Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Truth About Embassy Parties: Cheetos bags and Joseph Banks Suits

Most of us have an image when we think of Embassy parties and the life of a diplomat overseas.

Black tuxedos, floor length gowns, sparkling champagne, laughter and hushed conversations, elegantly prepared food and the soft tinkling of background music.

Before I give you a little reality check, let me first delve into the best embassy party I've been to.

The year was 2 BK (Before Kids). My darling wife and I were living in at the foot of Adams-Morgan in Dupont Circle.  I was working in the CNO's (Chief of Naval Operations, the head of the US Navy) International Engagement Office.  Basically, most anything in the Pentagon is staff work but at least our office did occasionally receive invites to the DC embassy party circuit.  The German ambassador extended invitations to our entire office for their national day celebration...at his residence.  This is important because the fun factor increases exponentially if a party is at a 'residence' versus the embassy itself.  To top it off, it was an evening celebration which increases the likelihood of a good time even more.
German Ambassador Residence

German Ambassador Residence

When we arrived at his Georgetown estate (acres and acres of lawn) we were pleased to find out that the celebration for all the important guests would be held inside the residence.  All of us mere plebeians would be corralled outside...where there was beer garden, a Jager tent (yes, a tent where they served trays of Jager) and a literal smorgasbord of bavarian fare.  One of the best parts of living and working in DC are all the weirdos interesting people you get to meet and there was no shortage of these at the party.  We danced, drank and sang deep into the evening before pouring ourselves into a cab to head home

So there you have it.  That's on one end of the embassy party spectrum.  These are the parties you get to attend where you have no official function at all other than to freeload network and not embarrass yourself. The other end of the spectrum is where 98% of all other embassy parties fall (i.e., nofun parties).  The ones where you have at least some nominal role (if not a major responsibility...oh les pauvres ambassadors) and where in nearly every case you have some type of goal (i.e., talk to xx person about xx subject).

[FAO Note: Don't go to into an event without some goal...some talking points in your back pocket. It's helpful to have a goal to talk to a few specific people, either to expand your network or to find possible points of collaboration on your current projects.  And frankly, having some goals can make the nofun parties actually a bit of fun.  You'll never find out the art of the possible unless you put yourself (and your ideas) out there.]

In these cases, the party is really just an extension of your work day...and while they are not necessarily fun, the more casual atmosphere offers an opportunity to talk to people you would never get to otherwise.  Case in point--I went to a party here in Madagascar last year (it was a "fun" party--I was invited personally versus positionally) and ended up talking about maritime security with the Chinese Ambassador for about five minutes.  This is a conversation I never would get to have otherwise (and which he didn't seem particularly stoked about having) and I was able to at least implant a couple of our embassy objectives in his mind.

Of equal importance, the nofun parties give you a chance to deepen the working relationships by chatting with people over a glass of wine.  It's hard to build much of a relationship during stiff office calls.

But I digress, back to the reality check to shatter  alter your image of embassy parties.  Instead of tuxedos you should think more along the lines of natty suits and pants suits (diplomats--whether DoS or DoD--after all, are receiving a modest government salary and can't usually afford anything above maybe one Brooks Brother suit and a couple José  Banks for everyday wear-at the most). CAVEAT: This is a generalized statement--there is always a handful of stylish and sharp dressers at every embassy.  The wine is usually mediocre (let's face it, you can't serve $30 bottles to 100 people every month) at best (although there have been some notable exceptions, the Japanese embassy usually kills it--at their last event they served a delicious, crsip, cold sake and perfectly prepared shrimp tempura) and you don't have much time (or space) to eat much of the ubiquitous finger food served anyways.  There's not much space because you have to balance your drink, a small plate and still have a hand to greet those around you and to fish out a business card.  And because you have to remember key conversations, you won't get to have much more than one glass of that wine.  Oh yeah, and you are doing all of this in a foreign language...sometimes with another person speaking this same language that is also foreign to them.

All of this to say (i.e., the whole reason I started writing this post), one thing you learn early on is to never arrive at an event on an empty stomach.  

In fact, it was as our driver sped across the city to a recent party that I found myself wolfing down a bag of chips, a Kind bar and a bottle of water and chuckled with my wife that two years ago I never would have guessed this would be common operating procedures before every party.  A funny decent Tumblr account would Diplomat Car Interiors...it would basically be a series of pictures of crumpled cheetos bags, candy bar wrappers and water bottles lying on the floor of SUVs.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds amazing! I think everyone would love to be part of parties like these. Last year, went to a similar party with my friend. It was organized at one of royal venues in Los Angeles and truly was a great experience.