Let me tell you about an uncommon love affair—an unforgettable man-machine interface, in diplomacy.
Five years after hurdling the foreign service examinations, I was assigned as second secretary (equivalent of a consul) to our UN mission in Geneva, shortly before martial law was imposed. Workload was heavy; the mission officers hardly saw the sun. Pay was low; there were no such benefits as medical or educational allowances. But I learned lessons in multilateral diplomacy, and my family was with me in Europe (with its rich culture and history), at the expense, in a way, of the government.
Switzerland is one of the best (but cold) spots in the world, surrounded by France, Germany, Italy and Austria, each of which, for us, had places of a lifetime. A coup d’oeil at the region revealed nature’s beauty and was enhanced by the absence of skyscrapers. During weekends, I would put my family in our Volkswagen Beetle and drive around the country, viewing lakes (Interlaken), negotiating mountains (Jungfrau) and passes (St. Bernard), traversing Bernese Oberland, and resting in ski resorts (Matterhorn).
One time when I was on leave, the Bug took my wife and me, with a couple from London, through the Mont Blanc tunnel in France, to perhaps the highest or longest cable car ride in Aiguille du midi and, from an Alpine viewpoint with Lake Maggiori appearing merely as a bowl of blue-green water, and down to Milan. At other times, it navigated the circumferential autoroute around Paris or penetrated the Iron Curtain to the cobble-stoned, quaint cities of Budapest, Prague and Berlin, or escorted me to Vienna to attend a UN conference at Hofburg Palace.
On a Holy Week, the Bug guided us to the sunny Spanish beaches (Costa Dorada) and finally to the bullfight ring of Madrid, so I could shout “Ole!” in celebration, not of the dead bull, but of life and driving. Then the lures of the South of France, the Provence, beckoned, where the famous and the beautiful, such as Brigitte Bardot and Liz Taylor, frolicked in St. Tropez, under the sun, in their birthday suits.
We arrived at the French Riviera in the afternoon. Driving around Monaco and Nice, we found no hotel room vacancy. We went sightseeing, taking photos of the Mediterranean houses on the hillside, Grace Kelly’s palace, the sea, the beaches full of bathers. We also took a dip, appreciating beauties, topless or in bikinis, swimming, splashing, or playing ball.
It was dusk. I decided that we should have dinner in a hotel atop the hill. What a fantastic panorama of the bay! After dinner, in the parking lot, the children listened to the maid’s stories while my wife and I relaxed, dreamy, looking at the stars and harbor lights. Sleepy, my son and I retired to the back seat of the car. My wife occupied the driver seat, the maid the front passenger seat, while my daughter snored on their laps. We woke up at dawn, and savored the exhilarating summer morning by the sea.
I was then sent to Los Angeles. As a post, LA was busier than Geneva. It was martial law in Manila and we had to campaign for the support of the Filipino community in California. At that time, the Filipino organizations in Southern California alone exceeded the number of days in the calendar year. We had to be with them most weekends, and hardly had the time even to do our laundry or get the groceries.
California’s natural beauty was marred by its network of freeways. Yet we lost our hearts there, camping, every now and then, on the beaches (San Diego), under the stars, without a tent, and in Northern California (El Capitan) and Nevada, in our sleeping bags only, among the pines.
On Labor Day, we went camping at Arroyo Grande Lake, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. As we reached the campsite, vacationers, who had campers or wagons, would stare or smile at us. The children had a grand time, swimming, boating, fishing and romping around the park. The maid and I would go to the nearby beach and collect tahong (mussels), in which no one else seemed interested. My wife would show the campers how our European bouillabaisse would enrich their plain daily grills.
After two days or so, we would go back to LA. We would pack the Beetle (fitted with a roof carrier) with the folded tent, deflated small rubber boat, its engine, luggage and sleeping bags for five, other camping items like balls and cooking gadgets, some fruits and vegetables from the Fil-Am mayor of Arroyo Grande, and our bagful of tahong. As I started the engine and bade our camping buddies goodbye, the crowd would explode into cheers and applause, not really for our family, but for the incomparable traveling mate—the Volkswagen Beetle.
Soon after Edsa I, I was transferred from Hamburg to Vienna and assumed sensitive capacities at our UN mission. A year later, I was able to visit the Amalfi coast and, at another time, the French Riviera. With comfortable hotel accommodations, we could swim, relax and enjoy familiar sights, like the cloudless blue sky and swimmers, topless or not, worshiping the sun.
Going back to Vienna, we took route Napoleon to pass Geneva. We could only imagine how the great French general and his men negotiated the narrow, crooked road of the Alps. We parked our Benz 280CE in a spacious parking lot beneath Lac Leman, near the Old Town, and wished that it were the Beetle 1600, which was left at home in Pasig, filled with memories of some little joys of diplomacy.
Nelson D. Laviña, retired, was ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Austria and permanent representative to the United Nations Office in Vienna, International Atomic Energy Agency, and the UN Industrial Development Organization from 1986 to 1991.