Celebrating American Independence Abroad: Adventures in Iran, Poland, and Israel

July 4, 2015

Months before July 4 arrives, American diplomatic missions all over the world begin planning celebrations involving countless thousands of guests, mountains of refreshments, and difficult logistics problems, all aimed at making the day an appropriate commemoration of American Independence.  This year’s festivities will be further complicated by increased security challenges, and by the fasting month of Ramadan.  Diplomats should remember, however, that despite the tension felt as the day approaches, there will be poignant and even humorous memories later.

The first July 4 celebration that I hosted as a diplomat was in Tabriz, Iran in 1978, when I was the principal officer at the American consulate.  There had been security problems since that February, when Tabriz had witnessed rioting and a fair amount of arson and destruction by local mobs, but life seemed to have settled down by the summer.  Billed as “a family event,” it seemed like everyone in the city was clamoring for an invitation.  The weather was beautiful and the wide gardens around the consulate were filled with flowers.  Several American companies in the area had contributed towards the festivities. U.S. military personnel stationed at a nearby Iranian base, along with American contractors and my visiting parents were busily engaged in serving lunch — hot dogs and hamburgers — to an Iranian crowd of several hundred guests.  The invitations called for “very casual” attire, and everyone was in comfortable summer clothing as they strolled around the gardens — everyone except the two Iranian generals who arrived with their families in full dress regalia, much to the annoyance of one teenage daughter who looked at her father and said, “I told you we were supposed to come in casual clothes!”  The pool was filled with the children of the Iranian guests, music played, laughter ruled, and the day went off without a hitch as a most pleasant and happy one.

That was July.  Revolutionary activity picked up again within a few weeks, and all the trappings of civility disappeared.  The garden died off as the weather got colder, U.S. military advisors packed up and departed along with the contractors, the tempo of demonstrations, destruction, and arrests rose sharply as the authorities sought to curb the revolutionaries, and the consulate came under mob attack early in 1979.  The Iranian guests who had laughed in those gardens were nowhere to be found. In February, Iranian Air Force commander, General Imanian, who had strolled arm in arm at our party with the Iranian Army general, had gone over to the revolutionaries and arrested his friend, General Bidabadi.  The last memory I have of Bidabadi was seeing a newspaper photograph of his body on a marble slab after he had been executed.  The air force commander became the new minister of defense under the revolutionary government.

I hosted three July 4 celebrations in Krakow, Poland in the mid-1980s, while I was the principal officer and the Iron Curtain was still more or less in place. Solidarity activists were in prison or seeking political asylum in Western countries. America had sanctions against the Polish government.  There was no U.S. ambassador in Warsaw and higher-ranking officials would not meet with American diplomats or attend such functions (making parties all the merrier for their absence).  Poles who opposed the government celebrated the American diplomatic presence in every way and made my social life extremely busy.  I learned an important lesson from my first of these July 4 events. I hosted the party at my residence and decided to limit attendance to a few hundred people. The residence was large, but not large enough to hold the number of guests who arrived.  I had planned on using the garden, but rain began to pour in the morning and continued all day.  It was unseasonably cold as well, and raincoats began to pile up in sodden heaps in the small coat room with no place to store them. It was a tradition to present flowers to one’s host, and all the Poles did just that.  Roses were in season, and as I stood in the receiving line, bunch after bunch of lovely flowers from local gardens — all with sharp thorns on their stems — were offered to me.  As I kissed each woman’s hand and shook those of the men, my own hands soon began to bleed copiously from all the thorns, but I soldiered on, seeing a sea of hands — shake, shake, kiss, shake, kiss — coming at me for what seemed like hours.  Lesson learned, and the next year I had large empty vases next to me, and had learned to take the bouquets gently from the top instead of accepting them by their dangerous stems.

My last Independence Day in Krakow was by far the best. It was held inside the Renaissance-era consulate and attracted a huge crowd.  Three different Polish bands volunteered to perform, with one room offering American country music (or something that was supposed to resemble it), another traditional Polish tunes, and the third standard dance music.  Food came out of the kitchen in endless amounts, and the alcohol flowed like the Wisla River.  I stood at the head of the receiving line, with hand after hand — kiss, kiss, shake, kiss ad infinitum — and mounds of roses appearing, when the Soviet consul general arrived and gave his normal stiff greetings “in honor of the American national day.”  He disappeared into the throng and I forgot all about him.  Some two hours later, after I had greeted every guest, I joined the crowd myself and, much to my surprise, saw the Soviet still in the crowd.  He flushed a bit, then apologized for staying so long, adding ruefully that he had overstayed the normal 15-minute appearance at our event because “people like this never come to our receptions.”  I told him to enjoy himself and passed on.  What I did not know was that his chauffeur was parked directly in front of the consulate entrance, and that the Polish university students we had hired to help serve refreshments had taken some food and “American Coca-Cola” to the driver, who refused at first, but then agreed to accept it. The students had laced the drink with vodka.  The driver decided he liked “American Coca-Cola” and asked for another because of the hot day.  Another, then another and yet another. All this in front of the Polish police who were guarding the consulate.  By the end of the party, when the consul general finally emerged after several hours of drinking and socializing, the driver had passed out over the wheel of the black Volga.  The consul general joined him, but then — while all the police looked on in feigned innocence — one or the other woke up and the car lumbered away, only to climb the sidewalk a bit down the street and come to a dead stop against the wall of a building.  I understand that the consul general was never allowed to go out unescorted again.

The mayor of Krakow would not attend this reception because of the prohibition against officials at his level dealing with Americans.  Times change.  About a year later, when the Polish–American relationship turned friendly again, he was the guest of honor at a luncheon at the Department of State.

I am proud of many things I did in Poland, but I am most happy about never making a gender mistake with the kiss/shake/kiss routine of the thousands of proffered hands.  My senior Polish assistant was not so lucky.  When relations with the mayor of Krakow were at their coldest, he was at a crowded function where he mistakenly kissed the mayor’s hand instead of shaking it.

One can have a good time at these crowded events, which often have their funny side like one I attended at the ambassador’s house near Tel Aviv back in the late ‘80s when I was consul general at the embassy.  The ambassador decided that he wanted a green lawn to inspire the expected crowd of over 500 Israeli guests. The residence staff watered the grass every day for weeks before the Fourth.  The garden became a beautiful sea of green in the middle of Israel’s arid summer.  Half the guests were women, and spike heels were in style, so all over the garden you could see the women wedged into the soft lawn, tipped slightly backwards and unable to move.  Many ended up carrying their shoes in their hands.

But that was just a preamble to the speech the ambassador gave.  One of the American chain hotels had sent over an immense white cake, which was a replica of the White House, with every door and window edged in chocolate.  It was truly a masterpiece of the confectionary art, and was wheeled out and given a place of honor just behind the podium where the ambassador was about to give his lengthy speech.  The Mediterranean sun hit the cake as the speech began, and slowly but steadily the White House began to melt behind his back.  Doors and windows and columns and then much of the roof slid down the facade like a Doonesbury cartoon. Everyone in the crowd was transfixed, emitting ooohs and aaahs at the collapsing architecture that the ambassador thought were for his (thoroughly forgettable) speech.

Time passes and people and places change, but the celebrations in Israel and Poland should be well-attended this year.  American diplomats will become tense and exhausted from the preparations for the celebration, but on the day itself, old enemies and old friends will raise their glasses and toast their American hosts.  Not so in Iran this July, but who can tell for 2016?

 

Michael J. Metrinko spent five years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkey and Iran, and then had diplomatic assignments in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Poland, Israel, Iraq, and most recently, Afghanistan.

 

Photo credit: liz west