When the conversation begins and ends discussing favorite eateries and obscure museums in Bologna, you know it’s going to be a great chat. I was lucky enough to spend two hours speaking with the 44th U.S. diplomatic representative in Florence, US Consul General Benjamin Wohlauer, a role that covers Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and the Republic of San Marino. Ben has been in the role for almost one year exactly and speaks about his career evolution, thoughts on American students in Florence and shares his best book recommendations for Italy. Enjoy our interview below and keep an eye and an ear out for a new project bringing together 200 years of partnerships #Insieme200 (#Together200) between Americans and Italians, set to kick off in 2019.
Thank you for awarding me this interview today, Ben, I would love to start by asking you about your career as a diplomat. Can you share a bit how you got started and what led to your appointment as the 44thconsul general here in Florence?
In terms of motivating factors, I will say that studying abroad had a big impact on my career choice. You meet tons of people who are overseas working and living and their interest was initially sparked by their study abroad experience. Also, in high school in 1987, I went to Berlin and crossed over to East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie and for me that was quite formative because you read a lot about geopolitics and the world but most Americans don’t get to see, up close, the ramifications of different political systems. Seeing that really intrigued me into wanting to get involved in some way. I also had the chance to teach English in Japan after college and that launched my fascination with Asia.
After taking the test, I’ve had a career in 50% Asia and 50% Europe, which offered a chance to see those parts of the world. The consul general is a career job, different than ambassadorships which are political appointees. It’s an honor to have this job not only because this is a beautiful place, but when you think about our presence here and what’s happened here over the 200 years you really feel a responsibility from those who have come before.
Speaking of... How important is the role of the U.S. consulate in Florence, both historically and today?
The importance of the consulate has always been there and the central concept hasn’t really changed, to take care of the increasing American population here and the interest in commercial exchange. In the beginning, it was mostly artists and travelers coming through Florence and on the commercial side it was mainly dealing with merchant ships or sailors coming to port, and helping, if they ran into troubles. In fact, that commercial side is really why consuls were intially established, in fact there were way more consuls than there were embassies in the early days. Nowadays the artists have turned into mostly students and the merchant ships have turned into business investors, but the essential roles have stayed the same.
[Smiles] There were some amazing characters who lived through much more trying circumstances than I do today. The first consul general was appointed in 1819, an Italian named James Ombrosi, when it obviously wasn’t yet Italy, it was the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. A time when the Grand Duke refused to grant diplomatic recognition to the consul (over 30 years). The reason was because of the context of the time: you have this young country of upstarts that just overthrew their monarch so if you are one of the stalwarts of the old regime, the last thing you want to do is to give a thumbs up to this new regime.
I also found an interesting letter from the ambassador during the (brief) time Florence was Italy’s capital regarding the death of the consul in the 1860’s that will resonate with you today. The ambassador wrote a long letter to the secretary of state saying ‘Whatever you do, you can’t close the consulate because we are getting so many American tourists here and the population is growing so fast, I won’t be able to do my other work.’ That hasn’t changed even today, the population of Americans here is vast and their interests are quite important.
One interesting fun fact is that the first consuls until 1860 weren’t paid so they had to raise their own money, there was very little security and safety and support. In times of turmoil it could be dangerous, both in the 1840’s and 50’s and later during WWII. The consul who was here in 1966 had to rally the troops when the consul basement was flooded during the great flood in order to sort out damage to the facility and how the staff was affected.
Before you came to Florence you held appointments in Tokyo, Rangoon, Indonesia, Russia and Milan, what are the highlights (or lowlights) of those roles and how the one you hold now different.
I’ve been incredibly lucky, all of my assignments up to date have been excellent in really interesting places in great places with wonderful colleagues. It has been a very interesting career because I have been in developing and developed places which the big difference there is the ‘stage’ of the relationship. For example, in Japan and Italy we have a very well developed foundation to work both on the government to government level and people to people.
However, in places like Indonesia the formal relationship has not really gelled like they have here in Italy and Japan so you have a much bigger role in building those ties. On one hand that can be very interesting and satisfying but on the other hand it can be very frustrating when you don’t have the foundation from which you can build.
In embassies, you are working in the capital – government to government in a macro level, consulates you are working more on a micro level, sorting out problems of American citizens and companies at that level. What has been the same though in all places that I’ve noticed is the continued appreciation of the United States, not always necessarily of the government, but their general love for the United States. Even though people can be critical, it does remain as a country, an important reference point for the rest of the world.
What is your primary focus while here in Florence?
As per usual we are providing emergency services for US citizens and helping the military, students and American citizens. We also work on improving the local environment for the students and showcase the positive effects they have on this city.
We are also focusing on helping facilitate more Italian investment in the United States on an economic level. We’ve done a lot of work in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna to encourage even small or medium companies to look at the USA as an important investment destination, and we've had success.
What we focusing on for the next 18 months is the 200th anniversary celebrating the first nomination of a commercial agent here in 1819. It’s also a way for us to celebrate all of the things that we have done together over the last 200 years and take stock of all that we've been able to accomplish. Also, it’s a way to look at where we are now and expand on those treasured partnerships.
Those are notable goals and as we talked about before, it is best to focus on what you can do during the time you are there instead than spreading yourself too thin. Now it’s been nearly a year in the job, can you share how work has evolved during that time?
This is the first time I’ve been able to come back to a country and that has helped a lot. Usually you arrive at a job, you study it, and normally it takes you six months to get comfortable. I had an easier time adjusting and of course met the team when my wife was here. Also coming from D.C. I was a little better plugged in to what the policy was with the new administration. I feel a little bit like I am six months ahead with the learning curve so I have been able to get things going quicker and start getting good work done.
[Consul General Benjamin Wohlauer]
I’ve heard that you are quite interested in food so I would be interested in knowing your thoughts regarding food economy as diplomacy because after all, we are living in Italy.
[Laughs] You are right! I have to say that all of my posts have been wonderful from a food perspective. There are a few ways that food and diplomacy overlap: one is that from a cultural component food is an essential root of soft power. It is a great way to express your culture in a way that is non-confrontational. We have a culinary diplomacy program where the department will pay for American chefs to come over for masterclasses and participate in competitions.
Food, whether it is coffee, wine, meals is essential as a sort of lubricant to diplomacy. The essence of diplomacy isn’t negotiating treaties or issuing visas, it is about building and maintaining networks. This often takes place over a meal when those relationships are built. The US is probably the other extreme in the sense that people are happy to do deals over a glass of water and I’ve never been anywhere else in the world where you can do that.
Economically, food is essential; the US exports approximately 140 billion dollars’ worth of agricultural products and Americans import around 2 billion dollars’ worth of Italian wine, 600 million dollars of Italian olive oil. The thorniest issues between economic issues worldwide often have to do with food with countries trying to protect what they have. We all come from an agricultural background. More than any other sector, agriculture is linked to a countries identity so there is the most reluctance to reduce barriers and allow outside influences.
Your wife Mary Ellen Countryman previously held this role from 2008-2011 so I imagine she is a wonderful resource for the job, does the role greatly differ from when she held this appointment?
I don’t think in the last seven years there has been a ton of variations, of course with a different administration our focus is slightly less or more on different priorities. Obviously, there is a new government here, there has been a lot that has happened since 2011 in the Italian political situation. Mary Ellen worked with senator Renzi when he was the mayor in Florence and one thing that is important to point out is that despite any government changes, the framework and relationships here in Florence have endured and tend to go stronger over time.
Can you tell me about #Insieme200 (#Together200) and celebrating 200 years of American diplomacy in Florence?
Absolutely! It is about celebrating 200 years of diplomatic presence through the lens of the many partnerships between within the community between the USA and Florence, Livorno, San Marino & Emilia-Romagna. All to remind people how much we have in common.
We are still working on everything but we are hoping to have at least three elements to the #Insieme200 project. At least one is to talk about our physical presence; we’ve been in a number of different buildings over the year and they are all still standing so we would like to bring that to life and create a percorso/itinerary between the places where the consul once lived. We would love to see some biographical sketches and stories of those who were here before.
[Official #Insieme200/ #Together200 logo, designed by Nina Peci]
On this building alone, we have been here over 70 years. We would also like to talk about the war years, which is not necessarily a happy chapter but even if our governments were not always together one of my predecessors did join the partigiani (resistance movement) so the aspect of “insieme” (togetherness) has always existed in some form.
The third aspect we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t entirely Florence centric; we want to make sure to do something with Livorno, Bologna and San Marino, so we are working with those authorities to develop some events. In fact, in Bologna, a place worth visiting in the Museo Giovanni Capellini. Italian scientist Giovanni Capellini actually went to the USA in the 1800’s and brought back all of these fossils and bones, now visible in a big exhibit at the museum.
It could be anything from photos and letters from the past turned into a small exhibit or article. Some people have gone to the archives for us and found evidence of different properties we had which could be part of an exhibition.
[Our editor with Consul General Benjamin Wohlauer]
How important is it to involve American study abroad students with the local community, and why?
I think it is essential, there are two primary reasons involve them in the local community and one is that it is a better experience, for them. If you do get integrated and involved in the community, it will be that more meaningful as a whole. The second reason is just creating a safer environment for them in the city. I always tell the students at the safety briefing at the beginning of the semester ‘like it or not you guys are diplomats, you represent the USA to Italians and you will have more of an impact with local people than I have as an official representative.’ It’s something worth remembering as they go on with their daily lives.
After the unfortunate incident involving the rape of two American study abroad students and local carabinierilast fall, was the reactions of many Italians that followed. It was a bit if a wakeup call regarding getting Florentines to change their perceptions of American students studying abroad. Do you think there is still work to be had?
The issue is not to stop young people from going out and having a good time, that is not a realistic goal. However should we make them aware of the risks? Absolutely. What is disappointing to me is Americans as a whole being portrayed as either victims or perpetrators. Individuals sure, but it depresses me if that is the image that some people have of students.
The image should be much more balanced, in fact dominated by the image of Americans as constructive, energetic members of the community. Because they are members of the community, semi-permanent even, and there is an incentive also for locals of Tuscany, Bologna etc. to reach out and involve them and use this valuable resource.
One of the great strengths of American culture is the spirit of volunteerism, so it is a real resource to tap into. So, the problem is that the narrative is not balanced, this is something we have indeed talked about with the local press. Obviously, they need to report on the negative stories but we’ve encouraged also to put some energy into the talking also about the positive collaborations, those within charitable organizations or between local businesses. We are working to helping that happen as did my predecessors.
How does social media affect diplomatic relations? Do you think it can be used to enact positive perceptions and change?
Communication is an essential part of network building. [Smiling] It was Marshall McLuhan who once said “the medium is the message.” That was about TV but it is the same concept today. Now with wide usage of social media, communicating is absolutely essential. The thing I love about social media is the honest back and forth, the real benefit is also to be able to communicate in real time. We want to put out content that is relevant and interesting for people and we’ve had a fair bit of success when it comes to visa issues. People will reach out via Facebook to reach out to us regarding general information which has been great.
We would love to see more dialogue online, especially when it comes to #insieme200 project, the way we see it is that it would be an open crowdsourced, community project.
What should Americans know regarding how to use the assistance of the U.S. consulate while abroad, are there any common misconceptions you would like to clear up? Can you share any “interesting” calls that you guys have received regarding what Americans perceive the consulate as being responsible for?
The number one message is ‘when in doubt give us a call.” If you are dealing with something you are not sure about, please contact us, we may or may not be able to help but we like to what’s going on so we have a good sense of what the reality is on the ground. This is important, if you lose your passport, please report it immediately as it poses a security risk if it falls into the wrong hands.
A common misconception is that we can rescue you. Especially so in a country like Italy where there is a functioning judicial system. If you are arrested, we will visit you, as the Italians are obliged to inform us when an American has been put in prison. We can offer to help you communicate and we will observe that you are getting due process but we can’t get you out of jail. Second thing, with commercial disputes, we can’t fix your legal disputes.
Also, we don’t do Italian immigration. We can offer basic advice on what we know but we have no official authority on that. You should hire an immigration lawyer if you need help on that front.
Our last misconception I wanted to point out is that the consulate is not US soil.
What are some of your favorites aspects of this job?
Definitely the travel and the ability to change my surroundings every three years or so. To have a completely different experience, to learn a lot about different culture and forces me to think as an America how to forge those contacts and work on network building. It’s fascinating to me. Being in Italy offers a whole other level of appreciation when it comes to quality of life; the access to the art, the food. Same in Asia, I was able to visit a place on a weekend that some people might only be able to see once in a lifetime. People-to-people engagements is what keeps me interested.
Advice for anyone who one day dreams of becoming a diplomat?
Our system is very diplomatic these days; you don’t have to have gone to an Ivy League school or know someone to be a diplomat. What they are looking for now is people who are well rounded and have had interesting experiences. This also means being adept at solving problems on their own, some demonstrated aptitude in cross-cultural engagement etc. They want people who are flexible and are problem-solvers.
What is special to you regarding Florence and Florentines? What do you adore about this city?
It is a city where you can feel the history despite having the mod-cons and a place where you can live a modern life. The intense historical heritage of the place resonates, also because it wasn’t too badly damaged during the war. There aren’t a ton of places that are like that, the biggest ones I can think of are Rome and Istanbul. Florentines can remind me of Bostonians, they are a bit sarcastic and they remind me of home. Bostonians like Florentines are really proud of their city and of its rich history. I also like to think of Florence as the Silicon Valley of the 15thcentury. Brunelleschi building the cupola was a bit like Bill Gates and revolutionizing the internet, it hadn’t yet been done before but the amount of innovation and want was there.
Do you have a favorite event here?
I love sagre ( local food festivals) I wish there was a comprehensive guide on it so you can plan your weekends accordingly. What is really fun is the Viareggio Carnivale, the floats are always very well done and I encourage people to visit. Every year at the end of June is the Festa Artusiana in Forlimpopoli in Emilia-Romagna which is part of our consular district, a great experience for whomever would like to celebrate this great unifier of Italian cuisine.
Florentines are fiercely loyal to their favorite places to eat bistecca, what is yours?
Giovanni’s on Via del Moro, I’ve been coming there since 2008 and there is a long relationship with the consulate. If I’m on my own, I’ll probably just get the filetto.
Best recommended read for anyone coming to Italy?
· The Italians by Luigi Barzini
· Modern Italy by Denis Mack Smith
· The Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy
· The Inferno by Dante Alghieri (Ben suggested remembering Dante's quotes to impress your Italian friends)
· Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi
· Naples 44 by Norman Lewis
· La Cucina Italiana by Alberto Capatti e Massimo Montanari
How would you describe Florence in one trademark phrase?
"Go beneath the surface." There are so many things to see and do that are unbelievable, think Bardini instead of Boboli, Ghirlandaio in Santa Trinita, the Cenacolo di Ognissanti, the Stibbert museum.
Want to know more about the project #Insieme200 or #Together200? Read this article in The Florentine and email your ideas for a project highlighting the relationship between the two countries here -> CGFI@state.gov.