Wednesday, April 24, 2024

ON THE OTHER HAND: Diplomatic mishaps


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A career in diplomacy is not without its mishaps. I’ve had my fair share of them, one or two originating in the fact that I was a white Barbadian diplomat.
One memorable incident happened when I served as deputy in Brussels to Oliver Jackman, Barbados’ most brilliant ambassador.
We were attending an ACP-EU meeting in France. I went out to get a document and on my return discovered the meeting had adjourned to allow both sides to caucus privately. When I tried to go into the ACP room the burly French security guard at the door told me that this room was for the “Africans” and the room for the “Europeans” was across the hall.
I pointed to my ACP ID tag. He was not interested.
“Africans here, Europeans over there,” he repeated.
“Mais je suis Africain!” I spluttered.
He shook his head. As a Bajan would say: “You think I is a idiot?”
Fortunately, the Nigerian ambassador, who had just come up, told the guard: “It’s okay, he’s one of us.”
He later told Oliver, much to his amusement and my chagrin, how he had rescued his “African deputy”. The final twist of irony that Oliver relished was that the ACP caucus was being chaired by a minister from Samoa, who was a red-haired, green-eyed, indisputably white man.
Some years later when I was Ambassador in Washington, I went to pay a courtesy call on the mayor of DC. Our Barbadian chauffeur Vernon and I walked into the building together and out rushed an eager young protocol officer who, ignoring me and grabbing Vernon’s hand, exclaimed: “Welcome, Your Excellency, the mayor is awaiting you.”
Vernon, who, I have to admit, was better dressed and more distinguished looking than me, quickly explained.
Vernon never discussed the incident with me, but I noticed for the rest of the week he walked with a spring in his step and wore a permanent suspicion of a smile.
Near the end of my career, as Ambassador to China, I enjoyed a spontaneous moment with President Jiang Zemin, an affable man who was proudly fluent in Spanish. After exchanging platitudes while the interpreter translated between English and Chinese, I said in Spanish I understood he was fluent in that language.
Delightedly, he broke into Spanish and we talked about Latin American writers. This threw the interpreter and other officials into a panic, until he said, smiling mischievously: “We better switch back to Chinese and English before my people have heart attacks.”
Ottawa was my first diplomatic posting and I was lucky in having C.B. “Monty” Williams as high commissioner. Monty, an exceptional public servant, had the remarkable gift of cutting through the piffle and waffle of diplomacy to the core of sense.  But I discovered it was his wife who was the real class act.  
I was a callow young bachelor straight out of university intent on doing what young bachelors do. This usually spells trouble.  
I soon became so smitten with the charms of a Canadian lass that I decided to steal a day off work and see if I could unsmitten myself. I called in sick the night before. It was winter. I had the flu.
The next day, while I’m in my apartment with the flu, the high commissioner’s wife arrives with a pot of chicken soup, aspirins, tissues, and so on. This kind-hearted lady will not allow the youngest member of staff to languish alone.
 “You look terrible,” she tells me. “Totally drained; go back to bed and drink plenty of fluids.”
Just as she is about to leave, my flu walks out of the bathroom. Not a stitch.
The high commissioner’s wife does not bat an eye.
“And how do you do?” she says, and exits graciously. To add insult to injury, the lady gets a parking ticket.
I slinked into the office the next day. Flu gone.


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