We are finally back in the UK. The roads are narrow, the cars small and petrol astronomically expensive. The houses are cold and draughty, necessitating the wearing of several jumpers at all times and socks in bed, teenagers in school uniforms and trainers are still smoking furtively in village bus shelters and VAT is now at 20%. On the plus side, we have birdsong in the morning, green rolling hills, beautifully crisp sunny mornings and intact hedgerows. The baths are long enough to lie down in, drivers thank you for pulling over and market towns are full of small, family-owned shops. You can't pay for petrol at the pump but you can buy a bottle of wine at the garage shop. Toiletries and groceries seem far less expensive than I was anticipating and, if only I could remember my PIN number, then I might be able to buy some. Above all, England is OLD. We visited Wells cathedral on Thursday, founded in 909, and I actually found myself thinking 'how quaint'.
All that remains now is for me to sign off from the blog - and I have been wondering for the past few days how to do so. For centuries, Ambassadors leaving post were permitted to indulge their literary bent and pen a valedictory telegram reflecting on their experiences in their host country, and their candid thoughts about 'the natives' amongst whom they had spent some time. The following missives provide a little flavour of the practice:
"There is, I fear, no question but that the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable, violent and alcoholic of the Latin Americans - and after 21 years of Latin American experience I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject. Their version of Spanish is quite the least attractive I have come across.”
Roger Pinsent, Managua, 1967
"One does not encounter here the ferocious competition of talent that takes place in the United Kingdom... anyone who is even moderately good at what they do — in literature, the theatre, skiing or whatever — tends to become a national figure.”
Lord Moran, Canada, 1984
"One would have to be very insensitive or puritanical to take the view that the Thais had nothing to offer. It is true that they have no literature, no painting and only a very odd kind of music, that their sculpture, their ceramics and their dancing are borrowed from others and that their architecture is monotonous and their interior decoration hideous. Nobody can deny that gambling and golf are the chief pleasures of the rich and that licentiousness is the main pleasure of them all. But it does a faded European good to spend some time among such a jolly, extrovert and anti-intellectual people.”
Sir Anthony Rumbold, Bangkok, 1967
Sadly, the practice was banned in 2007 following a particularly juicy dispatch from Our Man in Rome, who made the unforgiveable mistake of saying what he actually thought about the Diplomatic Service itself. Insulting foreigners is all well and good, but it is quite something else to suggest that the Foreign Office might be better served if diplomats 'were allowed to debate foreign policy rather than corporate governance'. Tut tut.
I was asked recently to write a short article for the Diplomatic Service Families Association magazine, reflecting upon our time in Washington. So, rather than try to imitate the valedictory telegram, I thought I would re-print here the article I wrote for that august journal. It may be slightly less provocative that the colonial missives, but I was fairly keen to leave the States with a few friendships with the natives intact...
From our own correspondent – Washington DC
Our four-year posting in Washington is drawing to a close. The time has come to bid farewell to the perpetually fascinating nation of Starbucks, sidewalks and six-lane highways and return to the land of front-loading washing machines, ‘proper sport’ and The Archers. Trying to cram a four-year posting into 750 words is a tough assignment, but here goes…
Washington is a beautiful city, particularly in the Spring, when tourists flock to the capital to admire the famous Cherry Blossom. It is a great city for families (despite the mosquitoes, humidity and dubious driving) and we made dozens of visits to the National Zoo and the many free museums on the Mall. I joined a number of tours organized by the British Embassy Spouses Association - to the White House, the Pentagon and the Library of Congress, where we were privileged to be shown an original ‘Jungle book’ manuscript, a letter from Elizabeth 1st to Catherine de' Medici and Charles Dickens’ walking cane.
Our posting coincided both with the Queen’s State visit to the US, which saw us waving our British flags on the White House lawn, and with the historic Presidential campaign of 2008. I made it to a McCain-Palin rally in Virginia and witnessed Barack Obama ’fired up and ready to go’ in his last event on election eve. We managed to secure tickets to the Inauguration and it was a huge privilege to stand in front of the Capitol Building, dressed in thermals and with foot-warmers in our boots, to watch the first black president be sworn in to office. Even more memorable was the party atmosphere throughout Washington as we wandered downtown after the ceremony – there was literally dancing in the streets. It all seems a long time ago now, after two years of partisan debate, Tea party rallies and the battle over healthcare reform.
We have travelled extensively during our time in the US, visiting 33 states in all. We strolled through steamy, sultry Savannah and elegant Charleston, watched an Easter Parade in New Orleans, stayed with an Amish family in Pennsylvania, skied in the Rockies, visited New England in the Fall, hung out in the Hamptons, toured the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, read Moby Dick in Nantucket, spent Memorial Day in Maine, admired Mount Rushmore, trekked in Yosemite and gasped at the Grand Canyon. We’ve driven through herds of bison in Yellowstone, seen sunrise in Death Valley, hiked in the foothills of Grand Teton and watched whales breach amidst the glaciers of Alaska. We’ve experienced the glitz of Las Vegas and passed through parts of impoverished West Virginia that I was shocked existed in the world’s richest country. We’ve seen some pretty wacky sights on our travels: the unique museum in Hains, Alaska, which features over 1500 hammers; the inimitable ‘Dollywood’ theme park in Tennessee (celebrating local girl Dolly Parton); and the enormously entertaining Southfork Ranch in Dallas - where you can even see the gun that shot JR.
We’ve joined the baseball nuts cheering on the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field; seen basketball in Denver; ice hockey in Rapid City and watched the Washington Redskins take on the New York Giants. Attending a rodeo in Texas, we became huge fans of the hitherto unknown sport of ‘mutton bustin’, in which a small child sits astride a sheep and clings on for dear life whilst the mutton speeds across the arena. We’ve eaten cheese steaks in Philadelphia, Cajun gumbo in New Orleans and pumpkin pie galore. During a trip down the Mississippi Delta we visited ‘The Catfish Capital of the World’ and were invited to try the 84oz steak challenge in a small restaurant in rural Pennsylvania. (We declined).
What will we miss about D.C.? The comfortable, convenient lifestyle; the stimulating international community; the buzz of being in the most powerful city on earth. But perhaps our fondest memories are of times spent with the many friends that we will leave behind and the familiar routine of book groups, movie nights, baby groups and Sunday brunches.
I am embarrassed to say that I could hardly point to Washington on the map before I came to live here. Four years later, I can proudly place all fifty states, but still feel as if I have barely begun to learn about this huge and diverse continent. There’s certainly enough to keep me going for another posting…
Over and out.