From Serbia to Cape Cod

In Provincetown, foreign workers are saving the tourism industry

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Maralinga in WA/Flickr

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. -- Marko Ceperkovic dreams of becoming a diplomat. The 20-year-old Serbian is amassing the proper credentials. He speaks four languages (Bulgarian, English, French, and German) in addition to his native one. He's studying political science and international relations at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, the elite French university known as Sciences Po. Back home in Belgrade, he's worked at the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, a leading non-governmental organization. His resumé, he tells me, is four pages long. But this summer, he's perfectly content selling skimpy swimsuits and Asian-inspired home décor. Ceperkovic is one of well over 1,000 foreigners -- mostly Jamaicans and students from Eastern Europe -- who descend upon this small town at the very tip of Cape Cod every summer to take up seasonal jobs. Amid a worsening economic picture of home foreclosures, spiraling national debt, and stubbornly high unemployment, their stories provide a heartening reminder of the opportunity that America still represents to people all over the world.


Ever since

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Cerperkovic holds his first paycheck from his summer job in Provincetown

its settlement by the Nauset Indians over four centuries ago, Provincetown -- "the Wild West of the East," as former resident Norman Mailer titled an essay about it -- has played host to diverse communities. It was the first landing spot of the Pilgrims, who signed the Mayflower Compact here in 1620. Beginning in the early 1800s, Portuguese fishermen, originally hired to work on American whaling ships, began to make Provincetown their home. Around the turn of the century, artists -- attracted by the town's natural light and stunning scenery -- started flocking to the town's deserted dunes, and they were soon followed by writers (Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams) seeking the inspiration that seclusion affords. In the 1970s, attracted by the town's welcoming spirit, gays began flocking there, and today Ptown -- as it's affectionately known -- rivals Fire Island and Fort Lauderdale as the most popular gay summer destination on the East Coast. A general atmosphere of free-spiritedness pervades; on a recent Friday afternoon, an elderly man in a top hat could be found singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Achy Breaky Heart" outside Town Hall.

Foreign workers are but the latest addition to this already diverse melting pot. The students, who come on what's known as a J-1 visa (typically issued to au pairs and camp counselors), come almost entirely from the American University in Bulgaria (AUB). According to a recent article in Provincetown Magazine, local lore has it that four students from the school -- founded 20 years ago after the breakup of the Soviet Union in partnership between USAID, the Open Society Institute, and the Bulgarian government -- found jobs in Provincetown and loved the experience so much that they told all their friends. The rest, as they say, is history.

Though the Massachusetts unemployment rate of 7.6 percent stands well below the 9.1 percent national one, it is still high enough to raise questions about just why Cape businesses are in such desperate need of foreign labor. The reason, according to both the foreign workers and the business owners who employee them, has to do with work ethic. Ceperkovic, for instance, works 70 hours a week doing two jobs ("I got them like this," he says, snapping his fingers), though some foreigners he knows work over 100 hours a week.

His multiple languages come in handy; in what sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, three ladies -- a French, German and American -- recently entered his store, and he was able to communicate with each of them in her native tongue. "They don't ask about pay, overtime, take long breaks. They just do it," Alexandra Ivanov, a 21-year-old Bulgarian currently spending her third summer in Provincetown working at a fudge shop and a clothing store, tells me about her fellow foreign laborers. "I don't think Americans could do it like us."

Presented by

James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a foreign correspondent based in Berlin. He is a columnist for the New York Daily News, Ha'aretz, and Tablet.

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