Jan/Feb 2020 Nonfiction

Diplomacy, with Kids

by Peter Bridges

Borrowed image

When my wife, Mary Jane, and I married, we aimed at a life in the US Foreign Service, and we wanted to have children. I don't recall that we discussed how many we might have. The average number of kids for a middle-class couple in 1950s America was perhaps two, but many of our friends were having more. In the event, we had a son and two daughters by 1960, when we had been married for just five years, and our second son was born nine years later. We were happy with all four of them, and are equally happy now with six fine grandchildren.

But what, one may ask, was it like to raise children for years abroad, as we did? To be sure, it was not only the State Department that transferred people from place to place with some frequency; many corporations did so—and many Americans, civilian and military, live abroad today outside our diplomatic service.

Executives of International Business Machines used to say with grim smiles that IBM stood for "I Been Moved." We diplomats, though, moved not just inside America but from one foreign society to another, and even when we went to pleasant places, the moving was bound to produce added stress on a family.

Son David was born in 1957 when I was yet an Army enlisted man in France. Four months later I was commissioned as a Foreign Service officer and went to work in the State Department. Two years later daughter Elizabeth was born in Washington. Then we went abroad. Mary was born in Panama, in 1960, and Andrew in Rome in 1969. In three decades of diplomacy, we spent 20 years overseas. Did growing up as a diplomat's kids hurt our young ones' souls? I don't think so. I think they agree they had good childhoods, if not without some problems.

We were never rich. During three decades of diplomacy, we lived on my Government salary and the allowances (mainly for housing) paid when we were abroad, plus what my wife earned both during our Washington years and at some foreign posts. She had learned to analyze corporations at Columbia's Graduate School of Business, but it seemed she could do almost anything. She taught soldiers shorthand, taught kids in an inner-city school in Washington, worked on finances for Time-Life Books, sold houses in Northern Virginia, and in Moscow managed the commissary that imported much of the food for embassy Americans. (She once wondered what it might be like to drive an 18-wheeler. I was glad she never tried.)

If we were not rich, we were somewhat more prosperous when we lived overseas. When we lived in Rome, we vacationed in the Dolomites and in Sicily. We always had a maid, and in Moscow we had a live-in and lively Canadian nanny named Frances, who took the children by trolleybus to skate in Gorky Park while Mary Jane managed the commissary and Peter drafted reports on what we thought might be going on in that secretive country.

Skating at Gorky Park was a high point, indeed pure fun, in the drab Moscow winter. The sidewalks in the park were sprayed to make good ice and connected three large rinks—and loudspeakers in the trees played waltzes for the skaters.

We did feel certain strains. Anti-US riots came soon after we reached Panama, and the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, when we'd been in Moscow for a month. Later I lost several colleagues to terrorists. Perhaps the children, then small, were less affected by our surroundings; but I remember David, about the time he turned six in 1963, doing a drawing of our Moscow embassy with a US jet fighter patrolling above it.

Although our life abroad was never very worrisome, sometimes it was other than delightful. I remember well the cold, rainy afternoon in September 1962 when we first arrived in Moscow. As we drove from Sheremetevo Airport into the city, I looked at the drab streets and thought to myself, What am I getting my poor family into? A couple of interesting years, as it turned out, albeit in a cruel police state.

In Moscow, David and Lizzie grew old enough to attend the small, English-language International School located a mile from our embassy, in an old mansion that had belonged to Pyotr Kropotkin, the revolutionary from a princely family. Lizzie's kindergarten teacher, whom she loved well, was Florence Garbler, wife of our assistant naval attaché, who in reality was the CIA station chief (and was later suspected—wrongly—of being a traitor, which destroyed his career). All in all, I think the Moscow school gave our two eldest children a good start.

We parents liked the outdoors, and we began to take our children on hikes and climbs when they were pretty young—in Virginia and, during our years in Italy, in the Apennines and Dolomites. I soon learned the importance of keeping five-year-olds distracted and not thinking about their feet, if they were to keep marching up a trail. Stops for chocolate and water helped, too.

We moved to Rome in 1966, and soon discovered CONI—the Italian National Olympic Committee—and its well-equipped sports facilties at Acqua Acetosa on the city's northern edge. They had training courses for children in various sports. Fees were modest; CONI was subsidized by one of the national lotteries. Foreigners' kids were welcome.

We signed up Lizzie and Mary for swimming and David for diving. (Andrew had not yet joined us.) Mary Jane would pick up the kids at the Overseas School of Rome, most afternoons, and drive them to Acqua Acetosa for some pretty rigorous training. Before long the girls were swimming a couple of kilometers of laps in the big Olympic pool, while David at one end not infrequently shared the diving board with two Olympic medalists, Klaus Dibiasi and Giorgio Cagnotto.

When I came home from the embassy in the evening, if the children met me at the door with sweetness and light and wolfed down much pasta at dinner, they had clearly been at CONI—and if they were at each other's throats, I knew they had at most been riding their bikes around nearby Piazza Navona, the nearest approach to a park and in those days full of tour buses.

CONI taught them the value of exercise, and the three all became good athletes in one field or another, as did Andrew later. David, besides diving, took tennis lessons at the Foro Italico, a grandiose sports complex Mussolini built in the 1930s—and that still today features a 60-foot obelisk inscribed "Mussolini Dux." Then we found that FIT, the Federazione Italiana Tennis, had well-equipped and inexpensive summer camps for youth in the cool Apennines north of Bologna. We sent David, Lizzie, and Mary there. They were not expert players when they returned to Rome, but they were almost the only English speakers at camp as well as at CONI, and their Italian had improved considerably.

None of our children became a champion swimmer, but they never forgot the water. Mary discovered crew and was stroke in high school and JV stroke in college. Lizzie is an accomplished rafter who, with family and friends, has in the course of two weeks rowed over 200 miles down the Grand Canyon.

We were fortunate, for the most part, in staying those five years in Rome. Beside sports, this allowed the three to have most of their elementary education in one school—and to have Mrs. Fabris as a teacher.

Madeleine Brown was a young Scotswoman who came to Rome in 1947 and began teaching at the new Overseas School of Rome . She stayed at the school for 40 years, later marrying a professor of management, Aldo Fabris. She was an inspiring teacher of Mediterranean history and prehistory, a true spellbinder. She gave our children an interest in the ancient world that they have never lost.

Some of the teachers at OSR were less impressive than Mrs. Fabris. A certain math teacher didn't think children needed to learn multiplication tables; it might increase their anxiety. A social studies teacher didn't want young minds troubled by historical dates or facts, and she taught archaeology by burying little objects in a sandbox and having the junior scholars "discover" them.

Mrs. Fabris made up for that, and so did my wife and I, taking the children on Sunday excursions to half-forgotten Etruscan sites in the countryside north of Rome. Other Sundays we climbed to small Apennine summits an hour or two from Rome. We spent a late-summer week at Zermatt, hiking the fringes of the Matterhorn. We toured Greek temples in Sicily, one spring vacation—and on return, after getting off the Palermo-Naples car ferry, we climbed Mt. Vesuvius and drove on to Rome for Easter lunch in Piazza Navona.

Then we discovered the Dolomites and the five beautful mountain valleys inhabited by that admirable people, the Ladins. We rented an inexpensive apartment in Selva, the mile-high town in the Val Gardena. I spent all my vacation time there, and Mary Jane took the children—soon including our youngest, Andrew—to spend summers and Christmas vacations there. The summer hiking was good along the system of well-marked trails, and in winter the three eldest were soon skiing better than their father (which is not saying much).

We bought Andrew skis when he was two, and he would do a few yards on level snow at the top of the Gran Paradiso lift. We hired a young Ladin instructor, Dante Mussner, to spend half days with the three big kids plus Peter and Claudia Rader, children of good friends from Rome. At the end of the day, Dante would give his poles to David, scoop up little Andrew, and ski down the mountain holding him tight in front of him. Exciting, though Andrew doesn't remember it. In any case he and his siblings were all expert skiers by their 20s.

Life in Rome in the late 1960s was not idyllic. Italians turned against America over the war in Vietnam, and I found it increasingly hard to defend what we were doing there. If they had asked me to go the embassy in Saigon, I would have quit.

The "hot autumn" of 1969-70 brought waves of industrial strikes to Italy, and almost all Italian schools and universities were closed by student protesters. OSR stayed open, though one afternoon a group of OSR teachers staged a protest in front of our embassy. But if we had been in America, I think we and our children might have known even greater turbulence.

Some of our colleagues had it far worse. In the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, our embassy staffs in Arab countries were evacuated, many of them to Rome, where they were put up in hotels for weeks on end. There were major disruptions to family life and children's schooling.

We spent eight consecutive years abroad, at Rome and then Prague. I went to Prague on short notice, ahead of my family, at the end of 1971, when David was in the middle of his first year of high school at OSR. There were no boarding students at OSR. In Prague, there was a small international school, but it stopped with eighth grade.

After a few days in Prague, I called on an official at the Czech Ministry of Education. It was three years since Soviet tanks had put down Alexander Dubcek's "socialism with a human face," and repression was the word, but people told me the school system was, aside from ideology, very good.

I asked if they could admit David to a college-preparatory gymnazium. Yes, in principle—but he would have to pass an entrance exam that was given only in Czech. Did I think he could do that? No.

My widowed mother had moved back to her home town, New Orleans, where her sister, my Aunt Angela Devlin, had recently retired as a principal at Isidore Newman School, perhaps the best school in the South. David could live with his grandmother and go to Newman. A good solution, it seemed, and he flew to America.

Alas, the expatriate kid was not in tune with teenage American life—and he was certainly no Southerner—and he was the outsider in a school where almost all the students had been together since kindergarten.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were finally due for home leave. I could only schedule it for spring, so we went to New Orleans in spring and put Lizzie and Mary into the parochial school near my mother's house. They were not entirely happy, but survived. When June came, Mary's teacher announced that each girl—the classes were segregated by sex—would address the class the following day on "My Summer Plans."

One little girl said she would spend a couple of weeks on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Another was going to visit her grandparents in Lafayette. A third was going as far as Shreveport.

Mary arose. She said she and family would drive north to Chicago, then east to Washington, DC. They would fly to England, where they would drop her sister at riding camp, and then fly to Prague, and then go on to vacation in Italy... by now the room was abuzz: "Liar, liar." How could she dare to tell such lies? But lies they were not.

Three of our four spent a high school year or more at St. Stephen's School in Rome and broadened their interests in the Mediterranean world. Our children traveled, not just with their parents, far more than we had done when young. At 16 Andrew and his schoolmate Charlie Undeland, inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor's book Mani, went hitchhiking around that remote peninsula of Greece. David at 19 went to study in Bucharest. Finding university conditions so bad, he hitchhiked to Istanbul and discovered the Near East. All four went to college in America—and their college years produced serious strains, economic ones, on their parents.

One year when I was working in Washington, three of our kids were in college, David and Mary in the costly Ivy League. Lizzie entered McGill in Montreal, which was far cheaper, and she also had a small scholarship. Nevertheless I came near to defaulting on tuition bills, and I was glad Virginia had no more debtors' prisons, but it seemed that every time I neared a crisis, Mary Jane the realty agent sold a house.

Our children all finished college free of debt. We could not have accomplished that today, when academic bureaucracies create elegant Institutes and high-paying posts—Executive Assistant Vice Provosts, Deputy Assistant Deans, and the like—that send tuition costs soaring.

As the years have gone by, our children have all done well. My grandfather was a farmer, my father a businessman, and I a diplomat. I hoped the younger Bridges might go in still new directions, and they have. When young they had learned to work hard both as students and in unskilled jobs: carpenter's helper in Mogadishu, late-evening cook at a McDonald's in Virginia, barmaid in Montreal, shucker of scallops in wintry Nantucket. Then they started working hard professionally. David rose to the top ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency and Elizabeth, Mary, and Andrew are all gifted and devoted teachers.

Diplomatic life is not what it was when we were young. Bureaucracy advances in all walks of American life, including our Foreign Service. Our posts abroad are oversized, and the bigger they get, the more the Americans may tend to stick together, at play as well as work. Are they worried about terrorism? A threat, of course, but not just abroad. I do hope our people are getting out, with their children, to the CONIs and rivers and mountains. It's an interesting world.


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