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How Debt Landed Me In Kosovo -- And Then In Iraq

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This is an excerpt from an anonymous essay published on the Billfold. To read the full story, click here.

Ten years ago, I was nearly 30 and over $90,000 in debt. I had spent my twenties trying to build an interesting life; I had two degrees; I had lived in New York and the Bay Area; I had worked in a series of interesting jobs; I spent a lot of time traveling overseas. But I had also made a couple of critically stupid and shortsighted decisions. I had invested tens of thousands of dollars in a master’s degree in landscape architecture that I realized I didn’t want halfway through. While maxing out my student loans, I had also collected a toxic mix of maxed-out credit cards, personal loans, and $2,000 I had borrowed from my father for a crisis long since forgotten. My life consisted of loan deferments and minimum payments.

Like so many other lost children, I had fallen into a career in IT. The work was boring, but led to jobs with cool organizations—a lot of jobs, because I kept quitting them. As soon as I had any money in the bank, I’d quit and go backpacking in Southeast Asia. My adventures were life-changing experiences, but I was eventually left with a CV that was pretty scattershot.

My luck securing interesting jobs dried up. In 2001, I ended up living with my dad for four months and working at a banking infrastructure company in suburban Pittsburgh. I should have taken that as a warning that I needed to get it together, but I thought it was just an aberration. It was not.

A year later, I was living in a one room Brooklyn apartment with a cat that compulsively peed on my bathmat. (This was a questionable upgrade to living with Dad.) I was trapped in a low paying IT job that I hated, I was in a relationship with a woman who hated me, and I was barely getting by, never mind getting control over my financial situation.

I was finally reckoning with the fact that I was facing decades of unaffordable minimum debt payments. Any career ambitions I might have had would be put on hold indefinitely, possibly permanently. Travel was over. The full amount that I would have to pay off at the end of it all was too awful to contemplate. I felt trapped and hopeless. I was in a dark place.

And so like many people in dark places, I looked for an escape hatch. I came up with two options: going back to graduate school or getting a job with a non-governmental organization (NGO) overseas. Graduate school would be the ultimate escape—it was better than working, and it would allow me to continue to defer my existing student loans (notwithstanding, of course, the small fact that I would potentially be doubling them). But while school was attractive in the short term, the financial implications were absolutely insane.

Working for an NGO was more appealing. My wanderlust was overpowering, but traveling for its own sake had lost its appeal. I wanted to live in a new place. I wanted to do something worthwhile. But I also needed an income. I applied everywhere, in Asia and Africa, for any job for which I was remotely qualified. There were not many.

After nine months of applications passed without even a sniff of interest, I reluctantly faced the reality that inexperienced landscape architects were not in high demand in Sudan or Afghanistan. I refocused on a glorious return to academia, and by October 2002, I had four unfocused applications for four unaffordable graduate schools just about ready to go. Then, on Halloween, I got an unexpected email with the subject: “OSCE Interview.”

The inelegantly named Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is an intergovernmental organization composed of and funded by European member states, the U.S. and Canada. It is active in Eastern Europe and western Asia, focused primarily on human rights monitoring, elections assistance, and democratization projects. I was invited to their headquarters in Vienna, to interview for a middle management IT job in Pristina, Kosovo, the site of their largest mission. (The OSCE, the UN, and NATO formed the tripartite mission to stabilize and rebuild Kosovo after the war.)

Of course, all I understood at the time was JOB INTERVIEW and VIENNA. Prior to my application, I had never heard of the OSCE, and I knew next to nothing about Kosovo. My IT skills were rudimentary and my management experience nonexistent. I was mystified why I got a call. I was so completely unqualified for this job, I might have treated this like a mini-vacation but for one significant fact: the salary. The job paid $85,000 a year, tax-free (due to the glorious Foreign Earned Income Exclusion). This was an incomprehensible amount of money. It would fix everything. The pressure to do well in this interview, just for this one small chance at a dream life and the magical solution to all of my problems, was intense.

I flew to Vienna two weeks later and interviewed the next morning in a small yellow room. It was 10 a.m.—4 a.m. EST. There was a panel, chaired by my would-be boss, a taciturn Austrian man. I was dressed in a garish blue Hugo Boss sport coat that I picked up at Century 21 a week earlier. I was over caffeinated, jet lagged, and clammy. I made nervous self-deprecating jokes, which translated poorly between our cultures. It was a disaster from start to finish. I left the interview thinking, “Thanks for the free trip to Vienna.” I spent the rest of the day squandering my remaining per diem on beer and meat, refusing to think about what might have been. The next morning I flew home.

Three weeks later, I received an email from that taciturn Austrian with the subject: “Welcome on board.”

I was stunned. I was to start on January 5, one month later, leaving me less than five weeks to completely shut down my existing life, such as it was, and start a new one in Kosovo.

With enormous satisfaction and barely suppressed joy, I immediately quit my horrible job, broke up with my contemptuous girlfriend, and started packing up my apartment and saying my goodbyes. Over the course of an appletini-soaked evening with D.D., a coworker, we discovered that we had harbored secret crushes on one another for the past year. I walked her home, kissed her on her doorstep, and we had a brief, but intense, fling during my final weeks in Brooklyn. The day before Christmas Eve, we drove a U-Haul packed with all of my things and my vomiting cat to my dad’s house in Pittsburgh. And then I was off.

A week later, I was in Kosovo. Pristina, never the most beautiful city in Eastern Europe, was particularly grim in January. It was grey and bitterly cold. Lengthy and unscheduled blackouts were frequent. There were NATO Kosovo Peace Implementation Force (KFOR) checkpoints everywhere. Borders were closed either by weather or politics. The food was uneven and occasionally poisonous. The pollution was bad enough some days that you could taste the air.

But I was in heaven. For years I had fantasized about packing up all of my stuff and living out of a suitcase. I came to Pristina with two duffle bags and the clothes on my back. Or, more accurately, since my luggage had been lost, with only the clothes on my back. I spent the first few days living out of the optimistically named Grand Hotel and the same pair of underpants, but within a week I was settled into an apartment two blocks from work with a refrigerator stocked with unfamiliar flavors of yogurt.

I remember my first operations meeting, held at the Mission’s logistics compound. It was the first of a hundred banal meetings, probably focused on photocopier repair and carpet installation, but I looked around the table at my colleagues (Dutch, Romanian, British, American, Austrian) and it felt like the most important place to be in the world. I felt like I was doing something important. I still don’t know if I was, but I’d never been happier.

My job, as is it turned out, was a lot of fun. I managed an IT support team composed almost exclusively of Kosovo-Albanian computer geeks in their twenties (with one beleaguered Serb to round out the group). Many of them had hidden in their apartments with the lights off for the past few years, or fled to Sweden or Albania. They were a bunch of affable young guys who were as happy to have their jobs as I was to have mine. Some of them supported their entire families, including their parents, on a fraction of my salary. We became quick friends and they toured me around the villages and towns during the weekends, occasionally getting stranded on mountain passes. We drove to McDonald’s in Skopje, a four-hour round trip.

And critically, I was getting paid. My wages were divided between a relatively modest salary of about $42,000 a year, and a “basic living allowance,” or more accurately, the “please work in Kosovo allowance” of 108 Euros a day. While I would have happily worked in Kosovo for the salary alone, I quickly realized why the extra allowance was provided. Once the euphoria wore off, life in Pristina was boring and lonely. I watched a lot of BBC news, when there was power. I did a lot of ironing, when there was power. When there wasn’t power, I wrapped myself in sweaters and a pea coat and lay on my bed and looked at the ceiling and tried to remember why I was there. It was a long winter. Many of my expat colleagues drank their way to June.

The bleakness was alleviated when, that spring, I got a visitor. D.D.— beautiful, wonderful, awesome D.D.—flew to Pristina in March. I picked her up from the airport, watching her eyes as she observed the tanks, barbed wire, and burned out neighborhoods, wondering whether she was wondering if she had made a terrible mistake coming to this place. She planned to visit for two weeks, but she stayed for four months. We fell in love. And we splurged a bit, traveling to Croatia, Montenegro, and Greece. I turned 30 on a beach in Budva, Montenegro, D.D. by my side, marveling at how things had worked out.

Despite these modest indulgences, I had to get creative to spend more than a 1500 Euros a month in Pristina, so all of my salary and most of my living allowance went to the bank. I was dutifully paying off my debts at a rate of $4,000 a month without fail, without excuses. First came my dad and the credit cards, then the student loans. I hadn’t hit the lottery. This was better. At this rate, I would have everything paid off by June 2005. If I could stay in Kosovo and survive two more winters, I would return to the States with a clean slate.

But then something unexpected happened. I went to Iraq instead.

To continue reading, click over to the Billfold.

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