Love Tiffany

11:39 PM, February 07, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Thanks for your comment, Tiffany!

6:28 AM, February 08, 2005  
Blogger Bill O. Writes said...

When I first read your profile I was impressed, and thought that you probably were an interesting individual. I enjoyed your article, and wouldn't mind hearing some individual stories.

I too feel lucky to be in America. Often I wonder what the world would be like filled with democracies. Outside the cherished freedoms there are practical benefits. Of the hundreds of wars that have been fought in modern years, about one half of one percent have been between two democracies.

7:42 AM, February 25, 2005  
Blogger EuroYank said...

as a fellow expat I share your sentiments. excellent blog and writing!

4:27 AM, September 11, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Thanks, EuroYank! I checked your blogs, and they're very nice, great photos. I'd recommend them to all.

7:35 AM, September 11, 2005  
Anonymous American Corner Belgrade said...

Dear Tom,
sorry for replying here, it's pure offtopic:)
I work at the American Corner in Belgrade and am searching for American citizens living here - that's how I came accross your name. If you have time, please e-mail me (amc@bgb.org.yu).
Best regards!

5:32 AM, September 22, 2005  
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Blogger Daniela said...

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12:12 AM, December 11, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

Are you the same retired Col. Carter who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and a commander of a base in Berlin when the Berlin Wall was initially coming down? If so, I have some important personal information for you that you might find very interesting.

4:50 PM, July 04, 2010  
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Anonymous Elitewritings said...

Living abroad is often nasty, especially if you don't know the language and don't have there some friends or relatives. You need to be prepared morally, that you are going troubles before you can reach a success.

8:07 AM, July 20, 2017  

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