29 September 2015
I have always been fascinated by capital cities. There’s something about them which sets them apart from regular cities. Whether it’s the embassies and foreign missions or simply the cosmopolitan vibe, there’s an extra dimension to visiting a country’s capital. There’s a sense that one is in a truly global place, somewhere local yet inter-connected with the rest of the world. I love to stroll the streets of a capital city and to observe the embassies and foreign missions of countries I know I will never visit, to look at the architecture of their buildings and their colourful flags and to marvel at their immaculate gardens and to see the chauffeur driven cars with their CD licence plates and the little triangular pennants on their bonnets.
While it’s fun and exciting to be in Beijing, Paris, London, or Buenos Aires, or even to be lost and confused in Tokyo, I love the smaller capital cities the most. Give me a café in Antananarivo or a bookshop in Reykjavik and I can be happy for hours on end. Let me walk from one corner of Copenhagen to the other and I am a content, albeit footsore, man. Like people, capital cities come in all shapes and sizes, some have balmy tropical climates, whilst others suffer from frostbite inducing winters or seasonal summer rains and storms. Some are super-sized metropolises and others barely villages on a chart.
And what about the capitals we all forget; there’s Ottawa - overshadowed by Montreal and Toronto, or The Hague, famous for its court, there’s un-visited Rabat, and un-loved Bonn; birthplace of Beethoven but now forgotten as the former capital of a former country. Or Berne, who can find it on a map? Or antipodean Canberra, a country town aloof and overlooked by most, or Wellington, like an aging relative it’s famous for its wind. Or there’s Bishkek which changed its name in 1991, but was equally unknown as Frunze, and is now the capital of a country far too hard for me to spell. The charm with each, I think, lies in their unfashionable obscurity.
My plan however is to keep visiting capital cities for as long as I can. To make things easier I intend to join the ranks of our foreign diplomats. I can already picture myself sipping milky tea in Islamabad or in New Delhi, on the lawns of government house, mingling with high commissioners and flunkies, pretending to discuss serious matters of international relations while solving the problems of the world before it’s time for lunch. In my future diplomatic life there will be black-tie soirées, and invitations to the grand ballrooms of the world, where champagne and caviar is served in crystal flutes and on silver platters, and where one is surrounded by elegantly dressed men and women from the corners of the globe - and those are just the waiters – each of them destined to hang upon my every word, and marvel at my Wilde-like wit.
I think if I could have any diplomatic job in the world I’d like to be the Austrian Ambassador to Slovakia. I could leave my home in Vienna every day at 8:00am, be chauffeur-driven to work in my car (with pennant), and arrive at my embassy in Bratislava by 9 o’clock. I’d even have time to stop for a Wiener coffee or two along the way. But if for some reason I couldn’t be the Austrian Ambassador to Slovakia then I’d be the Slovakian Ambassador to Austria instead I could leave my home in Bratislava every day at 8:00am, be chauffeur-driven to work… ok you get the picture.
Whilst visiting Bratislava recently I attended an open day at the US Embassy. It was a cosy and relaxed affair held on a beautiful European summer’s afternoon. They served hot dogs on the lawn and gave us endless refills of Coca-Cola before we had a guided tour of the neo-classical building which has housed the Embassy since 1991. The Ambassador is a genial chap, Mr Theodore Sedgwick, from Huntington VA, who has been the head-of-mission since 2010, and while he loves the city and the country and the Slovak people very much, he has yet to figure out a way to leave his home in West Virginia and to be at work in Bratislava by 9:00am.