Diplomatic dos. These are one of the strangest, and by turns, interesting, challenging, and sporadically fun, parts of the job of being a diplomatic wife. The holidays produce a bevy of invitations, whether it’s the annual coffee morning hosted by the ambassador’s wife, a year-end review, or a Christmas bash.
These are the PR events of the diplomatic world, offering an opportunity to build relationships, exert quiet influence, and exchange gossip. Some staff are put on ‘meet and greet’ duties, pressing the flesh and exchanging pleasantries at the entrance with each visitor. Others are tasked with courting the powerful, while all are expected to make an effort to welcome ‘externals’ rather than cruise about with their peers for an after work catch-up and a handful of canapes. Few are devoid of some murmur of diplomatic celebrity spotting. At an event last week, George W was rumoured to be making an appearance. The evening buzzed along on this expectation, fizzling in the last half hour once it was obvious that he had passed on the invitation.
DC dos are heavyweight. If you have the clout, a host of major figures are likely to turn up to your soiree. My husband routinely points out heads of intelligence agencies, former mayors, political scions, and noted commentators while we’re circling a room. At a posting like Islamabad the crowd tends to be more varied, more international. The doors open up to the international organisations, politicians, think tankers, and small circle of learned eccentrics. You really never know who you’re going to meet, and as such, you never know what the event is going to throw at you.
As I’ve discovered, you may land up chatting to someone new to the country, wide-eyed and a bit disoriented, keen to figure out what to do with their spare time, or perhaps find yourself talking about the water consumption properties of different trees with a local agricultural expert. Others will use the event as an opportunity to take issue with British policy, baiting you to defend it or better still, support their side. If you’ve been in the country a while, you might get asked a ridiculously sweeping question about how to tackle some major issue, the answer to which has eluded everyone else to date. You’re also likely to cross paths with some dark horses: I remember meeting a slick-haired, smooth politician, whom my husband told me later was suspected of having murdered his wife.
It is not just the characters that can be challenging, but sometimes the events themselves. A diplomatic highlight for many missions is the seemingly innocuous national day. This tends to pass most Brits by. Typically, a glass might be raised in a local pub to Saints George, Patrick, David or Andrew, but that’s as far as celebrating the country’s national days goes, and while the Queen’s birthday may be cheered in some far-off former colonial outpost it garners little attention in modern-day Britain. For many nations however, marking an event like independence or the creation of a republic is a major undertaking.
National days are a social highlight at postings like Islamabad, where there is a lot more interaction between missions and fellow diplomats than in a city like DC. They come in all shapes and sizes, from a modest nod to the day to an extravagant ritual designed, for one night only, to serve the host country a slice of home life.
One of the most memorable for me was an Austrian national day event, simply for the amazing transformation of my always very stylish, sensibly attired 50-something yoga teacher (also the ambassador’s wife) into a character from the section on national costumes from a ‘places of the world’ childhood book. Here was the living incarnation of the felt-tipped lady who had gazed up at a seven-year-old me in her red skirt, neat black laced shoes, puffy white shirt, and black bodice. I swear my yoga teacher was even sporting blond plaits.
So how does one handle these events? Ah well that’s an age-old trick of diplomacy I have yet to master, and I can tell you that yoga was never quite the same after that particular national day experience.