hen I was in college, I briefly considered a career in diplomacy. I’d never taken a political science course, and I didn’t really like politics. But diplomacy seemed different, above the political fray, intellectually rigorous, and decidedly more glamorous.
“Glamorous” was certainly the word that came to mind when, the following year, I began my internship with the U.S. Embassy in Rome. I’d hop off the orange bus at the top of Via Veneto, the street immortalized for its elegance and fame in the Fellini film, “La Dolce Vita.” Passing by famous hotels and bars, I’d find my way to the black gated walk alongside the Embassy, the Palazzo Margherita, once home to the Queen of Italy. Sometimes I’d wander off to fancy rooms with Baroque furnishings and pinch myself like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” — this was indeed a long way from my home in Iowa.
I was interning with the labor attaché, an older gentleman who whisked in every morning with a bundle of newspapers — both in Italian and English — beneath his arm. He’d drop a few off at my little desk in the corridor and ask me to debrief him on immigration matters. Immigration to Italy was my area of expertise — I was about to earn a Fulbright on the subject — and I’d taught immigrants English during college. My diplomatic cable on immigration received accolades, and I ended up writing another cable on the entrance of women into the army in Italy, the last NATO country to let women in.
I enjoyed the work, but oddly enough, I didn’t really enjoy the fun part. Meaning the parties. The glamorous lifestyle that had attracted me to diplomacy didn’t feel right. I was too shy to mingle strategically, and being so hinged to the government felt claustrophobic. At the time, I was also doing an internship at the Associated Press, and although my shyness could likewise be a hindrance in journalism, I would find ways to overcome it, and I felt more at home writing stories for the public.
I never looked back in my decision to pursue journalism over diplomacy, but in mid-life, I’ve found myself reconnecting with a certain kind of diplomacy — I’ll call it “household diplomacy.” I believe that’s actually the term that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used as guest speaker at an event organized by Cultural Care, an organization for au pairs, sponsored by the State Department. As a side gig, I coordinate local au pairs for them. Albright lauded the organization’s work as uniquely centered in cultural exchange at its most intimate — the family.
I am one of hundreds who help au pairs settle into their host families, mediating occasional conflicts that arise between au pairs and families. I don’t have a background in social work or psychology, so I rely on my instincts and judgement, as well as my own experience navigating between two cultures, both as an American living in Italy and as an expat coming back to the U.S. When a Colombian au pair tearfully lamented the other day that “Americans are cold,” I got that — as well as her aversion to American packaged food.
Normally, the au pairs’ crises are benign, and resolving them is simply a matter of me telling them to step up their duties, or telling families to be patient as au pairs copes with homesickness or language difficulties. But sometimes, au pairs caught in the cross-fires of family crises come live with my family. They help care for our four year old daughter Julia, and make an occasional meal (we’ve twice hosted Austrian young women, both of whom made delectable wiener schnitzel and palatschinken, Austrian crepes).
I’m something between a much older sister and a host mother to the au pairs. I enjoy getting to know them — and learning about their American discoveries. They love bagels and bubble tea; the abundance of yoga classes; athleisure fashion; and compliments. As one Austrian told me, “People in Austria don’t give compliments. If someone says, ‘I like your shirt,’ the other person would think it strange.” (I believe she said this right after I’d complimented her outfit for the umpteenth time.)
Their youthful impressions remind me of discovering Italy for the first time. Not so much my heady time at the Embassy. Rather, all the love-at-first-sight things — espresso and blood-red oranges; fennel and real pizza; notebooks with peculiar pages covered in perfectly symmetrical, tiny squares; bidets; the oddities and liberation of expressing myself in a Romance language.
When the au pairs leave for their home countries, I sometimes wish I could go with them — or time travel back to my twenties in Rome. I still don’t regret not pursuing diplomacy, but I miss dreaming about it. One sobering fact of middle age is definitively letting go of certain dreams you once had. I’ll probably never work the room at an Embassy party, but I like to think that I have a small but steady hand in influencing the hearts and minds of young women who come into my life as they discover their own.