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Foreign Service Life

April 2003

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Minister Heichler describe one of the interludes that come from time to time in the career of a diplomat—a training stint designed to prepare the officer better for coming responsibilities. The author assuredly gained the preparation needed, and he clearly enjoyed the experience, as well.—Ed.

Via delle Montagne Rocciose by Lucian Heichler

The reward for my four years of servitude in Equatorial African “hardship posts” came in the form of a “senior training” assignment. Offered the choice among several institutions, including the National War College and the Senior Seminar, I requested the NATO Defense College in Rome. I wanted to remain overseas a while longer, and the promise of a multinational institution, drawing its faculty and student body from all NATO member nations, appealed more to me than the prospect of attending a school back in Washington.

The NATO Defense College, a school for senior military officers and diplomats of the (then) fifteen NATO nations, had originally been in Paris, as an adjunct to the headquarters of the North Atlantic Alliance. When DeGaulle took France out of the integrated military structure of the alliance, NATO headquarters was forced to leave Paris and accepted an invitation from the Kingdom of Belgium to relocate to Brussels, where it has remained to this day. The Defense College was invited by the Italian Government to set up shop in Rome.

In preparation for the 1942 World’s Fair (subsequently canceled because of war), Benito Mussolini had built an impressive, modern suburb south of the Eternal City, named Esposizione Universale di Roma or “E.U.R.” for short. It even boasted a subway connection, the Laurentina Line extending from Termini in downtown Rome to E.U.R. After the war, a number of Italian government agencies moved there to escape the overcrowded center of Rome. And it was there, in the E.U.R., that the Italian Government built an impressive, modern, comfortable school for the Defense College. The main building had a large auditorium for lectures, a number of “committee” study rooms, a library, faculty and administrative offices, and an elegant dining room.

Each course at the College lasted six months. Every member country had a quota reflecting its size and importance. This quota ranged from eight students for the United States to three each for Greece and Turkey. If I remember correctly, Iceland had but one representative, and Luxembourg did not send anyone—too expensive. The American quota was made up of seven military officers—two Army, two Navy, two Air Force and one Marine, all with the rank of colonel—and one Foreign Service officer of equivalently high grade. For this lone U. S. diplomat, the American Embassy in Rome maintained a furnished apartment within walking distance of the Defense College, on the Via delle Montagne Rocciose, venti-quatro, quatro piano.1 It was a charming, slightly dilapidated flat with about three bedrooms and a balcony on three sides, loaded with potted plants in all shapes and sizes. The elegant marble floors got extremely cold in winter. The furniture was eclectic beyond belief, part art nouveau, part Good-Will Industries. One of the more startling pieces was the ugliest floor lamp I have ever seen—a slightly wobbly, spiral glass column crowned with a lamp shade fit to go with almost anything but what it sat on.2

The apartment building boasted a small, creaky, old-fashioned elevator—the kind on which you must close both the outer and inner doors before it will move. Whenever we had guests, and more than three or four tipsy people tried to descend en masse at the end of the evening, the tiny elevator would sink below floor level under the weight and the outer door would refuse to open. Then it was necessary to coax the lift gently upward until it became possible to climb out of the cage to freedom. Since the street entrance to the building was always locked after ten or eleven o’clock at night, I experienced this problem frequently because I always had to accompany our guests downstairs to unlock the street door for them.

Somehow we managed to squeeze our household—two adults and three, occasionally four children (the oldest was nearly 18)—into the apartment and set up house-keeping. While we were allowed to shop at the embassy commissary downtown, there was a grocer at the corner who sold us the necessities, including a wonderfully dry white wine from the Alban Hills, which our nine-year old was allowed to purchase for us there without any difficulty whenever we sent her down to get the vino.

The curriculum at the Defense College was far from rigorous. Our small (less than sixty-member) student body was grouped into eight “committees” expected to work on different projects, each under the guidance of a faculty adviser. Psychologically, this was a very shrewd move because inter-committee competition quickly overcame any potential rivalry among national delegations. Even our Greeks and Turks got along. The entire student body came together every morning at the easy hour of 10: a.m. to hear a lecture offered by a visiting “expert.” This was followed by an hour-long discussion. Then came lunch—easily the high-point of the curriculum. All students were expected to partake of the fairly sumptuous midday meal offered by the college, supposedly combining gastronomic satisfaction with mental stimulation and inter-cultural discourse. I ate lots of vitello there, washed down with liberal quantities of vino bianco. After lunch, coffee came accompanied by a healthy shot of Sambucca, an anis-flavored liqueur meant to be consumed, for some mysterious reason, with an odd (never even!) number of coffee beans.

The “committee work” to be done after lunch was rarely pursued with the zest and energy piously intended, since everyone was far more inclined to take an afternoon nap. Still, noblesse oblige, we dutifully assembled in our committee work rooms under the watchful eye of our faculty adviser for a couple of hours’ discussion and preparation of our committee projects. As I recall, my committee project had to do with the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean area. While all eight committee members were expected to contribute equally to this task, lack of English and of relevant knowledge got in the way, and in the end only one British naval officer who had served in the Persian Gulf and I (as committee chairman) produced the paper.

The languages spoken by the College were the two official NATO languages—English and French. Every student was expected to study one or the other. If, however, he was fortunate enough to be fluent in both, he was allowed to take daily Italian lessons. These were a joy to me. I enjoy learning languages (I seem to have something of a gift for it); I enjoyed the beautiful Italian language—and I enjoyed the sight of the lovely, raven-haired, twenty-five-year-old Professoressa Francesca who taught it. We (there were only four of us in the class) met with Francesca every morning at 8:30 for an hour. Sfortunamente ho gia tutto dementicato...3

My wife and I made many friends among the other students. I felt quite close to some of the Brits—the afore-mentioned Royal Navy salt who helped me with our committee project, and a colonel of Royal Marines, Ted Potts, who with his wife Joan was among our best friends for many years. I liked the Norwegians and some of the Germans. As to the Americans, the only one with whom I felt any sort of kinship was a friendly Air Force colonel in my Italian class, so singularly lacking in language aptitude, poor man, that he got practically nothing out of it. And there was, I am afraid, a lot of drinking, tolerated if not actually encouraged by the College leadership.

Especially interesting and worthwhile were the two major study trips undertaken by each Course at the College—one to a number of European NATO member states, the other to North America. In the late fall of 1970 we set off to visit Belgium (for briefings at NATO and SHAPE4), then on to the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Greece and Turkey.5 We traveled in style, in our very own airplane, an elderly “Britannia” (rather like a DC-4) of the British Royal Air Force. I found the ambience in the cabin rather pleasantly reminiscent of an English pub. Our arrival in Brussels was somewhat embarrassing: Earlier that very warm, sunny autumn day, we had all been conveyed to Ciampino Airport to embark, but our plane was delayed by several hours. As an indirect result, the entire College arrived in Brussels three sheets to the wind. The Norwegian contingent had brought along a case of Aquavit to celebrate a Norwegian national day. (National days were a great excuse for drinking, and among fifteen NATO countries there was never any dearth of national days.) We were meant to enjoy the Aquavit en route to Belgium, but as we sat on the tarmac in the hot sun and waited for our transportation, the Norwegians decided (unwisely) to be hospitable and broke out the Aquavit. And so it came about that the entire college happily tumbled off the plane in Brussels in rather a disgraceful state.

When we arrived at NATO Headquarters—a collection of ugly two-story concrete buildings outside Brussels, on the avenue de l’aviation—I had no inkling that several years later, this would become my home. We had a day of briefings there and at SHAPE, a few hours away at Mons. In fact, briefings were pretty much the whole official program in all capitals we visited, and they were not very memorable. Of far greater interest were the countries themselves, the sights, the installations we got to visit. Occasionally, there was a day off, a stop devoted entirely to recreation. This was true of our stop-over in Istanbul: After a day’s sightseeing in that fabulous city—touring Hagia Sophia, the “Blue” Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Great Bazaar with its hundreds of underground shops—we continued on to bleak, colorless Ankara on the Anatolian Plateau. Again, no clairvoyance revealed to me that ten years later I would be living there, on assignment to the American embassy in Ankara. Of this first visit, I remember waking in the morning in my room at the Büyük Ankara Oteli, looking out the window and thinking that if I had suffered an attack of amnesia during the night, I would not have a clue where in the world I was—this shabby, vaguely modern city could have been nearly anywhere. It could just as easily have been somewhere in the Balkans—Bucharest or Sofia, for instance—as in the fabled, mysterious Orient.

When the College traveled, its commandant and a number of faculty and staff accompanied the student body. Most memorable for me is the tough American Navy captain whose difficult and thankless job it was to organize the tours and make sure that they went off without a hitch. In order to keep the tour on its tight schedule, he could be completely ruthless: If, contrary to his orders and threats, a suitcase was not placed in front of the hotel room door at 5:30 am, and its owner was not present and accounted for when it came time to board the buses for the airport, that unfortunate was left to find his own way—of course at his own expense—to the next stop on the itinerary. The captain spent his life booking the hotels (usually rather inexpensive, second-class hostelries in deference to those students with meager travel allowances), arranging all the transportation, the meals—in fact, every last detail—and seeing to it that the tour adhered perfectly to its tight and complicated schedule. It took a Simon Legree type to carry this off, but everyone, from the hard-drinking Canadian admiral who was our commandant down to the lowliest student, respected and obeyed our tough tour coordinator. Having been responsible a number of times for all the details involved in high-level official visits, I can really appreciate the hard work and considerable organizational skills the captain devoted to his task.

In some ways our second study tour, to Portugal, the Azores, Canada and the United States, was the high-point of the NATO Defense College experience for me. Visiting my own country as a member of a mostly foreign delegation was also a strangely ambiguous, schizoid experience. We eight American students were guests in the United States; yet at the same time we felt a patriotic obligation to play host to our fellow students and show off our country to best advantage. I particularly remember my anger and frustration when we arrived in Washington, D.C., because of the complete lack of any sense of showmanship on the part of the Pentagon protocol people responsible for us. Our military aircraft, a huge C-141 transport plane (military version, I believe, of the Boeing 707) landed at Andrews Air Force Base on the east side of the Potomac, and the buses took us to our hotel through an especially ugly, run-down part of Washington, carefully avoiding as if by design all the landmarks and monuments for which the city is famous. And our hotel was in a rather poor part of town itself—again in response to the needs of those students whose travel and per diem allowances did not suffice for something better. Our hotel was on K Street somewhere east of 14th—more or less in the center of Washington’s sleazy red light district. I had hoped that at least en route to our briefings, my classmates would be shown a better part of town, but I had hoped in vain; on the way to the Pentagon, the Army buses took the shortest route—over the 14th Street or “Highway” Bridge, thus carefully avoiding Constitution Avenue, the White House, the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, the Mall, the handsome Arlington Memorial Bridge, Arlington Cemetery, etc. etc....

On the American tour, we had the opportunity to see what few people have been privileged to visit—the Minuteman Missile Silos in Wyoming, the combined U.S.-Canadian NORAD6 Command Center deep inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs—like something out of science-fiction, with a four-lane highway leading deep into the mountain blackness, and there in the center of the mountain, the group of command center buildings standing on giant spiral springs designed to cushion the impact of even a nuclear attack. In Utah and Wyoming we were escorted down into the ICBM silos, each containing its giant, nuclear-tipped missile, and shown the “two-key” arming system—only one in a series of “fail-safe” procedures preliminary to a launch. (Already today, a decade after the end of the Cold War as I write, all this seems so long ago!)

We visited the beautiful, then still rather new Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs, where the magnificent chapel stands out in my mind as the most memorable site. We were taken to Martin-Marietta near Atlanta, Georgia, to inspect the world’s largest aircraft, the C-5A transport plane. As luck would have it, one of these planes had just suffered an accident, and as a result we were not permitted aboard an actual plane but had to be content with a visit to a mock-up. Still, it was impressive enough.

On the North American tour we were again treated to one “fun” stop-over—a night in New Orleans. For me, the famous city was rather a disappointment. I had looked forward to visiting the Vieux Carré, the Old Quarter, and found it quite spoiled by smut and honkytonk. But a colleague and I did enjoy a fabulous meal of oysters on the half shell, for practically no money at all.

Our visit to Canada was cut short by the Québecois independence movement: An hour before our plane was scheduled to land in Montreal, the body of a prominent politician, victim of a terrorist attack, was found near the airport fence, and we were diverted to Ottawa, to spend three rather dull days in the Canadian capital, then still a far cry from the sparkling, cosmopolitan city it has since become. I do remember being impressed by the beautiful Canadian Parliament buildings.

My wife and I tried to make the most of our sojourn in Rome. Liberated (as the wife of a student) from any embassy responsibilities, my wife made excellent use of her time to study Italian art and art history; she and her friend Joan Potts visited hundreds of churches in search of paintings by Caravaggio. The College also offered us some group tours of Rome. I remember merry weekend bus excursions to the ancient Roman monuments downtown. One Canadian couple with an unusually large number of children distinguished themselves once by actually forgetting a child at the Colosseum and having to go back for him. (The same Canadian lady once proudly told us that she had recommended to friends in Canada a hotel named “Albergo”7.) Toward the end of our course, we were even honored by an audience with Pope Paul VI. I still treasure a large group photo showing all the children of NATO Defense College Course No. 37 surrounding His Holiness. Our two little girls can be seen wearing their little blue rain coats and white mantillas. On this occasion our Lutheran Kate, then about twelve years old, even managed to get her hands on a Papal medal.

Life in Rome was exciting, noisy and unpredictable. We learned to listen to the daily schedule of labor strikes announced on the radio in order to find out whether our children would be able to go to school that day, or whether the school bus drivers were once again on strike. We learned to step warily on the streets on New Year’s Eve in order to avoid large pieces of furniture and the like being thrown out of upper-story windows by exuberant citizens celebrating the end of the old year. We learned (the hard way) that on Christmas all municipal services of this metropolis come to a screeching halt—no public transport of any kind. We had decided to attend Christmas Eve services at St. Paul’s Within the Walls, a very posh American Episcopal church (where, after Sunday morning services, you did not get coffee—you were served sherry). All six of us went by Metropolitana to the beautiful service and afterwards discovered to our horror that the subway had stopped running. The pastor dragooned some poor lady with a very small car into driving us all home to E.U.R. How she squeezed the six of us into her vehicle I still have not figured out. It was reminiscent of the time-honored circus act in which more and more and more clowns emerge from a Volkswagen beetle.

When we did not take the subway, our way home led past the majestic ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. For some reason the walls encircling the Baths served as a strip for prostitutes. On cold winter evenings the ladies of the night could be seen standing there, each trying to warm herself by a small fire contained in a bucket. Unfeelingly, we called them the “Camp Fire Girls.”

It was all a great experience, the tour at the NATO Defense College in Rome, even for a Foreign Service officer and family pretty much used to life abroad and to exposure to all sorts of people.

1. Rocky Mountain Street, No. 24, 4th Floor.
2. A word about the peculiarities of Roman electric current may be in order here: Every house had two kinds of current—220 volts for appliances, 110 volts for lamps. Trying to plug anything more than a low wattage lamp into the latter was guaranteed to blow the fuses; the wires for lamps were about the thickness of (indoor) American Christmas bulb strings.
3. “Unfortunately, I’ve already forgotten it all....”
4. Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
5. Ours was a “winter” course; the people in the summer courses went to the northern tier of the Alliance, visiting Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.
6. North American Defense Command—the brain center for the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line stretching across northern Canada, intended to warn of Soviet intercontinental nuclear missiles coming at us across the North Pole.
7. The word “albergo” just means “hotel” in Italian.

The author retired as a minister-counselor in the U. S. Foreign Service in 1986 after a career spanning thirty-two years. He was posted in Washington, Berline, Yaounde, Kinshasa, Rome, Bern, Brussels (NATO), and Ankara.

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