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Postcards from a diplomatic past and ‘tricks’ of the trade

The other day I put on a pair of earrings and I was transported back in time. A long-forgotten face floated up to the surface of memory: Sandra Moretti.    And up with her came the Embassy of Italy in Washington DC during the 80s where Sandra and I worked together for nine years. She was a secretary in the political section upstairs and I was an assistant to the Press Attaché in the huge, ground-floor ‘salone’ that served as the press office.

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The salone had been one of the grand reception rooms when this old neo-Renaissance building had been the Italian Ambassador’s residence and it still had four whacking great Murano glass chandeliers suspended from its ceiling as if to say: ‘and don’t you forget it’. These hovering monsters dripping with delicate flowers and intricate leaves were works of art in themselves. They were a stunning reminder of the place’s former opulence. Its glory days when the rooms would pulsate with the rich and powerful of The Nation’s Capital; they were a distant echo of the rustle of taffeta, soft laughter, the clink of champagne glasses and a quartet somewhere sawing away at Vivaldi. Once they had shimmered in splendour but now we clerical grunts skulked about beneath them typing up aide memoires, making phone calls to journalists and political aides on The Hill. Now the mighty chandeliers were dust-gathering relics and it was only when visitors gawped up in wonder, that we remembered to notice them at all.

Murano chandelier

In all the years I worked there I kept hearing the same thing. This building is going to be sold, they said, and these are makeshift offices; a temporary measure until we all move into a new purpose-built embassy just off the ritzy Massachussets Avenue (aka Embassy Row). Instead of languishing in what had become a rundown end of DC (Adams-Morgan) we would take our rightful place with the other European diplomats at the quality end of town. We had already bought the land, the plans had been drawn up and it was just a matter of getting the damn thing built. ‘When we get our new embassy things will be different’ went the refrain. I soon learned the appropriate response to this in wordless Italian. It was a gesture of thumb pressed against all four fingertips with a hand wagging motion just under the chin. This and a slight roll of the eyes meant; Yeah, yeah. It’ll never happen or ‘quando mai!’.

But back to Sandra and those earrings she gave me which are so dated they seem almost tawdry by today’s taste. They are two large gold triangles of the dangling variety. Pure American 80s bling. They weren’t really me at the time, if I’m honest, but I believe they represented a version of me that I aspired to back then. A flashy Americanised version that temporarily beguiled me.

Sandra wasn’t a pretty woman; in fact she was rather plain underneath all her layers of make-up. But she had a knock-out figure and she had that Italian knack of knowing how to make everything work, so that the overall impression was that of a confident, sexy and elegant woman. Designer clothes and accessories, carefully applied make-up by Chanel and Dior, killer heels and an engulfing waft of expensive perfume like a fragrant following wind, were all Sandra’s trademarks. It’s not a word I use often, but Sandra had it, and that was panache.

Her make-up regime, she once confided to me, took over an hour of steady concentration each morning and that was just her ‘work face’ not her ‘going-out face’. Sandra was immensely proud of her look. It was an act of artistic creativity which she built upon and tried to perfect. Looking good was her biggest achievement and she was dedicated to it.

I remember once we almost got snowed in at the embassy. Many roads were impassable and a rumour went around that we might have to bed down in our offices for the night. Sandra was beside herself. She prowled by the door in a state of high agitation. She was desperate to get into the parking lot and fire up her Chevy. She had to get out of the embassy come hell or high snow. The idea of being caught ‘senza trucco’ or without her make-up, absolutely appalled her. What if one of the diplomats saw her unmasked? What if the ambassador himself caught sight of the blank canvas that was her real face? Then they would know. They would know that Sandra was a fabrication. That without her painted mask she wasn’t fit to be seen.

Sandra had already been at the embassy several years when I joined, and for some reason she took a liking to this awkward Black-British girl who was struggling to come to terms with Italian diplomatic life. The press office was a through-road to the inner workings of the embassy and Sandra often sailed passed my desk, hips a-sway like a catwalk model. ‘I love your necklace’ or ‘great boots’ was all it took to make her dally at my desk for a while. Here, like a Zen master giving careful instruction to his student, she would ply me with tips on make-up and clothes; tips she felt my un-stylish British self so badly needed.

‘I like them but I’ve never worn them. They’ll look good on you with your darker skin colour’ she said tossing the earrings onto my desk one day. And I did wear them often for a while, but then my life and my style moved on and just like those monumental chandeliers, the earrings seemed a little too overblown, a little too showy, and they’ve been gathering dust in a jewellery box for years. On the few occasions that I’ve worn them since, it’s been more out a sense of nostalgia than style.

Embassy new DC

I re-visited Washington some years ago and the new embassy on Whitehaven Street is a showpiece of Italian architectural design. Outside it’s all sharp, sleek lines and inside it’s airy and spacious and flooded with light. It’s almost twenty-five years old now but it still looks classy and cutting-edge.  It sits comfortably alongside the prestigious buildings of the other diplomatic missions on and around Embassy Row.

It couldn’t be further away from the drafty old bedrooms, grand receiving rooms and butler’s pantries we requisitioned as ‘offices’ for years, and where Sandra glided about like a queen in exile. Yet for all that, the old embassy with its neglected inner courtyard and its Rococo chandeliers had an unforgettable old-world charm.

Sandra and I weren’t close; I only really knew her by her stylish reputation. But she has remained for me the personification of the Italian word for make-up, ‘trucco’ which literally means ‘trick’ in the same way that magicians do tricks. The Italian verb for to put on make-up is ‘truccarsi,’ literally to ‘trick oneself’ into being more attractive by applying powders and paints.

Make-up, it’s the trick of making ourselves look better, and some of us pull it off better than others. But for women like Sandra, it’s an art form of invention and creation that you continually work at. It’s a piece of visual art that goes on exhibition every day and the real you can hide out behind it or even be completely invisible

 pictures: Former Italian Embassy at 1601 Fuller Street, NW Washington DC (now converted to luxury apartments) /Vintage Venetian Murano Chandelier/Present Embassy of Italy on Whitehaven Street NW, Washington D.C