Sunday, October 18, 2015

Public Diplomacy

Francesca Monterone,

image from


"I mortally offended the Minister of Finance today. Way to go, Matthew! I haven't been in the country for two months yet and I'm already on the verge of being declared persona non grata."
Matthew's new job might end up driving him crazy.

(See the end of the work for notes.)

Chapter 1: Scheduling Disaster

Chapter Text

I mortally offended the Minister of Finance today. Way to go, Matthew! I haven't been in the country for two months yet and I'm already on the verge of being declared persona non grata. To the Ruritanian government: there is no need to give me the customary 48 hours; I haven't even unpacked most of my boxes yet. Eight will be fine.

Apparently, letting the Ministry of Finance know that your Ambassador can't make it to the meeting they suggested, because he is seeing their former deputy minister (former as in 'we fired his lazy, traitorous ass') at the same time does not promote good relations. It's a bit like having an illicit affair: you don't mention it.
And I know this, because I have already been reprimanded by three people.

My mistake has been detected, selected, picked apart, analyzed and filed away under the heading 'stupid things the new guy did, shame on him'. Gilbert told me (in serious tones that were very much out of character with his usual demeanor) that it had been very unfortunate.

Note: diplomats don't use adjectives like regular people do. While normal people use them as descriptors, to make whatever thing they are talking about easily recognizable, diplomats use adjectives to obscure and to mask things. Suddenly nice isn't nice anymore. Impressive means anything but. And that 'interesting proposal' you had...? Better not mention that again. Ever.

So when Gilbert said unfortunate, I knew he really meant 'that was a fucking idiotic thing you did and it better not happen again or else...'. And he made sure I got the meaning by staring at me moodily for a good fifteen seconds before turning on his heel and leaving to his adjacent office.

I quietly winced. What a truly wonderful way to start the week. Also: Gilbert is a pompous ass. But then, in a way they all are.

My next visitor of the day was Lilli, and the only good thing to say about her visit was that she brought chocolate chip cookies. Well, that and she smelled nice. Lilli always does. She treads very lightly, and so usually arrives quietly. Often, you'll catch a whiff of her flowery perfume before hearing her enter the room. Today was no exception.

She entered, preceded by a rose scented cloud, gently lowered the plate of cookies onto my desk and drily stated: "Well. I guess we won't be meeting the Minister of Finance tomorrow, will we?"

I rolled my eyes at her. "Don't even start, I already had it from Gilbert."

"Rules of engagement, Mattie. Never let the bigheads know that you believe somebody else is more important than they are." She paused, eyes narrowing. "Wait. You had what exactly from Gilbert?"

"The 'I'm seriously unimpressed by your performance so far' lecture. Geez, what did you think?!" It was a mostly rhetorical question. I knew exactly what she had thought.

"So not interested, Lilli."

"I sure hope so," she stated firmly, pushing the plates of cookies towards me. "Here. Have a cookie. You're going to need it, the boss is on his way in and he's not particularly amused."

Sigh. "Is he ever?"

Lilli shrugged. "Who knows. He might actually have a sense of humor somewhere. The fact that we haven't found it yet proves nothing."

"If he does, he's hiding it very well."

She turned to leave, on her way out almost collided with H.E. Ludwig Beilschmidt, Ambassador of Germany to the Unified Republic of Ruritania a.k.a the boss.

He's tall, blond, blue eyed and if he smiled every now and again, you could possibly consider him attractive. He doesn't. Still, it is hard to ignore him. Maybe it is his sheer physical presence, his height and the astonishing width of his shoulders and chest, or maybe it's the aura of grave formality that surrounds him. In any case, when Ludwig Beilschmidt walks into a room, heads turn.

In the six weeks I have been working with him (for him, to be more precise), we have developed a sort of morning ritual. For some inexplicable reason, he enters his office by walking straight through mine, even though he has his own private door further down the corridor. He stops in front of my desk, looks down at me, wishes me a good morning, waits to hear my 'good morning' in return, turns and enters his own office. I get up, head to the kitchen and brew his coffee. Strong, a little milk, no sugar. He never asks for it, never did, but it wasn't necessary.

I read the copious amount of notes my predecessor left me.

When I brought him the coffee today, he looked up from the screen. "Ask Mathek's office if we can reschedule the two o'clock meeting to two thirty; since we aren't going to the Ministry of Finance, we might as well spend a bit more time at lunch." His voice betrayed no emotion.

"Okay. Anything else?"

"Next time, don't give a reason when you postpone a meeting." His eyes were already on the screen again.

"I'm sorry."

No reaction.

I left. Maybe a bit more rapidly than necessary, since I almost stumbled over the carpet.

At eleven, I walked across the courtyard to the Ambassador's residence, a stack of snow-white placement cards in hand.

The table in the downstairs dining room was already set for twelve people.

There's a smaller, more private dining room upstairs, but it only seats eight. To me it was a mystery, though, how the Ambassador was planning on conducting a 'working lunch' with twelve people, particularly if one of them was the loud, exuberant and extremely chatty French Ambassador, my personal favorite (not really) among the local diplomatic community.

I spaced the cards evenly around the table.

Usually, you seat the guests according to rank, and there are strict rules governing who sits where. In this case, however, self-preservation dictated that you did not seat Ambassador Francis Bonnefoy anywhere near his British colleague, unless of course you wanted the lunch to escalate to a full out food fight.

So in order to give the guests a chance to actually enjoy the meal and maybe, just maybe get some work done, I put Francis between his best buddy Gilbert, and Beatrice, the head of the local EU delegation. For good measure, I made sure to add the head of the Swiss liaison office (neutrality, right?), the hulking Swedish Ambassador and a thoroughly harmless lady from the IMF as a living, breathing barrier between the two opponents.

I had just set down the last card - Matthias Kohler, the Danish Ambassador - when Feliciano Beilschmidt, né Vargas, bustled in, carrying an armful of flowers. He struggled with the door, and I rushed closer to hold it open for him.

Feliciano flashed me a brilliant smile. "Hi, Mattie. Grazie."

Feliciano is one of my favorite people in the world. Seriously. I have only known him for six weeks, but I am convinced I would already have quit my job, run amok or gone crazy if it wasn't for him.

Feliciano's official role - it even says so on his diplomatic passport - is Husband of Ambassador Ludwig Beilschmidt.

His unofficial role is far more complicated than that - he is the gentle breath of life that keeps the Embassy from turning into a dusty mausoleum of files and official parlance.

"What are the flowers for?" I asked. I recognized white roses, lisianthus and carnations, the rest were unfamiliar.

"Arthur and Maria had a baby," Feliciano replied, beaming. "Isn't that lovely? It's a little girl."

Only Feliciano would congratulate the British Ambassador with an armful of flowers at an official lunch meeting.

I smiled. "Very nice."

"We are going to see her on Thursday," Feliciano announced and I was struck with the image of Ludwig cooing over a tiny little baby - no, just wrong. He would probably treat it as an official appointment, a duty to get done.

"I'm sure you'll enjoy that." Maybe I put a little too much emphasis on the word 'you', because Feliciano looked up and grinned at me.

"Ludwig actually likes kids," he assured me, "he's just bad at showing it."

Feliciano frequently assures me that his husband doesn't dislike humanity in general, even when he gives every impression of doing so. He is loyal to a fault.

"Come," Feliciano said, after putting the flowers in a vase. "I need you to try the pasta sauce. Last time I made it, it was a tad too spicy and I can't afford to have Gilbert asphyxiating at lunch, even if he might deserve it."

"Charming," I said, grinning, "does your brother-in-law know how much you care for him?"

Feliciano shook his head. "He's not my brother-in-law. There's no blood relation between him and Ludwig."

"No, they've merely been joined at the hip since attending the same fancy boarding school as boys, and your in-laws are Gilbert's godparents, or something."

"Actually, Gilbert's father is Ludwig's godfather," Feliciano corrected me. "Ugh. Don't make it sound any worse than it already is. It's bad enough I get to spend Christmas with Gilbert every year for the rest of my life."

We had arrived in the kitchen - which is more spacious than my entire apartment - and he lifted the lid of a large pot. A heavenly smell wafted towards me. My mouth instantly watered.

"I don't think I even need to try this, it smells delicious."

"Of course you do," Feliciano disagreed, offering me a spoon.

What can I say...? It was the best goddamn tomato sauce I had ever tasted.

"Will you marry me?"

He laughed. "Too late. I do believe Ludwig would object, and I am Catholic. The church frowns upon bigamy."

And homosexual marriage, I thought, but I kept it to myself. Feliciano is probably getting enough grief from his family because of that. Speaking of which... "When is Lovino coming back?"

"He's already on his way in. His plane was a bit late, so I expect him to be grumpy, but I'll just shove a plate of pasta at him, that usually helps. And he can't complain with his mouth full."

"That's ingenious."

"Well, I did grow up with him." Feliciano stirred the sauce and added another sprinkle of dried herbs.

Lovino Vargas is Feliciano's brother, the elder brother, to be precise. He is also one of the most bad tempered people I know. Grumpy is his default mode.

"What's for dessert?"


"How in the world does your husband maintain his weight?"

"It's a gift, probably. And he does get a lot of exercise." Feliciano turned the gas down. "You should eat lunch with me later."

"Are you not eating with them?"

"Oh, no, that would be awkward. None of the guests is bringing his or her spouse, and they are probably going to discuss politics anyway, so I'd get bored pretty soon. I'll drop in to give Arthur the flowers and congratulate him, but that's about it." He looked around quickly and lowered his voice, adding: "And I really cannot abide Francis. Don't tell anyone, but the way he keeps looking at me? It gives me the creeps."

"Join the club," I muttered. "He's... unpleasant."

Feliciano snorted. "Or, for us mere mortals, translated from diplo-speak: he's a creep. He has wandering eyes and wondering hands, and I do not care how handsome he thinks he is, somebody needs to teach him some manners."

"Tell your brother," I suggested. "Lovino would enjoy that."

"Oh, I couldn't possibly...!" Feliciano exclaimed. "He's one of Ludwig's peers. And he isn't actually that bad. There are worse people around."

Sad, but true.

"By the way, there's a new Spanish Ambassador."

"I know," I said. "Can you try and get me his card? I tried to get contact details out of their secretary, but she isn't responding to my e-mail."

"Sure," Feliciano promised. "I hear he's quite young for the job. His first assignment as ambassador. He probably has friends in the right places."

"That, or somebody really wanted to get rid of him," I said. "Come on, Ruritania? You're either here, because you've made a deal and been promised a reward if you do a stint in this godforsaken place, or because somebody really doesn't like you."

Feliciano made no reply, which in turn made me wonder (and not for the first time) why Ludwig was here. I assumed it was a deliberate career choice, some sort of quid pro quo deal, but maybe it wasn't? I can't quite imagine Ludwig pissing anyone off badly enough to be sent away, but who knows....


This is not how the foreign service works.

Okay, well, sometimes it is.

I've spent the better part of the last five years as a foreign service officer, and some of the stuff that happens to Matthew in this story actually happened to me. I won't tell you which parts are pure fiction and which are inspired by true events, I'll leave that up to your imagination.

Ruritania, obviously, is not a real place. It's a fictional country my teachers liked to use whenever they were trying to explain concepts of foreign policy without offending anybody (which is an easy thing to do, diplomats have a very good ear for potential slights to their home country). But Ruritania could be anywhere.

No comments: