09/20/13 - Esperance Express - On the inside looking out
For Cuban ambassador Pedro Monzon Barata, the Cuban cigar is as vital to
his happiness as the air he breathes.
Like Winston Churchill, who was rarely photographed without a Romeo y
Julieta clenched between his teeth, or JFK - who famously instructed his
press secretary to procure him 1200 H. Upmann Petit Upmann cigars one day
before extending the US trade embargo in the fierce but tiny Communist
country - Barata is an aficionado.
Since arriving in Canberra three years ago, he has maintained a steady
supply of the sought-after Cuban exports - extolling their health benefits
over cigarettes. ''Cuban cigars are much healthier than cigarettes;
they're all organic, and not that junk that people usually smoke.''
And, at upwards of $30 each - and sometimes hundreds of dollars a pop -
they wouldn't want to be.
The mystique of a genuine Cuban cigar will be experienced by 40 keen
Canberrans who will sample a traditional hand-rolled Cohiba or Partagas
while they sip on a Mojito - using Havana Club rum, no other - as part of
Windows to the World.
Windows to the World is the diplomatic corps' 100th-birthday gift to
Canberra, with 35 embassies and high commissions throwing open their doors
to the public in a series of open days each weekend for the next month.
Many Canberrans will relish the chance to sticky-beak inside some of the
dress circle addresses and through the lavishly tended gardens on display,
with the US and Japanese embassies boasting some of the city's most
The US embassy has perhaps the most famous trees in Canberra, after
Eleanor Roosevelt in 1944 began the tradition of planting a tree to mark
every auspicious visitor. Five presidents - from Carter to Obama -
followed her lead to help make the Canberra landmark the greenest embassy
in the world, according to the State Department.
Consider Windows to the World a ticket around the globe in a weekend,
minus the jetlag.
A heavy emphasis will be on food - with most embassies promising exotic
morsels and a family-friendly day out with dancing, performance and art
and crafts on display.
Some know the hospitality drill well, such as the Thai embassy, which
already attracts throngs of loyal devotees each year to its food and
cultural festival and has forged a warm relationship with a hungry and
For others, such as the embassy of Saudi Arabia, this will be the first
time it has opened to the public.
It promises Arab coffee, dates and traditional foods, showing off its
small museum of artefacts and allowing children to dress up in traditional
robes in what is hopefully the start of a new cross-cultural friendship.
It's a first, too, for the Cuban embassy, with Barata determined to bring
a little of the rum, tobacco, art and music of those steamy Havana nights
While it may have been engaged in protracted battle with the US for the
past half-century, Cuba enjoys a warm bond with Australia, which has voted
against the US trade embargo since 1996 at the United Nations General
Barata says fostering bilateral links across health, trade and education
means the job in Canberra is an extremely busy one. ''Canberra is a quiet
city, compared with Havana, but there is too much work to ever get bored
here,'' he says.
His sentiment is echoed across ambassadorial ranks, with diplomats
agreeing that their initial perceptions of Canberra as a small and quiet
city soon give way to an appreciation of its natural charms, and the need
to keep pace in a hustling intellectual and political capital.
Some find it so lovely, they're loath to leave. Swedish ambassador
Sven-Olof Petersson asked to stay on this year - an extra year beyond his
five-year posting. His sprawling residence was the third embassy built in
Canberra, in 1947, after the British and American embassies.
Many distinctive features, such as the Atvidaberg windows, Kolmarden
marble fireplace and copper roofing, were imported from Sweden. But by the
time it came to landscaping, the Swedes had run out of money and it was
left to Canberra's revered director of parks and gardens, Lindsay Pryor,
to come up with the distinctly Australian feel of the gardens throughout
the enormous allotment. ''We are extremely indebted to Mr Pryor,''
Even now, the Swedish embassy maintains a tight budget. Staff is down from
five to three, and a full-time gardener has given way to regular
lawn-mowing and hedge trimming, with Petersson and his wife Anita happy to
take a more active role in the more mundane aspects of gardening, such as
weeding. ''You'll find an ambassador cannot keep his head up in the
clouds,'' he says, matter-of-factly.
To that end, the Swedes are considering hiving off part of the land they
pay $75,000 a year to lease, in order to cut down the costs of operating
It could be worse - Petersson has a friend from another European embassy
who cannot afford the heating in winter and rugs up to remain inside, and
says many are running on very, very slim budgets.
Long-term Canberra resident, Argentinian ambassador and Dean of the
Diplomatic Corps Pedro Villagra Delgado, says Windows to the World is a
good chance to dispel the fanciful notion that life as a diplomat is all
champagne and Rolls-Royces.
With the dean title and ceremonial role going to the longest-serving
diplomat, Delgado has been here eight years and encourages Canberrans to
visit their embassies for a taste of new culture and a more realistic
insight into the hard work put in by foreign representatives.
''The thing is
we are posted to the whole of Australia - to 7.7 million
square kilometres - so you keep us busy all the time and there is no time
to get bored,'' he says.
''The impression Canberra gives is it is quiet until you start working and
then it is not quiet any more.''
Centenary of Canberra creative director Robyn Archer says the diplomatic
corps contributing to the centenary celebrations should be extended as an
annual event - to keep the city connected and appreciative of its unique
access to the international community.
It's a concept already supported by the ACT government, with deputy chief
minister Andrew Barr saying a permanent Windows to the World program about
this time of year could capitalise on the interstate tourism trade in town
Barr, a huge fan of the wildly successful National Multicultural Food
Festival, says the opening of embassies en masse would cement Canberra's
status as a truly international city.
''We have more opportunity here in Canberra than anywhere else in
Australia to engage with the world,'' he says. ''We should do more to
Windows to the World is a free event over the next four weekends, but
places must be booked at windows totheworld .com.au.
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