I remember the first time my wife came home for R&R from Baku. Those were the days when as a same-sex spouse and non-employee, I was not allowed to live with her at post unless it was a country that would recognize our relationship. And such countries were even fewer and farther between than they are now with the advancements our country and others have made in terms of marriage equality.
So in those days, I was allowed to visit on a one-month tourist visa, after which I needed to leave the country before I could return. So over the course of her two-year tour, I visited three times for a month each trip, and she came home to North Carolina for R&R twice. (Of course, that doesn’t “count” as our having done an unaccompanied tour, because our marriage didn’t “count” at the time).
All of which is to say she was in Azerbaijan without me. And I remember her first trip home because as we drive back to Chapel Hill from the airport, she kept hanging her head out of the window to sniff the air. “It smells so clean!” she kept saying. “It is almost sweet.”
I admit I didn’t get it. Clean air, or at least reasonably clean air, was something I had the luxury of taking for granted. Neither Jerusalem, with its occasional sand storms, nor Tallinn, with the #1 air quality in the world (yes really), disabused me of that privilege.
There are many reasons those of us in the Foreign Service are allowed to retire after 20 years instead of the usual 25-30 for other federal employees. The biggest reason for that is the toll that living in some of the places we serve take on our health. And pollution is a big part of that toll. If you want to read some other posts on it, check out this, this and this.
Kosovo is a country without the luxury of multiple means of electricity. Basically, its options are coal and coal. The two aging coal plants in the city provide all of the country’s electricity. And they belch out pollution all year, but especially so in the winter when people need heat. There are plans for a new coal plant, which will pollute less than the two they have now. But there is simply no option other than coal. And then there are the coal fires coming from every building in the winter. Lignite is cheap and people can basically dig up piles of it to burn in their homes for heat and hot water.
Some days, you can barely see across the street for the haze created by the smoke. Most days really. Because we are in a valley and very prone to fog, the smoke and fog come together and make smog. Did you know smog freezes? I didn’t either until I came here and saw the dirty ice crystals on all the plants. The fog/smog also means that often it is impossible to fly in or out of the airport here because the runway is not long enough for the navigational equipment needed to land when you can’t do it by sight. Everyone here has missed a flight or had it diverted. Ours was diverted to Skopje, AFTER the pilot tried unsuccessfully to land and had to pull up hard at the last minute. (No, that wasn't terrifying at all...)
And the smell permeates EVERYTHING. All of your clothes, even fresh from the dry cleaners, smell as though you have been standing by a camp fire.
And you smell it in your house as well. We have air purifiers running constantly in our apartment and have extra weather stripping under the doors. And you still smell it. Our stairwell seems to funnel the smoke from outside upward to all of the apartments in our building. Even my dog sneezes when she goes outside. And I wear a scarf every day, not because it is cold but because it gives me something to breathe through. I wonder what it is doing to all of our lungs…I already breathe heavier going upstairs than I used to. And on our trips out of the country, I feel like an ex-smoker, my lungs trying to clean themselves out of the toxins I am taking in.
Soon the embassy will have air quality monitors, and we and the public will have a better idea of the amount of pollution in the air. Of course, maybe that will just make us feel worse about it. But in the meantime, I am glad we decided not to extend. Not because I am not glad to be here. I am. The work in interesting and important and the people here are great. But as a committed life-long non-smoker, it is more than a little alarming that after only five months here, it sometimes hurts to breathe.