Archive for the ‘Diplomatic days’ Category

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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Friday night here in this northern, beachside town, saw us at a photography awards show, and then dinner at a local Thai restaurant. My sister was taking advantage of our presence by insisting we eat at a Thai restaurant. The food was good, and I chatted to the waitress in Thai (though the occasional Italian “si!” slipped through). At the end of the meal, I got chatting to the owner, and another man.

Turned out that the owner’s friend and I had shared a car once, in a Ministerial motorcade in Bangkok. He was a much more senior diplomat than I, but was friendly enough to me, his junior colleague. I remember he looked out the window as the motorcade, flanked by white uniformed motorcycle outriders, sirens on and lights flashing, sped through Bangkok’s usually congested streets.

“You know,” he said, ” people complain about Bangkok’s traffic, but it really isn’t that bad, is it?”

I looked at him in disbelief. The streets we were travelling were empty, but I pointed out the police at all the intersections, blocking the traffic from entering our route until we had passed. I shuddered at the thought of the size of the traffic jams we had created, the gridlock that might take half an hour to clear to Bangkok’s regular, sluggish, traffic flow. We were racing along, taking only minutes to travel a route that might normally take an hour or more. And I shook my head. This is why people think diplomats are out of touch!

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The news this week of the attacks on the US Embassies, and the murder of the US Ambassador to Libya and some of his staff, was shocking to me. It has been about 18 years since I left our own diplomatic service, after only one posting in Bangkok. Even with such very brief experience as part of the global diplomatic family, I felt this deeply. When you’re away overseas, representing your country, you feel an affinity with those other diplomats. Because they too are overseas representing their countries, living in a strange land, learning (often) a strange new language and culture, missing their families and friends at home, setting up home wherever their government decides to send them.  So often the similarities between us all – whether we are from New Zealand, the US or China – outweigh the differences. We become friends and colleagues. And things that affect our friends and colleagues affect us too.

I was on the phone this afternoon to another friend who has only recently left the diplomatic service, and we chatted about this.  She has had a more than 20 year career serving in three different countries.  She has a friend and colleague in the US Embassy here who she met somewhere offshore years ago. This often happens. Friendships develop, rekindle, and deepen over the years as diplomats crisscross the planet.  And in the process, we become a family. A huge, disparate, diverse family. And almost 20 years later, I still feel part of that family. And I feel for those diplomats who were threatened, injured, and killed overseas.  I feel for the diplomats all over the world who will now be on heightened alert.  I remember walking past the gun-bearing guards and the small cannons outside the US Embassy in Bangkok during the first Gulf War.  I remember their vulnerability.  I remember my grief at the death of the head of the Red Cross, and international diplomat who I had met ten years earlier in Cambodia.  And I grieve for them all.

It reminds me of the AFS motto, taken from Sanskrit:

Walk together, talk together,
All ye people of the earth,
Then and only then
Shall ye have Peace.

If only …

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