In my memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, I chronicle my time as a foreign correspondent covering international conflicts for the Wall Street Journal and as the wife of a U.S. ambassador. As I explain in the book, the latter was a huge transition for me after I married my husband and gave up daily journalism. One minute I was Lois Lane with a steely gaze and deep skepticism of those who exercised power, a hard-bitten girl reporter with an overnight bag at the ready by her bedside — and the next, June Cleaver cross-pollinated with Princess Grace. A Jewish Princess Grace, no less. How was I to finesse that?
One coping strategy, for the Jewish part at least, came in Ambassatrix School. That’s what I called the two-week charm course the State Department requires its envoys and their spouses to attend. Here the idea that I’d fallen into a time warp of pillbox hats and little white gloves was only reinforced. While our husbands — the ambassadorial appointees were exclusively men — received juicy, classified briefings on their respective countries, we wives were treated to lectures on such scintillating subjects as, “Your China Patterns and You!” But then, a moment of enlightenment: a panel discussion by three veteran ambassadors’ wives — one of whom was Jewish.
As soon as the question-and-answer period finished, I made a beeline for the woman. “What do you do about Christmas?” I whispered.
She looked at me blankly.
“You know, the decorated tree in the ambassador’s residence and the caroling and Santa Claus.”
“Oh, that,” she said. “Thanksgiving.”
“Invite the embassy’s American staff and their families to Thanksgiving at your residence. Then at Christmas, you can say that everyone’s already been to your house, and offload the tree and party on your husband’s deputy.”
Brilliant! She was obviously a pro at this stuff. And most likely hadn’t flunked Basic Entertaining — as I was on the verge of doing.
Her suggestion worked well at my husband’s first ambassadorial posting in Maputo, Mozambique, which had only a small embassy. The Southern African nation, one of the world’s poorest and least developed, was just emerging from a brutal fifteen-year civil war. You could barely find yogurt in the shops, let alone turkeys or canned pumpkin. For those exotic foodstuffs, I had to beg the large U.S. embassy in neighboring South Africa to supply us from its commissary. And our poor cook spent days baking the fourteen pumpkin pies and dozen turkeys required to feed the forty American staffers and their families. Nonetheless, there it was: Thanksgiving in the subtropics! And the next month: Christmas at the deputy’s house!
Deflecting non-Jewish holidays was harder at my husband’s next posting in Lima, Peru. More than five hundred Americans worked at the embassy; with their families added in, we would have had to turn our residence into something akin to a Catskills resort to accommodate them all. In the end, we decided to invite single staffers without families to Thanksgiving — and still outsourced Christmas. There was some grumbling in the embassy community. But I was already so derelict in my general ambassatrix duties, I figured this discontent could just be added to the litany of the other shortcomings.
Overall, figuring out the Jewish piece of my existence abroad proved easier than the Princess Grace part. Especially in Lima, which had three synagogues. (Unlike Maputo, whose sole Jewish house of worship — a lovely, white-washed building from the turn of the 19th century — had just been rescued from use as a Red Cross warehouse when we were there.) We attended services at a conservative shul; after I gave birth to our daughter in Lima, we had a simchat bat, a baby-naming ceremony there.
This was a simchat bat unlike any I’d ever witnessed, though. We invited our friends to the ceremony, many of them Peruvian dignitaries and fellow diplomats. The Israeli ambassador came, as did the Egyptian envoy. This apparently was the first time an Arab diplomat had ever set foot in a Lima synagogue — something so alarming to the Peruvian president that he sent tanks to cordon off a six-block area around the shul. Tanks! For a baby! Our six-week-old daughter took it all in stride, however. She slept through much of the proceedings, waking only to receive her name of Noa Shlomit, then going back to sleep — thus proving herself much more adept at diplomatic life than her mother.
Check back on Wednesday to read more from Lynda Schuster.
Lynda Schuster is a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor. She reported from Central and South America Mexico the Middle East and Africa. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Atlantic, Granta, and Utne Reader. She is also the author of A Burning Hunger: One Family’s Struggle Against Apartheid.