I still remember a colleague came back after a trip to Brussels, he was beyond excited that he went to a formal dinner party at the Ambassador’s residence. He had saved his paper name place setting. He went on about how incredible it must be to be an Ambassador, in an air that sounded like you didn’t have to work anymore, that those parties are all you do.
When someone says “Ambassador” they think about fancy cocktails, dinner parties, and formal occasions. I’m not sure many people really understand what an ambassador does, or how difficult it is.
My Father aptly called it the roll of CEO without the pay. You are the face of the embassy, and your country. You are squeezed by both your country (the one you are representing) and the country you are posted to. You are in the spotlight as well as having a bullseye on your back.
Becoming an Ambassador is like getting an Oscar in Hollywood, but it also brings on a whole new stress that 1) no one else shares 2) it becomes incredibly lonely, because you can’t truly be friends with anyone 3) there is no handbook or grooming process for the position. It is a very strange position. Plus, you aren’t paid that much for all the hours and stress that fall on you.
My Mother aptly calls it the sink or swim position.
The Ambassador becomes the boss of the embassy and staff at the official residence. With that, comes the delicate balance of having to keep relationships between locally engaged staff as well as your fellow countryman good. Locally engaged staff can’t be a part of the inner sanctum of the embassy, they don’t get the clearance, and they aren’t part of 50% of the conversations and meetings. The balancing act is extremely difficult, also creates a lot of animosity, locally engaged staff are incredibly important, they know the country, the language, the culture – the majority of the time they are critical in helping the rest of the embassy get settled, help with local work and coordinating. The diplomats usually have the heavy task of going as far as having to visit local jails to visit tourists who may have done something illegal. Or in many cases, during natural disasters such as the tsunami, go by bike, car, motorbike and visit makeshift hospitals to find tourists who may or may not have registered with the Embassy. None of it is glamorous.
Everything and I mean everything that happens in the embassy falls on the Ambassador. When someone gets extremely sick, has to go on medical leave, it falls on the Ambassador to sign off and make sure there is an adequate replacement. An Ambassador usually becomes marriage Counselor, trauma Counselor, family Counselor, Accountant, party planner, the security officer, political tight rope walker, master negotiator, Intelligence Advisor, Intelligence gatherer, boss, and outhouse because all poop falls on the Ambassador. When a family breaks down, when a marriage dissolves on posting, it impacts the Embassy. The embassy is a living organism, and when something falls apart, the embassy falls apart.
An Ambassador’s official residence is an extension of the embassy, it usually has another big staff to keep the house going. It is usually outfitted with another office space, because well, the Ambassador doesn’t have a 9-5 job. My Father would wake up all hours of the night from telephone calls from headquarters or an officer on duty needing a sign off, to discuss something sensitive. We used to joke that my Father had to put down weekend family time in his schedule just so his staff knew to leave him alone for a couple of hours, during those times, he often would have a staff member show up at the house.
Don’t get me wrong, my Father thrived on being the boss, but at times, it was incredibly difficult and people often thought things were handed to him, or that he had perks that no one else did, which was an assumption that was hard to argue with.
When my colleague showed me that plaque, I thought, a lot of work went into that dinner party, and that was on top of everything else. The poor Ambassador probably wanted to just have time alone, and not have to entertain.