In this extended essay, the author takes an irreverent, but nonetheless somewhat affectionate look at his first (and only) Foreign Service post Stockholm. The contrast with the academic career he had been following he found to be striking: more interesting in some respects, but also frustrating in others. Here he delineates the differences. Ed.
I found working at the American Embassy in Stockholm, where Claudette and I and the children arrived in the early summer of 1973, challenging. Not because I had too much to do or anything difficult to do. I had little to do and it was easily done, but because the context in which it was done was so very different from college teaching.
I'd been teaching at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey since 1966 but I'd become bored and the chance to do something dramatically different was very attractive.
Now I was an employee of the United States Information Agency, known as the United States Information Service, or USIS, abroad. I possessed a beautifully lettered document attesting that President Richard M. Nixon, reposing special trust and confidence in my integrity, prudence, and ability, had with the consent of the Senate appointed me a Foreign Service Information Officer, a Consular Officer, and a Secretary in the Diplomatic Service of the United States. I had become a diplomat, famously described in the Seventeenth Century as a man sent to lie abroad for his country.
It was on the strength of Mr. Nixon's view of me that I booked hotel rooms in Stockholm for visiting Americans coming to lecture Swedes on the wonders and glories of American life, sometimes going out to Arlanda Airport with an embassy car and driver to collect them; wrote letters to Swedish academics asking if they would like to go to America to see these wonders and glories for themselves; replied to letters from Americans to the King of Sweden, and subsequently by a circuitous route passed on to me, asking the king for congratulatory telegrams to be read at the retirement dinners of men nicknamed "Swede;" replied to letters from Swedes who wanted President Nixon to know they did not approve of their prime minister's criticism of him and that the Swedish people, except for a few Communists, very much appreciated his leadership; and addressed the Stockholm Rotary Club, the Uppsala Teacher's Convention, and any high school that would have me as a guest speaker for its weekly assembly on the wonders and glories, etc.
Apart from these kinds of things, the only time I was called upon to "front" for the United States of America in any serious way came one day in the spring of 1974. A noisy protest march made its way up to the front of the embassy and demanded to be allowed to present a petition against American foreign policy. There had been many such marches in previous years but this was the first post-Vietnamese War protest. Someone had to receive the petition and so a friend in the political section who was junior there and I, who was junior in the USIS section, were chosen to do it.
We went out, somewhat diffidently, not knowing quite what to expect, but our presence was obviously deflating as the leaders of the march seemed to realize immediately they were presenting their petition to nobodies. Our low degree was confirmed in the following morning's Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's leading newspaper. It said the marchers' petition had been accepted by two ambassadens tjaustemanner, a phrase describing two civil servants but which in the context of the article's tone meant, in effect, a couple of embassy flunkies. It was my only notice in the Swedish press.
One of my duties was to attend receptions at our American Center in downtown Stockholm. The receptions were linked to a program or presentation of some sort. These were intended to pull in what USIS's boss, the Public Affairs Officer (PAO), called our "target audience." Some speakers or presenters came to us from Washington, some solicited our interest on their own, some were Americans subsidized by another government agency onto whose schedule we were allowed to piggyback. Many of these programs were quite dull but occasionally they were worthwhile. One evening our speaker was Edward Costikyan, the last Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall before its dissolution, the reformer who had succeeded Carmine De Sapio, and he was very interesting. One of our most popular programs proved to be the screening of the episodes of Alistair Cooke's "America" series as PBS released them.
Our programs were scheduled for the end of the business day as we had little hope of bringing people back downtown in the evening after dinner. We generously laid on drinks and canapés for the receptions, which followed, although given the extraordinary strictness of Sweden's laws about driving and drinking, few of our guests or the American officers dared take our drinks unless they were using public transportation. I was the only American in the embassy who did not have a car, finding Stockholm's subways and buses more than adequate, but in the circumstances I thought it wiser to behave myself.
The only hitch was the PAO's fixed rule governing the receptions, which was that we, the USIS Americans, should spend no more than three minutes with any one guest. Chat them up, and then move on, was her rule. The difficulty was that most Swedes thought this rude. But the PAO believed it was her duty to bring Swedes into the modem world, wake them up, and brush the cobwebs off them (after a McDonald's opened in Stockholm, she gave a luncheon for the Swedish press at which those who came were served McDonald's hamburgers in cardboard boxes, and Cokes, no fries!)
When not thus engaged, I spent my time chatting amiably with the Swedes who worked for USIS, who were, by and large, a talented lot with a wonderfully ironic sense of humor; took coffee with them in the cafeteria each morning and afternoon; and went for long mid-day walks with an erudite Englishman who worked as a translator for the Defense Department attachés (the Swedes said he spoke the best Swedish in the embassy.) He loved words and books and seemed familiar with the whole of travel literature going back to Sir John de Mandeville and Marco Polo. I composed scurrilous captions for the official photographs of President Nixon and Vice President Agnew and their advisors, of which we had a very large stock; and in general passed the days as pleasantly as I could.
Reading "the traffic" often gave me considerable pleasure. "The traffic" referred to the flow of messages from Washington to its embassies around the world. Every message emanating from any part of the Department of State or the United States Information Agency and directed to any post in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark was copied for every other post in those four countries. Every message that was directed to or copied for the embassy in Sweden was copied for the embassy files, of course, and for every department in the embassy including USIS, and every message that was directed to or copied for USIS was copied for if not directed to every one of the five American officers in USIS.
As you can imagine, this produced a tremendous volume of paper that arrived on my desk every day. I enjoyed digging into the stack, serendipitously, just to see what would emerge.
My favorite was a message from the Geographer of the Department of State. I have it still. It said that he had finally settled the question of where the permanent center of government in Nauru was. Nauru, it had turned out, had no permanent center of government. Wherever the government of Nauru went, there it was. Another favorite of a different kind was exemplified by a brief message from an office within the Department of State to the embassy in Oslo saying that two persons from that office proposed to spend two nights in Oslo and wished a room en suite reserved for them. I calculated that there were several hundred copies of this message being circulated in northern Europe alone, and the number produced for distribution in Washington was probably incalculable. The immensity of the pointless waste of it was thrilling.
There was classified traffic too and it was the source of some strains between the PAO and me. I had to go to her office to read it (I worked in "open space" with the Swedes, she and the cultural affairs and information officers, as befitted their importance, had offices with walls and doors) and the fact I rarely showed up to do so grated on her. To her, whatever was "secret" was important by definition. What, in her view, was the point of having people in Washington deciding information should be "secret," if there were junior USIS officers abroad who couldn't be bothered reading it? I think in the time I spent in Stockholm I read only one "secret" document worth reading and the reason it was secret and worth reading was that public knowledge of it would have discredited the United States.
Only one of my duties gave me pause and it was something I had to do only once. As the assistant cultural affairs officer, I was in effect the deputy of, the No. 2 to, the cultural affairs officer. But he was a very busy man. I didn't often see him in the embassy, in fact I didn't often see him anywhere. As a result, my briefing as to my duties was rather skimpy. Things sometimes came up with which I was expected to deal but about which I knew nothing and for which I was unprepared.
One morning the PAO's secretary came by and dropped two large, black, loose-leaf binders on my desk, saying "you're it this week." I hadn't a clue what "it" was. I telephoned my friend in the political section and described to him what had happened.
"It just means you are the embassy's Duty Officer this weekend," he said. "If anything happens the embassy should know about, you are the contact person. The duty runs from Friday afternoon to Monday morning. Stay home by the phone and you'll have to come in for a couple of hours on Saturday. The DCM likes to come in on Saturday mornings and he wants the Duty Officer to go through the Friday night traffic and sort out for him anything he should see or needs to attend to."
(Our DCM was actually an acting deputy chief of mission who had been the third ranking diplomat in the embassy under the ambassador. We didn't have an ambassador in the summer of 1973. He had resigned the previous summer and would have been replaced if Nixon hadn't taken offence at the Swedish premier's remark that the resumption of the U.S. bombing of an essentially defenseless Hanoi in December, 1972 reminded him of the Luftwaffe's attacks on Warsaw and Rotterdam. In fact, Nixon was so offended he had the DCM who was filling in for the missing ambassador called home too, which meant that the embassy's political counselor had to fill in for the missing DCM filling in for the missing ambassador.)
"How do I get the traffic?" I asked.
"Oh, you pick it up at the radio room, it's on the third floor," he said.
For the next few days, I amused myself by dipping into the loose-leaf binders that had been left with me. They were remarkably comprehensive. They covered what I should do in any number of routine events, and in some that were not so routine, such as a nuclear bomb attack or a riot that killed the ambassador. It would be hard to synthesize the gist of the directions but one counsel stood out. Again and again, I was told that as the flames swept the embassy, or knife-wielding terrorists hurled themselves against our windows, or a brilliant orange glow began to fill the sky, I was to summon the "gunny," the gunnery sergeant who was the non-commissioned officer in charge of the Marine Corps detachment which guarded the embassy, and tell him to "carry out the directions which you have been given governing these circumstances."
I had no idea what that meant. It was probably better that I didn't.
On the following Saturday morning, I turned up at the embassy fairly early, was admitted by the Marine guards, and took the elevator to the third floor. But as I left the elevator I realized I had failed to do something. I was in a windowless corridor facing a blank wall. There were closed doors without any identification at both ends of the corridor. I knew one of them belonged to Pol 3, which was what the embassy called the Central Intelligence Agency office. No one ever said "CIA." "Pol 3" distinguished its people from the people who were the standard issue political officers of the State Department. Their office was on the floor above and thus they were Pol 4. But which door was Pol 3's and which was the radio room's? I hadn't thought to ask. I chose the door to the right.
There was a bell button on the wall beside the door. I pressed it. Nothing happened. I pressed it again, then pressed it once more. I thought I heard voices on the other side of the door. I pressed it again, and then again.
Then the door opened, very tentatively, very slightly. When the person opening the door saw who it was that had been ringing the bell, he opened it further. I recognized the man who stood there as one of our Pol 3 contingent. I knew him as a fairly pleasant, unassuming man, unlike some of his colleagues who bristled with self-importance. He in turn knew me as the amiable ex-academic who didn't seem to have much to do but who had introduced the episodes of Alistair Cooke's "America" which he and his wife had attended in the viewing room of the American Center.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I'm the Duty Officer" I said, "I came up to get the traffic."
"The what?" he said.
"The traffic," I said.
He started to laugh and then pointed at the door at the other end of the hallway. "The radio room's down there," he said, and still laughing, shut the door.
My weekend as a Duty Officer passed without further incident.
Some days later, the man from Pol 3 and his wife invited Claudette and me and the children to dinner. I wondered if the purpose of the invitation was to allow him and his colleagues to inquire more closely into whether I was the hapless naïf I appeared to be. We had a very nice evening anyway. As I often reminded myself, we lived in interesting times.
Stockholm was lots of fun for a family with young children. There were a great many places to go and things to do. But in a certain sense, Stockholm was an odd sort of place. On the one hand, it was a quiet, unobtrusively elegant, sophisticated city serving as the capital of a monarchy the government of which had been run by socialists for more than forty years. It was a place where dentists who were convicted of cheating on their income tax were sentenced to lengthy prison terms and ordinary, run-of-the-mill car thieves and burglars were sent for counseling, and where anyone sent to jail, even dentists, could expect to live on what in America would pass as a residential college campus.
The fact that the city was home to any number of refugees of one kind or another, Iranians, Chileans, Croats, Greeks, Kurds, Palestinians and so on, meant that it was not always possible for the Swedes to confine the political activities of their guests to demonstrations and verbal assaults.
Shortly before I arrived in Stockholm, the Iranian ambassador was assassinated; while I was there, there was at least one attempt on the life of the Israeli ambassador; and shortly after I left, the German embassy, which was next door to ours, was seized and occupied by terrorists who blew up a large part of it before being forced to surrender.
Every day, the American Embassy on Strandvagen received telephoned threats of one kind or another. All but the most transparently silly were routed to the Swedish Secret Police and they in turn informed us of the ones they had received independently.
The volume of these calls was astonishing to me. I know that in these times many Americans have been shocked and puzzled by the discovery that there are so many in this world who hate us but I learned that lesson thirty years ago.
When we first arrived in Stockholm, we were assigned to transients' living quarters in a building the embassy rented nearby, on Oxenstiemsgatan. It was a very pleasant apartment on the ground floor. The living room in front looked immediately out on the street but the back bedrooms looked out on an interior park. There were two apartments for transient officers on the ground floor. There were smaller apartments for American secretaries and technicians on the floor above and the Marines, the embassy guards detachment, were housed on what the Swedes called the second floor.
When we moved in, the apartment opposite ours was occupied by my friend in the political section and his wife and children, whom we had met in Washington. They found rental housing on Lidingo, an eastern suburb of Stockholm, soon afterward and so for a brief while we were the only American family in the ground floor apartments.
One day, after our friends had moved out, there was a commotion in the entryway. The door to our apartment had a security window and when I looked out through the glass I could see several Marines positioning themselves in the entryway. I telephoned the "gunny" who was upstairs and asked what was going on.
It was nothing, he said, but we should make sure all of our windows, front and back, were secured, with the blinds drawn, and we should keep well back from the windows and the door.
We did as he said. There was some more shouting outside our door and when I again looked out into the entryway, I could see the Marines now had their pistols drawn.
I telephoned the "gunny" again and said he had to tell me what was going on. Oh, he said, it was probably nothing but still, someone had telephoned the Swedish Secret Police to say that they were going to kill an American family living in the ground-floor apartments on Oxensdemsgatan and while the police had thought the threat was probably a hoax, they had passed it on to the embassy.
The evening passed without further incident, and the Marines retreated to their third floor encampment sometime during the night, but the point had been made that life for the families of American diplomats abroad three-quarters of the way through the Twentieth Century had its risks.
One noon, I telephoned Claudette from the embassy to ask if there had been any mail that morning. We received very little mail at Lokattsvagen 27. Embassy employees were encouraged, indeed directed, to have mail from the States sent to the embassy via the diplomatic pouch. But our parents and my sister had the Stockholm street address.
Yes, she said, there were some generic advertising circulars and a bill from the electric company and something from the American Embassy.
That caught my attention.
Every piece of mail I received from a source within the embassy came to me at the office by means of the in-house mail delivery system. We had three sites. The ambassador's residence, which was unoccupied most of the time I was in Stockholm and was technically "the embassy," was on Nobelgatan in the Ostermalm section of Stockholm. What we called the embassy but was technically "the chancellery" was nearby on Strandvagen and the American Center was on Sveavagen in downtown Stockholm. Mail originating at one site and intended for either of the others was taken there by a driver from the embassy motor pool. My desk was in the USIS office at the embassy but at the time I called Claudette I had been spending a good many days at the center deputizing for its director who had gone to the States on home leave. On this day, however, I was at my desk in the embassy.
"What do you mean," I asked, "how do you know it is from the embassy?"
"It says so in the upper left hand comer," she said.
"It has a printed return address that says 'Embassy of the United States of America'?"
"No," she said, "the return address was put on with a rubber stamp that says 'Amerikanska Ambassaden.'"
"What kind of envelope is it?"
"It's long and brown," she said, "and there's something hard inside."
"Put it back in the mailbox outside," I said, "and don't do anything further with it."
"Why," she said, "do you think there's something wrong with it?"
"Just put it back in the mailbox," I said, "and I'll talk to you later."
One of the things about which we had received frequent messages from Washington was the use of letter bombs in Stockholm by underground terrorist groups. We were warned to take every precaution in handling unusual packages or mail from unfamiliar sources, mail that aroused our suspicions for whatever reason.
After I hung up, I immediately telephoned our admin officer, Joe Meresman. Administrative officers are commissioned Foreign Service officers who have the least romantic but one of the most important posts in embassies. In brief, admin officers are in charge of the million and one operational details concerned with housing, supplies, maintenance and the local arrangements for services that are involved in running a business overseas. And in a relatively small embassy such as ours, the admin officer was also the security officer.
I repeated my conversation with Claudette to Joe. "I'll get a car and driver," he said, "meet me outside the embassy garage in five minutes."
I went to the PAO's office and told her there was the possibility of a security emergency at home and that I was meeting Joe Meresman immediately. She told me to "go, go!" and within a few minutes Joe and I were in an embassy car being driven as fast as possible across Stockholm toward Appelviken.
On the way, Joe told me what he knew of letter bombs and their effects on their victims. I have had more comforting conversations. At last we pulled up in front of Lokattsvagen 27. As we got out of the car, Joe told the driver," take the car down the street somewhere." I appreciated his admin officer's characteristic concern for ensuring the safety of government property but did not find it reassuring.
The entrance to our house faced a side yard rather than the street. The mailbox was on a post at the sidewalk in front. There was a small porch at the entrance of the house and as Joe and I got out of the car, Claudette came out onto the porch.
"Is the letter in the mailbox?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
Joe opened the mailbox and removed the envelope. In front of the house there was a small patch of lawn and Joe put the envelope down on the grass. As he did, Claudette began to say something but Joe interrupted her.
"You should go inside, Mrs. Barry," Joe said, "We can handle things here."
"Okay," Claudette said, "but I thought I should tell you you're standing over the heating fuel tank," and with that she went inside.
Joe opened the envelope without disturbing the seams, which he had told me in the car was how letter bombs were detonated, and, to my relief and his, I am certain, removed its contents without incident. They consisted of a plasticized card about three inches long and an inch and a half wide and a sheet of paper.
When he passed the card to me I recognized it immediately. It was a library card. The sheet of paper was a note from Birgitta Rydell, one of the Swedish employees in the American Center's library. She wrote she had noticed that although I had been borrowing books to read at home, I did not have a library card and so she thought she should send me one. Birgitta had put the card into one of the brown, #10 envelopes the library used in corresponding with its Swedish patrons and dropped it into the outgoing mail instead of into the interoffice delivery service.
I told Claudette it had been a false alarm. Joe was waiting for me by the car and we drove back to the embassy. It was all very innocent and very Swedish, I suppose. If the center's acting director were allowed to take books home from the library without having them properly checked out, who knew what disorder it might lead to.
As I have said, the American ambassador had been withdrawn from Stockholm in December, 1972 and the Swedish ambassador was called home from Washington soon thereafter. From then on, the embassy and the center were boycotted by the government of Olof Palme; by the ruling political party, the Social Democrats; and by the principal labor organization, LO, the Swedish equivalent of our AFL-CIO, only far more significant and powerful in the Swedish context. This state of affairs substantially constrained our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Swedish people on behalf of the Leader of the Free World.
Change finally came in the late winter of 1973-4. The prospective exchange of ambassadors was simultaneously announced in both capitals. Sweden would be represented in the United States by Count Wilhelm Wachtmeister, a career diplomat and connected by birth and upbringing to Sweden's elite. The United States would be represented in Sweden by Professor Robert Strausz-Hupé, an elderly, Austrian-born political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Strausz-Hupé had long been closely associated with the more conservative wing of the Republican party. He had founded the Foreign Policy Research Institute during the Eisenhower presidency and had edited its conservative journal of foreign affairs, Orbis. He was very much a Nixon loyalist and this was his first diplomatic appointment. He was in his mid-seventies.
Strausz-Hupé 's appointment was viewed wryly in the Stockholm media, and in the embassy for that matter, but not in the USIS section. Even before he arrived, the PAO set out to make the most of the Swedish-American rapprochement. She had a beautiful apartment in a luxury building on Strandvagen, overlooking the inner harbor, and she had gone to great lengths to see to it that it was handsomely furnished. One of its features was a white living room rug. Now that Strausz-Hupé was coming, she decided to give a cocktail party for the leaders of the LO and prevailed upon Washington to pay for the travel to Stockholm of Joe Glazer and his guitar.
Joe was a man with a long history of involvement with the American labor movement, first with the CIO in the 1930s and then with the AFL-CIO, as a guitar-playing troubadour. He knew all the old Wobbly songs, the Woody Guthrie songs, and of course the civil rights anthems. For all the radicalism of his repertory, the State Department and USIA knew they could rely on him to hew to the administration line. I confess I thought of him as one of those self-promoting men whose only loyalty is to their careers.
On the night of the party, the LO leaders showed up dutifully. Joe was, I admit, very entertaining, briefing the guests on "the real inside story" of some of the major episodes in modem American labor history, and breaking into song from time to time. One of the drivers from the USIS motor pool had been pressed into service as a bartender and the PAO's two Malaysian servants circulated with trays of hors d'oeuvres. All went smoothly until one of our guests, a teetotaler as many leaders of the Swedish labor movement were and who was drinking coffee, accidentally spilled the contents of his cup onto the white rug. Our PAO had a short fuse and the explosion was instantaneous.
"Nina! Nina!" she bellowed.
One of the Malaysians, looking terrified, appeared in the doorway of the living room.
"Nina! Get that spot OUT!" the PAO shouted.
Within seconds, Nina, a diminutive brown-skinned woman, had a pail, cleanser, and a stiff brush and was on her knees in front of us, scrubbing vigorously with both hands.
All the while, the rest of us stood silently looking on, astonished by the explosion and its consequences. Suddenly, to relieve the tension, Joe struck up a song. It was, and I am sure he was wholly unconscious of the irony, "We Shall Overcome."
In a short while, our guests recalled how late it had gotten and made their farewells with words of appreciation for the lovely evening. Then the rest of us cleared out. Nothing further was heard of Joe Glazer or the rug.
Soon after Ambassador Strausz-Hupé arrived, the PAO undertook the organization of the first formal reception at the residence in more than a year and a half. It was a command performance for all of the American officers in the embassy and it brought out most of the diplomatic corps in Stockholm, major figures in the Swedish government albeit not the prime minister, and other important Swedes.
At one point I found myself in conversation with a man from the Indian Embassy. We were standing by a small table on which someone had set out a framed photograph of Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor of California. It was inscribed, "To Bob..., Sincerely, Ronnie." The Indian man took notice of it and said, "You know, they say he wants to be President of the United States some day."
I looked down at it, then back at my Indian colleague, smiled superiorly and said knowingly, "Oh, I don't think that man has any chance whatever of becoming the president of the United States."
Our time in Sweden was limited for two reasons. Neither of them had a direct connection with my lack of political prescience nor did they have anything to do with our feelings for Sweden and the Swedes. I have often thought I was never happier than I was in Sweden. The climate, the people, the politics, and the culture suited me.
Sometimes the Swedes struck me as one vast, extended family. It was as if each Swede had eight million cousins, some much more distant than others but cousins nonetheless. This was true even though Sweden was far less homogeneous than I had expected to find it. In addition to the refugees, there were a great many immigrants from eastern and southern Europe and from Africa. The Swedes to their credit had rejected the idea of "guest workers." Immigrants were found jobs and housing, helped to learn Swedish, and encouraged to become citizens while at the same time retaining their native cultures. I thought this was more contradictory and less likely to succeed than many Swedes were prepared to admit but I admired the determination to try.
One evening in early June, not long before Midsummer, when long, long days seemed to abolish night, Claudette and I met some friends, two Swedish couples, at a park in Stockholm for an 11 p.m. picnic. The very idea of picnicking at midnight fascinated me. We'd brought blankets, which we spread out, and food and beer. Shortly thereafter I happened to notice two other couples come into the park intent on their own picnic. When they spotted us, they headed directly toward where we were, exchanged greetings with us, and settled down nearby. Had we been in the United States picnicking in the twilight and another group of people entered the park, they would have settled in as far from us as they could and had they not done so, we would have seen it as threatening.
I found the Swedish people very warm, very hospitable, very generous. And yet relationships could be rather formal and correct. Older Swedes put an emphasis on titles and forms of address that was new to me. Our neighbors in Appelviken included two couples whose houses were on the next street over and whose yards backed onto ours. The husbands were businessmen and had been in the United States several times; the wives were lively and lots of fun. We had several memorably good times together. On the other hand, a judge and his wife lived in the house next door to us. They always greeted us pleasantly but they were rather remote and very formal, always dressed correctly even when gardening. One afternoon the judge and I happened to walk up from the tram station together. There was a small group of shops along the way and at the end of the row was a restaurant-bar that had a rollicking if not rowdy character. As we passed it, I remarked to him on how busy it always was. "Yes," he said, "but no one goes there." His reply reminded me of a line from a very funny Joseph Mitchell story in The New Yorker.
If there was an unattractive side to life in Sweden, it lay in the occasionally oppressive emphasis on bureaucratic procedure. For instance, every Swede at birth is given a number. That number will follow him for life and will appear on every document of every transaction, big or small, in which he engages. Using a monthly transit pass on the Stockholm underground or buses requires a "personnumber." Diplomats are given a number by the Foreign Ministry when they are issued a driver's license but as I didn't apply for a driver's license I didn't get a number and didn't think to ask for one. One day I boarded a bus, and showed the driver my transit pass, which I had bought at a newsstand. But before I could take a seat, he stopped me, pointing to the empty box on the pass where my number should have been entered. I explained as well as I could that I was a foreigner and didn't have a number. He was adamant. The use of a pass without a "personnumber" was not allowed. If I wanted to ride the bus using a pass, I must have a number. If I didn't have a number, I couldn't use a pass. I must either pay cash or get off. I paid. The Swedes in our office thought the story hilarious. (I did finally get a number from the Foreign Ministry.)
Most of the time, however, I admired the Swedes for their efforts at building a just society of equals.
One day in late winter, for example, after the exchange of ambassadors had been announced, the embassy learned a junior American hockey team from Dearborn, Michigan, was going to play a team from Vallingby that night at an outdoor rink in that outer Stockholm suburb. Olof Palme's son played for the Vallingby team and so it was thought someone from the embassy should be there. In the absence of any volunteers for the assignment, I was sent.
As I stood outside the rink talking to the game's Swedish organizer, I noticed a car pull into the nearly empty parking lot. A man got out and walked up the path toward us.
"Have you met Prime Minister Palme?" the organizer asked.
"No," I said, "not yet," thinking it would be a long time before I did. At that, the organizer turned and said, "Well, here he is," and I was then introduced to Olof Palme, who had just reached us.
I have often said it struck me very forcefully that I had to spend a year in a European monarchy before I began to understand what a democracy might be like. Palme lived in a row house in Vallingby and his wife went off each morning to her job as a social worker. When his cabinet was sworn in after the fall election, the new Minister of Defense's wife, who worked behind the counter in a Stockholm bakery, had to ask for the afternoon off to attend the ceremony.
In truth, my job increasingly seemed pointless. Although an 'information agency', we declined to provide any information about what the Swedes were interested in, which was why America no longer seemed to lead in the effort to create a more just socioeconomic order and why America had persisted in attempting to bomb the people of Southeast Asia into accepting our version of their independence rather than their own. For my own education, I sometimes, after a program at the center had concluded, went to the Swedish Workers' Federation hall to listen to the issues of the day being argued.
The wife of a State Department man going to Sweden was asked by our teacher, in Swedish, "Will you have a garden in Sweden?"
She replied, "No, I will not have a garden in Sweden."
"Did you have a garden in Kaduna," our teacher asked, Nigeria having been the woman's husband's last post.
"Yes," she replied, "I had a garden in Kaduna."
"Then why won't you have a garden in Sweden," our teacher asked.
"Oh, I had five gardeners in Kaduna," the diplomat's wife replied.
Another problem was the PAO herself, the head of Stockholm's USIS operations, and that had two aspects. The first was her belief that my being posted to a northern European city at the outset had deprived me of the essential experience of being a USIS cultural affairs officer. An AID (Agency for International Development) officer once said to me that USIS people weren't happy until they had set up a screen in the desert and turned on a projector so that a gaggle of near naked tribesmen could pound their spears in the sand in excitement at the sight of a flush toilet. The PAO, who had brought her servants with her from her previous post in Kuala Lumpur, talked endlessly of how much better life in "KL" had been compared to life in Stockholm and angrily resented the Swedish government's insistence on limiting her servants' hours and regulating their compensation.
The second was her view of me. I don't think I've ever been as thoroughly and as heartily disliked. The cause was something of a mystery to me but part of it seemed to be my academic background. She used the word "academe" as a description of my past as if it were a synonym for a life in the white slave trade. While the passion of her dislike sometimes made me uneasy, its chief consequence was her refusal to give me any substantive work to do. If I suggested some task, it was dismissed as impossible, impractical, or unnecessary. When I did not offer any suggestions, we would have a conference in which I was asked to sketch out for her what I saw as my role for the next month, or when the ambassador came. Telling her virtually guaranteed that I would never be allowed to get anywhere near doing any of those things.
This practice led to a memorable conference, which I thought very amusing once I was out of the building. She invited me into her office to ask who my Swedish contacts were. I saw immediately where it would lead. Anyone I named would either be labeled not part of our "target audience" or identified as too important for the likes of me to deal with.
So I denied I had any Swedish contacts.
The redness of her face suggested she might immolate herself in a Dickensian act of spontaneous combustion.
"Are you telling me, David, that you've been here for months and don't know a single Swede?"
"Yes," I said
"Not one," I said.
"That's just unbelievable," she said, "how do you explain it?"
"I don't know," I said.
The interview descended into the grim circularity of an infinite regress until at last she concluded, with a particularly intense look of loathing, "You know, David, you're like a Southeast Asian. I can't figure out what's in your head. I don't know what you really think about anything!"
As I left the room, I thought, happily, "I'm an inscrutable Oriental!"
It was a rare triumph for which I knew I would pay. She was not the kind of person who lost gracefully.
As it happened, as my year in Stockholm came to a close, the PAO told me she had arranged my next post, one that would be of great benefit to my career. We would have to send our children to boarding school somewhere, but they were eleven and nine years old and should be able to cope quite well, she thought.
I was going to Ouagadougou. It was the capital of what was then called Upper Volta and is today called Burkina-Faso. It is in West Africa.
I had no interest in going to Ouagadougou, especially if it meant parking Geoff in Dotheboys Hall and Alison in St. Trinian's for a couple of years.
To be fair, I later met a Frenchwoman who had worked on development projects in Ouagadougou and a Canadian who had served in his country's embassy there, and both had enjoyed it. The Canadian insisted on calling it "Ouaga" (pronounced 'waggah') as in "good old Ouaga!" Yet their description of it made Timbuktu sound like a bustling metropolis.
I really didn't want to go back to New Jersey and to teaching either but, two months later, that is what we did. New Jersey and teaching had their shortcomings but I thought them a better bet than manning a film projector in Upper Volta.
I still do.