My father placed two empty suitcases on my bedroom floor. He told me to pack what I could not do without. I asked for how long and he said for good. I knew by the strain in his voice and the quick turn of his shoulders that I would be unwise to ask any more questions.
It was 1982; I was fourteen. My father was American, but my mother was Ecuadorian and I’d never lived anywhere other than here, in Quito.
I looked at Maria, our housekeeper. My father had spoken to me in English, but I guessed she had already been told. She was looking at the suitcases. I heard my father raise his voice in the next room when my younger brother challenged him. My mother joined them and they fell quiet. Then my father left the house. He let the porch door slam, as he often did. The square panes of glass rattled loosely in their wooden frame. I always expected them to shatter, but they never did.
By the end of the week, my brother and I were on a plane to Dublin. My American grandparents had retired and moved to Ireland, and we would be staying with them in Ballsbridge. We arrived in time for the new school year. My parents promised to follow once they had sold our house in Quito. They assured me they would find a good home for my horse and my dog.
Our grandparents chose our schools, bought our uniforms and a pair of secondhand bikes for transportation. They took us on as a project. But we hardly knew them. They were strict and cautious and at times seemed overburdened by the responsibility of getting things right in our parents’ absence.
At their insistence we wrote home weekly. We sat between them at an antique mahogany dining-room table, and they suggested bits of news we might mention. They took our letters from us and put them in an envelope together with their own letters. I suspected they might read ours before sealing the envelope. I wanted to please them, because they were kind, so I kept my homesickness to myself. I didn’t write about how I missed the blue skies, the dry warmth and the snow-covered Andean peaks, or about how the low grey damp and the early darkness of the Irish winter weighed me down. I felt unable to warn my parents that we had arrived to an Ireland of unemployment, of medieval debates on divorce and gruesome billboards of dead foetuses. I kept my letters informative and positive. And perhaps that is why my parents didn’t make it in time for Christmas that year. They arrived a few months later, followed by a crate of first-edition books, a few pieces of family silver, and a couple of paintings. Everything else had been either thrown out or given away. Our home in Quito and my father’s textile factory had been sold.
My parents have never given me a clear or consistent explanation for the move. At the time, it seemed entirely arbitrary and inexplicable. Ecuador had been ruled by military governments for much of my childhood, and a president democratically elected in 1979 was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1981. I remember being told to stand away from the window as helicopters flew overhead. But my father assures me now that politics had nothing to do with the decision to leave.
En route to Ireland, my parents had taken a detour to Paris, a sort of holiday. They arrived to us as honeymooners do, more outwardly affectionate towards one another than I was ever to see again, my mother dressed in couture.
We drove all over Ireland in search of a small hotel for sale. In a secondhand mustard-coloured Fiat Brava we went to West Cork, to the Ring of Kerry, to Limerick, Sligo and Donegal. We criss-crossed the midlands. We walked through chintzy lobbies, kitchens, draughty corridors. There were bleeding-hearted religious pictures and threadbare nylon spreads. There were dirty lampshades, ashtrays and limescaled kettles on bedside lockers beside sinks with separate cold and hot taps and baths of murky yellow-brown water that settled in rings of sediment on the edges of tubs.
My father was looking for a hotel that would be viable without the income from its public bar: he didn’t want a bar in close proximity to his family life. It was an impossible criterion. I liked the one with a ballroom that had been converted into a roller-disco, but he was not interested. Soon his optimism, business ideas and savings started to dry up.
When my parents sought to renew our Ecuadorian passports it became evident that the Consul-General of Ecuador to Ireland, Julio Guasch, was an absentee. He lived in London and was seldom in Ireland. After much persistence from my mother, he eventually made the journey to Dublin. He was in his early seventies and walked with a cane. My mother suggested he might need an assistant. The Ecuadorian banana magnate Álvaro Noboa had begun to dock his boats in Cork. The arrival of our family had doubled the population of Ecuadorians in Ireland; now, more Ecuadorians were passing through and a few began to try to stay. The appointment of an Honorary Vice-Consul could avoid the expenditure and inconvenience of requiring Mr Guasch to make regular journeys to Ireland.
My maternal grandfather was a public figure in Ecuador. He had served in various posts in government. He was an author and an academic, and at the time was lecturing to trainee diplomats. He might not have had to approach anyone in particular, but a vague reference in a casual conversation in the right circumstances probably would have sufficed to advance my mother’s candidature. She was duly appointed. And upon Mr Guasch’s retirement a couple of years later, my mother was promoted to Honorary Consul. The post was unpaid, but it brought a sense of purpose to our otherwise puzzling presence in Ireland. We were no longer merely tourists with expired visas.
Not long after this, I got a job waiting tables at a seafood restaurant in south Dublin. One night, the owner asked me to serve after-dinner drinks to a party in the private room upstairs. He placed his arm around my hips and introduced me to the group of flushed middle-aged businessmen as his ‘little refugee’. This was consistent with the general perception at the time that South Americans in Ireland must be refugees, drug traffickers or diplomats. Now, although the owner of the restaurant didn’t know it, we were diplomats.
My mother benefited socially, befriending wives of diplomats at coffee mornings and fund-raising bazaars. She was (and is) a slight, pretty woman, with lively ebony eyes and a magnetic smile. She was flighty, loved a bit of glamour, and possessed little of the orderliness expected of a public servant. She had no sense of direction, and I used to tease her about the ‘dress rehearsal’ runs she made on the eve of important appointments to ensure she would not get lost and be late. She did them in full regalia in case she might be spotted by her hosts.
She became an agony aunt to Ecuadorians in Ireland. There was the love-struck au pair with no English who wanted to stay; and the Otavalo street musician with a long black plait, a poncho and pan flutes; and there were a couple of tales of sailors who jumped ship from the banana boats in Cork. She translated school reports for bewildered parents and talked a runaway teenager into returning home. She was no great cook but always offered llapingachos, traditional potato and cheese tortillas, that crumbled in the frying pan and needed to be garnished into respectability at potluck dinners on national holidays. She attended traditional novenas at Christmas in draughty Dublin churches, tambourine or maraca in hand, and joined in the discordant singing of carols in Spanish.
When my grandfather died, in 2008, my mother felt a need to reconnect with her family and her past. She and my father separated in 2010, and shortly thereafter she resigned her post and returned to Ecuador.
By then I had my own family and career in Dublin, but I felt her departure keenly. And I was disappointed that she gave up the honorary consulate so easily. I viewed it as a gift. One does not return a gift. I didn’t want to lose what it represented, the link with home, however tenuous.
I applied for the position. I wondered if there would be any reluctance to create a family dynasty, but as a solicitor working in conflict resolution I felt my CV was strong. I had an ease in both languages and cultures and an understanding of the Irish legal system.
Months passed, and I had no response to my application. In April 2012 an uncle in Quito sent me a newspaper clipping about a ceremony to celebrate seventy new appointments to the diplomatic service. He poked a little fun at me for missing the event; I think he intended to shatter any illusions I had of being appointed. I scanned the photograph and studied the faces. Most were young. There were as many women as men, and although some of the appointees appeared in business suits, most were dressed in ethnic attire: embroidered shirts and ponchos and hats of different shapes and, in one case, a yellow and orange feathered Amazonian headdress. It was, I imagined, the first time in history that a crop of diplomatic appointees reflected the multiculturalism of Ecuador.
The ceremony had been held in an old theatre in a cobbled square. Spanish colonial whitewashed houses with black wrought-iron balconies were decked with red and pink geraniums and Ecuadorian flags, and lit up by street lanterns on four sides of the square. The theatre proved too small for the numbers holding invitations. The square was thronged and the appointees to Argentina, Canada and Mexico had to fight their way, aided by police, through the crowds to get inside in time for the formal roll call.
Rafael Correa, the President, spoke. He is a handsome man with a square jaw and a winning smile, and a leftist in the mode of Hugo Chávez. He often wears collarless, hand-embroidered ethnic shirts under his suit jacket for official appearances. He spoke of the new selection process for diplomatic appointments, whereby bonus points were awarded to indigenous Indians, Afro-Ecuadorians and montubios. His intention was to rid the country of the outdated diplomatic corps where post-holders were ‘elitist, old-fashioned, and servile’.
Shortly after my uncle sent the clipping, I lost my Ecuadorian identity card. I rang the consulate in London for a replacement and explained that I was calling from Dublin. I was informed that I should take my query to the newly appointed consul in Ireland. I was a little taken aback that I had neither been informed that my application had been unsuccessful nor heard on the Ecuadorian grapevine about the appointment. I asked for contact details. I was kept on the line while the person I spoke to scrolled through emails for the relevant Ministerial Order. It was read out in full to me, with a bit of a struggle on the pronunciation of ‘Dominique Cleary Tuohy’.
I had been appointed on the 23rd of December 2011, but for whatever reason this news had not been conveyed to me, Ecuador’s new honorary consul in Ireland. I was assured by the person on the line that the Ecuadorian government would be in touch. We talked about the steps for implementing my official status and the need for Irish recognition of my credentials. We discussed the vacuum that had existed since my mother’s resignation and we agreed it was best that normal consular services would now resume in Ireland.
In the weeks after that conversation, the Consul-General of Ecuador to the United Kingdom, Fidel Narvaez, asked me to gather the Ecuadorian community for a visit he was planning to Dublin. He had no official budget for his trip so I hosted the event at home. I was uncertain of the visit’s purpose, as the UK Consul-General has no jurisdiction in Ireland, but when he arrived at my doorstep the warmth of fellow compatriots abroad won out over awkwardness and formality. We kissed on the cheek. He told me he was a political appointee and that, unlike career diplomats who are civil servants, he could openly express his alignment to President Correa. He told me he would make a presentation when people arrived and register them to vote in future elections.
I was uncomfortable with the idea of subjecting my guests to a political broadcast, but I didn’t want my discomfort to be interpreted as opposition to the government. Fidel had a disarming wide smile, good teeth and purposeful brown eyes. I showed him into my living room, where he set up his projector, laid out his literature and arranged rows of mismatched chairs from the dining room and the kitchen.
Soon the doorbell began to ring. Couples with children in arms arrived bearing gifts, unexpected trays of food and shopping bags filled with soft drinks and snacks. Some, perceiving the official air created by the rows of chairs in the living room, avoided the presentation and opted for the kitchen. There they continued to chatter and prepare food. Beer bottles were drunk from the neck and the smell of fried plantain and coconut filled the house.
In his presentation, Fidel discussed graphs depicting economic progress under the new regime, and boasted about the spending on infrastructure and social welfare projects that had made Correa popular in the shantytowns and rural areas. He talked about how the local media were bent on presenting a bleak view of the government to woo voters to the opposition. Before making his final remarks, he took off his purple v-neck sweater and turned up his white shirt sleeves. ‘Gone,’ he said, ‘will be the white elite dynasties where diplomatic posts are held for generations. Honorary consulates are unpaid posts. Ecuador does not pay for this.’ He swept his arms wide as he looked up at the high ceiling and the chandelier.
At the end of the evening, Fidel and I sat on kitchen chairs. He put leftover brochures in his briefcase and offered me a small pile to keep. He invited me to visit London. He offered to teach me how to deal with the many sorts of problems people might bring to me. He said I could call him any time if I had a question.
Days later, he was assigned to look after Julian Assange, who had arrived at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge looking for asylum, fearing extradition to the United States.
Several weeks after Fidel’s visit, owing to a series of interdepartmental mistakes in Quito, the diplomatic pouch containing my letters of appointment was sent to the old consulate address, where my father now lives alone. He did not accept delivery on my behalf, as he felt he did not have the appropriate authority. The pouch was returned to Ecuador.
It finally reached me in September 2012. It contained instructions to deliver my credentials to the Office of Protocol in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in St Stephen’s Green. In a flurry of enthusiasm, I rang to make an appointment. I spoke to a man well versed in diplomatic etiquette. Despite his neutral tone, I was embarrassed when he told me that his department had received no prior notice of my appointment and that no one had heard of me. I tried to save face by saying that I was calling to introduce myself. He replied that I was proceeding in an incorrect manner. The nearest embassy with jurisdiction to announce my appointment should make the introduction. It would then be up to the Irish authorities to consider my appointment and extend the invitation to serve in Ireland. There was a courtship that had to unfold. I had breached etiquette and appeared to be trying to crash the party.
I called Fidel. He was busy with Julian Assange. I called Ecuador. My instructions were clear. I was to deliver the papers. There was no Ecuadorian embassy with responsibility for Ireland and no one to introduce me. Already chastened, I dared not make a further call to Foreign Affairs in Dublin. Instead, I called a courier and sent my documents in an envelope addressed to the Office of Protocol. I asked my mother if she could recall what had happened in her case thirty years ago. She told me she had not been introduced; she had walked in off the street, documents in hand. That was the precedent.
Having heard nothing for a few months in response to the documents I’d sent, I phoned Foreign Affairs. It was confirmed to me that a file had been opened and that they would call me. I have not yet got the call. There is nothing left for me to do but wait.
Although my contact details are not on any official diplomatic listing, the forty-odd Ecuadorian citizens living in Ireland know where to find me. I help where I can, but often I disappoint them. I cannot sign a document or affix an official stamp. My title is empty and my signature is impotent.
I couldn’t register the Ecuadorian baby boy who was born in Limerick. And I couldn’t help the middle-aged man who arrived at my doorstep with his two young daughters in matching pastel-pink overcoats. He was in a hurry to fly home in time to bury his mother. He hung his head and a shock of jet-black hair fell into his eyes as he handed me a passport long out of date. Nor could I do more than advise the man from Galway who wanted to move to Vilcabamba, a town known as the Fountain of Youth. People there live beyond a hundred. He had plans to open a guest house.
I refer everyone who comes to me to the embassy in London. Most transactions there require an appearance in person. For many, the impediments to travel are basic: a lack of money or of valid documentation. Some people have to weigh up the risks of waiting for me to be credentialled against the cost of the ticket to London and the overnight stay, or the odds of getting stopped at immigration.
Ecuadorians are accustomed to bureaucratic farce. Still, I apologize on behalf of the state I do not yet formally represent. But the people who have sought my assistance have been stoic and patient. More often that not, it is because they have been in Ireland long enough to have met my mother.
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