by Bobbie Bergesen Riedel
Ask how I became interested in a career in diplomacy, and I have a simple answer: it was involuntary. I was born into the Foreign Service of the United States. My father was a Foreign Service officer, and I was the third of the six children born to my parents in world capitals during his career of more than thirty years. Prudently, my father immediately registered us with American consular authorities as American citizens. Later, he insisted on our attending American schools and colleges so that we could get good jobs in the United States.
After graduating from Smith College, I decided, that although like him I wanted to be involved in international affairs, I would never ever live overseas again. As a child, I had no choice, but as an adult, I wanted to live in my own country. The Department of State in Washington, D.C., seemed a logical place for me to find a suitable job, one that offered no prospect of my having to live abroad. For three years, I worked there as an analyst without a hint of overseas travel. But then, I met and married a Foreign Service officer. And like my parents, during my husband’s career of over thirty years, we travelled to American Embassies in world capitals. True, I might have chosen a marriage partner in a different profession. But the Foreign Service was in my blood.
Although a Navy junior and Naval Academy graduate, my husband Alf left the service after World War II. However, he believed strongly in public service and thought he might be a good fit as a Foreign Service officer (FSO). A lover of history, particularly French, and of culture and politics, he took and passed the tough, three-day Foreign Service exams, something I could never have done.
The Department asked newly-minted FSOs to choose a post they would like for their first assignment. When we became engaged, we chose Madrid, Paris or London. We both spoke all three languages with varying degrees of fluency, and any of the three would make for a wonderful start to our career. Alf was finishing up a required immigration class on Ellis Island when his long-awaited orders arrived. I was busy resigning from my job, planning our wedding, and packing for an unknown future when he called.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“It’s Rangoon!” he said.
A long pause. Maybe it was in India? European and South American geography I had some notion of, but except for Kipling’s writings, Asia was unknown territory to me in 1951. Only so-called “Old China Hands” went to the Far East. Certainly, neither my father nor any of the family had been to Asia although friends had been posted there.
Alf and I signed up for Burmese lessons, but wasted class time in planning our wedding and first trip abroad. When I finally arrived in Rangoon, the one phrase I remembered was, “Where is the railroad station?” A useless question; it turned out there wasn’t one.
My parents turned over the basement of their house to us, and we began packing the large steamer trunks they bequeathed us – my father was retired – with everything we might need for our two-year tour in Burma. Learning that Rangoon was hotter and even more humid than Washington, D.C., I rushed out and bought four or five pairs of expensive Italian sandals, three or four cotton evening dresses, multiple sets of cotton underwear, and $60.00 worth of medicines (a doctor uncle gave me a discount) the Department recommended we take along, and sundries, including 300 salt tablets. When I later found that swallowing a tablet after a hot tennis game made me sick, I gave them all away.
In early spring, we sailed from New York to Le Havre on the “Ile de France” (no American “bottoms” being available at the time), then took a British ship through the Suez Canal to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There, a dock strike delayed us for ten days before we finally landed in Rangoon, some five weeks after leaving Washington. To our surprise, among other Embassy personnel at the dock was a Naval Academy classmate of Alf’s, a Public Affairs officer.
Then, we spent a long seven weeks at the Strand Hotel, Rangoon’s finest, waiting to move into a house in the Embassy compound. Meanwhile, we met colleagues and local contacts at parties and other functions. When we finally moved in, we found our Embassy-furnished house complete with one window air conditioner (in the master bedroom), a kerosene-fueled refrigerator, and a staff of five to help run the household. They consisted of a bearer (butler), a sweeper, two wash nannies and a cook. We added a baby nanny when baby Chris arrived – on Christmas Day. He caused quite a stir among the local Karen nannies, mostly fervent Christians, who not only admired his blue eyes but wondered whether a halo might not be hovering over his blond head.
Though heavily damaged by the war and its buildings badly run-down, the capital initially seemed full of promise to me. Many Burmese spoke English, having been educated in England. They were charming, friendly and eager to meet us. Some had never met an American. We were soon caught up in local doings with Burmese and diplomatic colleagues. We partied together (at our house, we served spaghetti and brownies and danced to music from our record player), we played tennis, and generally hung out together. Official cocktail and dinner parties remained formal, with ladies in long evening dresses and men in black tie, as had been de rigueur in recent British times. (The long skirts helped foil the ubiquitous mosquitoes.)
Because civil strife was rumbling up country, we were only permitted to drive 25 kilometers outside of Rangoon. On weekends, we often drove into the countryside to picnic with friends. We enjoyed being part of a relatively small community, and particularly, of getting to know people who had not had the opportunity to meet Americans.
All too soon, our busy days in Burma ended. Two years and a few months passed quickly. I left Burma optimistically wishing I could return in about ten years, to see how life there would have improved for its attractive and hardworking people.
Wishes don’t always come true, but it was still a wonderful, exotic country in which to begin a career in the Foreign Service.