Once upon a time, she had been a wunderkind. An overachiever, a go-getter. She had graduated from high school a year ahead of time, and then joined the foreign office as a 20-year-old, and in another time, she would have been on track to become the youngest foreign minister in her country’s history, and probably, the youngest prime minister, and possibly, the first female prime minister.
But not in the Seventies, maybe not even in the Eighties, although after Thatcher in the UK, there were some rumblings – in the circles that were in the know – about her becoming a cabinet member, but by then, she was too far into her diplomatic life overseas, and loved it too much to put in the effort to make it happen. She had her supporters, of course, but not enough of them at the very top.
Also, she had always been one of those people who saw the whole world, not just one country, as her domain, and when she at the age of 24 got her first foreign posting – an undersecretary in Asia – she saw it as a stepping stone to … something.
Representing her country in the world had been her dream ever since she’d heard that Shirley Temple had been an ambassador after her Hollywood career. She knew that even if she was never going to be able to tap dance as well as Ms. Temple, she could follow in her footsteps in another way.
The early work had been below her capabilities, as she had spent a lot of her time helping tourists who had lost their passports, but the posting also opened doors to a world she hadn’t seen before, and the freedom that she had at work – since it wasn’t stressful – gave her the opportunity to do what she really wanted to do: explore the world. She went as local as she could, wherever she was, learning the local language as much as she could, doing her own shopping (instead of delegating it to Embassy staff even more junior than her), and volunteering at local charities.
Also, as Embassy staff, she was invited to cocktail parties with the country’s elite, and being one of a half a dozen young women in a room full of men did have its advantages. Big one: You get to meet whoever you want.
She could get the attention of anyone in a room, way beyond her rank, which made her an asset to her superiors (if her brains and fluency in six languages weren’t enough).
She had dined with Prime Ministers, sheikhs, Nobel laureates, kings, queens, princesses, presidents, cardinals – and once with the Pope. Well, “dined” was a little misleading, probably, because the queens and the kings hadn’t always been aware of her presence in the same room with them, but, like Forrest Gump, she had been there.
“You know, this may be my last dinner as Ambassador,” she now said to the young man across the table from her.
“Don’t say that,” he replied, blushing, “it puts too much pressure on me to be witty and smart.”
They were the only customers in the hotel’s lobby bar. The rest of the Embassy staff had gone clubbing in the Bulgarian capital, something she didn’t feel like doing, and as for the young man, he had been clubbing the night before, the first night of the Embassy’s annual trip, and had spent most of the day in bed, sleeping off a horrible hangover.
He had bumped into the Ambassador in the lobby, and when she asked her if he had dinner plans, he had mumbled something vague, she had made plans for him. He was surprised to be asked to join her for dinner, but … well, she was the boss.
An hour later, they were sitting across the table from each other, the hotel’s reception below them, a casino above them – and forty years between them.
“When we get back home, there will be a container waiting for my stuff, you know,” she said.
“Really? You’re moving back home?”
“I’m moving, yes,” she said.
She always called the Old Country, just that, the “Old Country”, a term that had started out as a joke but by her third cross-posting – which is what they call it when you move straight from one country to another without going back to … the old Country – it had become a habit and stuck.
Naturally, her plan had been to return – naturally – after a few, most likely eight, years abroad. The foreign office contracts ran for 3+1 years, and she figured doing two tours would help her accumulate the kind of experience and influence, and build the kind of network that was needed to run for truly bigger things, not just relaying messages between heavyweights, or interpreting between them.
That first posting had changed everything. Even if the work itself was trivial, she was in the right place at the right time. Asia was on the rise. Everybody wanted to know about the Japanese quality circles, and the Asian tigers were red hot. Also, the kids in the West, the backpackers, still found Asian mythologies and religions fascinating. All that meant that there was a steady stream of delegations to the Embassy, deals were made, and new diplomatic relationships tied.
Outside the office life was even more exciting. Nothing she had read had prepared her for life in Asia where everything was different and the sheer volume of … everything made it sometimes hard for her to breathe, but she had loved it. Asia took no prisoners, it just rolled over everything and everybody it came in touch with. Including her.
She had tried to get an extension beyond her four years – that’s how much she loved Asia – so she stayed at the office long after office hours, making phone calls to home office that was conveniently five hours behind them, lobbying for “just another year” but when that had been denied, she spent the next two months lobbying for a cross-posting – a direct move – to another Asian country.
She got her cross-posting all right. To Venezuela.
Whether that was out of spite or not, she didn’t know. There had been an election and while ambassadorships were supposed to be non-political nominations, elections always changed things.
She never complained about it publicly. She just moved her possessions, her life, to the other side of the world and started over and surprisingly, she had loved that.
Learning to know the ins and outs of a new country again had been exhilarating. It was like, to quote John Lennon, “just like starting over”. The slate was clean, she could be whatever she wanted.
It also didn’t hurt that she got to stroll into a new office as the new boss .
“When was the last time you lived back home?” her dinner companion asked her.
“Oh, permanently? More than a vacation? Let’s see…,” she said, tilted her head and looked as if she was counting although she knew exactly how long it had been: Forty-one years.
For forty-one years, she had been out there, representing her country. For forty-one years, she had been her country, promoting their ideals – “our ideals”, she thought and smiled to herself – and their culture, TV shows, authors, movies, their economic interests, and their way of life, whatever that meant.
“You’re smiling,” he said. “You don’t remember?”
“No, no, I remember. Forty-one years,” she said. “I just smiled because you remind me of myself.”
That was a lie, but during her forty-one years in the business she had become very good at lying. When she lied, she always made the lie about the other person, and everybody loved to think about herself, she had learned. Her dinner companion was no exception.
“Forty-one years? That’s a long time … if you don’t mind my saying so,” he said.
“Not at all. Although, I am sure you’re wondering how a 49-year-old woman can have served her country for 41 years,” she said.
He laughed. As she knew he would. Men were so easy.
“You start early,” she said, after a beat. The delivery of that line was perfect, too.
“I’ve always thought of you as the model citizen. You, I think, are exactly what I hope people think of when they think of our country,” he said.
A model citizen. She almost threw her napkin in his face but instead, she just said, “thank you.”
She had tried, God knows she had tried to be the model citizen. Always wearing Old Country designers, and using Old Country technology. She would never have used an iPhone like the young man in front of her, like he was using right then, in fact, stealing a peek at his smartphone, probably trying to see if he had gotten any “likes” on Facebook or Instagram.
That would never have been accepted when she had joined the foreign office. There had been secret messages during dinners then, too, but they were written on napkins and delivered hush-hush under the table.
The contents of the messages were what you might expect – advances from successful men. Sometimes she had been an active player in the game, and sometimes she had let the men seduce her (or think they did) but never the big shots. The risk of getting tangled up in a scandal was too big. But, the middle management guys were perfect, and some of them were on their way up.
Not that she wanted to ride anyone’s coat tails – or other pieces of clothing – to the top.
Also, there was no husband. She was free to do what she wanted.
He put the phone away, not too subtly, but at least he made an effort to be subtle.
“Do you still have the car here or have you already shipped it?” he asked her.
The car. Everybody loved her car. It was a 1966 sports car, famous for being the villain’s car in one of the James Bond movies. Villain or not, the Bond cool had turned into sales, and sales had turned that smallish Old Country car company into a global player. She believed that a country with its own car production was truly a great country, and she had bought one of those cool cars so she’d never forget it. She bought it at the dealership in her parents’ hometown, while visiting them during her Asia years, and she had shipped the car over to each of her new posts.
Wherever she had been, she had always made sure to drive around the country in that car. The press ate it up: “The Ambassador [when she had made Ambassador] on a road trip.” She’d tell the media how driving around a country was the best way to meet people and to learn to know the country and its customs. She’d always rave about the beauty of that country and especially the warmth of their people.
She had driven that car on the back streets of Bangkok, the German autobahn, and the narrow roads in the Austrian Alps. She had driven other ambassadors, ministers, and businessmen in it, but she was happiest when she was driving her 1966 – it was called just that, “1966” – by herself. Inside her car, she was in control, free, powerful, cool, beautiful, smart, adventurous, everything she wanted to be but didn’t think she was.
Oh, she did love to drive that car.
“Yes, the car is still here. It’s always the last thing I ship out,” she said. “Next week.”
“What are you going to do when you move back home,” he asked her.
Home. That word again.
Early on, she had wanted to advance her career and get postings in the major cities of the world: London, Paris, Berlin, Beijing, Washington, but after a decade or so, she got tired of the perpetual lobbying, and began to choose her postings based on other criteria. She liked small embassies where she could be left alone, with a small staff, and not many diplomatic incidents. Places like Helsinki and Vienna and Lima and Ottawa and Santiago.
No, she wasn’t lazy. On the contrary. She liked the smaller posts because that way she could do more herself, and get to do more work, help promote her country more, without any distractions from politicians.
She was an idealist that way. She truly believed she was doing important work. So important was her work that she had missed three of her siblings’ weddings – one sister, one brother times two – all of her nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays, two funerals – one of them her mother’s – and countless other events most people consider important. She had always been too far away or too busy to get back.
The world had been different when she left for her first assignment. The list of all the things we didn’t have was a long one, each item with its pros and cons, of course. No, we didn’t have Internet (but also no cyberterrorism). No camera phones, but more privacy. No high-speed trains, but the food had been better on the slower trains. No Netflix and … well, it was hard to argue that having TV broadcasting end at 11 pm in a rendition of the national anthem was better than Netflix.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll write one of those psychological thrillers that people seem to be eating up these days. I have material for at least three books,” she said.
She did. She had served under two Kings and a Queen, 26 Prime ministers, and 28 Foreign Ministers and she had seen it all.
“You know, home’s changed quite a bit,” he said. “It may take some time to get used to.”
Did he think she didn’t know that? Oh, she knew. At some point – she had been the ambassador to Austria then – she’d realized that her brother was using slang words she didn’t understand. When he had told her she had a weird accent she had hung up on him.
“Oh. Well, don’t you worry about me, I’m a professional foreigner,” she replied.
That was another one of her lines that always got a laugh. It was witty, to-the-point, and full of confidence even when she wasn’t.
“Maybe I’ll just drive around our beautiful country,” she said.
He laughed again.
“Professional foreigner…,” he said, with a chuckle. “I’ll have to remember that.”
“Yeah, I think I’ll just drive around,” she said.
He raised his glass as if to make a toast.
“Here’s to … home?” he said, raising his eyebrows.
“Home,” she said. “The old country.”