Archive for the ‘Diplomatic days’ Category

The other night, I watched The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who also played the protagonist’s father. I was wanting something that would help me feel good, but I was sad and angry through much of it! And of course, I cried. Yes, it is an inspiring and lovely story, of a boy who couldn’t afford to go to school, but had an inventive, engineering mind, and managed to build a windmill to power electricity for his village in Malawi. But it is lovely primarily because of the awful hardships he overcame, the starvation and desperation that faced his family, his community, his country. Roughly around the time this true story was unfolding, we started sponsoring a girl (and her family) from Malawi. It gave me a better understanding of the difference our sponsorship might have made to her and her community.

It reminded me too of the years I worked in the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok, when one of my responsibilities was not only the overall aid programme to Thailand, but also to oversee a small, discretionary fund that could help communities and individuals who presented proposals. At one stage I went on a visit to some of the communities we had helped with small grants that allowed them to pump water from a pond or stream or well. They so proudly showed me the taps in the middle of the village that had helped make their lives so much easier. And I was so grateful that I had the opportunity both to help them, and to be there and talk to them and hear their stories.

The next night, as I cooked dinner I listened to the awful news of the war continuing in Ukraine. I looked at our simple dinner of chicken breast and bright, colourful, stir-fried vegetables, and was overwhelmed with how lucky I am to be living this life.

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As usual, the Weekend Market at Chatuchak was hot, steamy, wet, smelly, and very crowded. But if you go accepting that fact, it is full of delights. This time though, we were visitors to Bangkok, and couldn’t buy anything that would be too bulky for our suitcases, or too breakable to take on the journey. And there were different items for sale – many more homewares and art than when I first visited.

That was back in March 1980, when the market was based at Sanam Luang (a large field over the road from the Grand Palace). It was my first full day in Bangkok, and it was overwhelming. Over that year, I visited the Weekend Market many times, usually wearing our school uniforms because then we could truly haggle (we’re only students, we have no money!). Then ten years later, when I returned to work at the New Zealand Embassy, we were regular visitors and took all our guests there too. I still have the table lamp and other items we bought there.

Fast forward another 18 years, and we were back at the market with friends who were working at the Embassy. We came across a large area selling crockery. Particularly interesting were some tiny, brightly-coloured cups (espresso-sized, I guess) and saucers. My friend fell in love with them, and she and I spent a long time choosing flawless cups and saucers (there were a lot of seconds in the large baskets) and mixing and matching the colours, without any duplication. The men wandered off. This was not their scene. They didn’t realise that these cups might influence their social life for decades.

“But really,” C said as she was sorting through the basket, and looking for a lime green saucer that would work with the splash of green on one cup, “what will I use the cups for? They’re so small.”

I had a brainwave. “You could use them for chocolate mousse, or soups for a fancy meal. You know, when you only need a couple of mouthfuls of soup because there are six more courses to come.” She loved the idea, and bought the cups and saucers. When she returned to New Zealand, and some years later bought a house that was made for entertaining, we remembered the idea of a fancy dinner. And so, our semi-annual/annual degustation dinners were born.

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In the early 1990s, the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok was at the end of a lane shared with the Spanish Embassy, nestled under tall, leafy green trees. Sadly those trees are all gone now, replaced with concrete and steel high-rise buildings, but when I was there it was a kinder, gentler time, though even then we knew it wouldn’t last long. My office was on the second floor, and it looked out into the trees. I could sit at my desk and watch squirrels scampering along the branches, desperately madly chasing each other, and occasionally stopping to copulate. It was a little piece of nature in a city that was fast becoming a building site, cranes stretching across the horizon, in the midst of an economic boom; a city that was fast developing but at the same time – in a process replicated all over the world – sadly losing some of its more beautiful spots in the name of progress. My little spot of nature had squirrels, and I was amazed. Who’d have thought there’d be squirrels in Thailand? Certainly not me, who only knew squirrels from books and TV. I loved them. The squirrels in Bangkok though were lean. They weren’t the squirrels from the cartoons I grew up with, cute chubby little cheeks and bodies and brush-like fluffy tails, but they were squirrels nonetheless, real live squirrels in-the-flesh, and forever entertaining.

In the middle of our term in Thailand, we were given two weeks additional leave, to ensure we had a break from the temperatures, humidity and environment of Bangkok. We took the opportunity to go to Europe for the first time. There, in the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, we saw a squirrel. This first European one was much more like the chubby cartoon version, and we were entranced, as I have been since to see squirrels dashing about the grounds of the White House, or many years later in London, as I caught up with friends from those diplomatic days in Bangkok sipping tea together in Russell Square watching the squirrels hard at work preparing for winter, or most recently, posing perfectly for us here, in St James Park in London.

Previously only seen on TV

Previously only seen on TV

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