These words are the beginning of a song from the musical “The Sound of Music”, performed by the 7 von Trapp children, waving goodbye to guests at a ball in their Austrian castle. This song came to mind when I paid a visit to the current German Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Mr Peter Pruegel, and his Italian wife the beautiful Lucia Costantini, President of SHOM – the organisation of spouses of heads of mission.
Lucia and Peter are nearing the end of their 3 year posting in Bangkok and are now looking back on their stay here as having been a pleasant one. “We have met so many nice people and all of the Ambassadors and their spouses have become our very close friends. Time passes fast and it is with mixed feelings we are saying Auf Wiedersehen and Arrivederci to Bangkok.
”Lucia and Peter have been living in one of the most beautiful residences in Bangkok, located on Sathorn, an oasis behind walls, away from the city bustle and noisy traffic. The garden is huge and beautiful, and home to several peacocks. Here the couple has hosted many successful events over the last 3 years. As most Ambassadors and spouses, they have had a busy social life and hardly any cosy evenings alone in their beautiful home.
Peter was born in a relatively small town, Bad Säckingen, and grew up in Karlsruhe, a city in the South of Germany which is not far from the French border. His father was an artist, a sculptor teaching at an art academy. Since high school – he tells us – he was interested in the French language and in politics, which became the two subjects he majored in at the University of Konstanz.
After a one year experience as a teacher for German language at a French lycée in Epernay, he joined the postgraduate cycle at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris, the French Grande Ecole for the civil service which counts among its most famous alumni the current President Emanuel Macron. At the ENA, in 1988, he met his future wife Lucia and, after French, he learned also to speak Italian fluently.
In 1989, Peter joined the German Foreign Service and since then he has served in many countries including Italy, France, Serbia, Turkey and Israel. His first posting as an Ambassador was in Bangkok, but Asia was not unfamiliar to him, having worked as Director for Asia and Pacific previously at the headquarters in Berlin. In this capacity he had the opportunity to visit many Asian countries, from India to China, Indonesia and even North Korea.
Lucia and Peter have a daughter, who lives and works in Berlin, and a son who graduated this year from NIST and will likely be going on to further studies at the University of Oxford.We talked much about Thailand. “During our posting in Bangkok, we experienced a unique period, with the mourning year in honour of King Rama IX and the cremation ceremony – Peter says – Thailand amazed us with her people, her colours and her food, with the incredible richness of her landscapes, with a bubbling cultural as well as economic scene.
Of course, looking back at the last 3 years, there is also some frustration about the political impasse and a sense that the country is not moving as fast as wished in solving its structural problems and in the direction of the return to democracy”.Thailand and Germany cherish a longstanding and deep friendship dating back to over 155 years of bilateral diplomatic relations.
More than 850,000 Germans visit Thailand as tourists every year and over 35,000 Germans are permanently living here.“Our governments cooperate in the international political arena and we have forged a very successful economic relationship,” Peter tells me. Peter’s day starts, like for most Ambassadors, with strong coffee and newspapers. He and Lucia admit that they are not early birds: they do no special “workout” in the morning. Twice a week, the embassy staff has meetings to coordinate a variety of issues.
Economic and cultural ties are in the forefront: “Germany is Thailand’s leading European trading partner”- point out Peter – “around 600 German companies have already set up base in Thailand and more are interested to come”. Thais and Germans have also established strong cultural and social ties: the Goethe-Institut Thailand offers a wide variety of cultural events and has established an extensive language programme.
The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) proudly celebrates 60 years of a presence in Thailand with an impressive track record of more than 200 Thai-German university cooperations. Lucia is like a fresh breeze, having a ubiquitous presence in so many activities. As president of SHOM, she has recently organised a big fundraising event linking fashion and environmental issues. SHOM invited Thai designers to imagine and fabricate new creations from pre-loved clothes collected from the Bangkok diplomatic corps.
A Fashion Story: Recycle, Reshape, Reuse’ was designed to highlight the impact of fashion on the environment and draw attention to the recycling, reshaping and reusing of textiles as a vehicle to ignite and excite new fashion trends. The event raised a fair amount of money that was donated to Scholars of Sustenance, a foundation formed to address global food distribution issues.
When Lucia says goodbye to SHOM, her successor at the head of the association will be Madame Gracita, the spouse of the Swiss Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Mr Ivo Sieber. Peter and Lucia have also hosted many concerts and exhibitions during their time in Bangkok. I especially remember the peacock inspired “Features & Souls” by the Thai artist Kachama Perez, an artist of great talent who creates contemporary textile art. I wanted to hear from them about how they coped with Thai language and Thai food.
“We started to take classes when we first arrived but gave up after a while. Thai is so far away from our languages and it is very difficult to reach a level where you can effectively communicate”. Peter and Lucia have a Thai Chef at the residence and Peter says he can eat relatively spicy Thai food, but Lucia struggles when it gets too spicy. “Our Chef has learned to also cook International food, so we are fine,” they both say, with a smile.
Usually, I’m very curious to know where the next posting will be, and after a moment’s hesitation, Peter decided to tell me: “I will go to Kabul, believe it or not”. I couldn’t hold back a “wow”, that’s interesting and what about Lucia? “I will go back to Berlin, I wish to start working again,” Lucia says. She is a journalist for political affairs, with the same interests as her husband. “So in the future, you will be living apart in different parts of the world”, I said.
“I will serve in Kabul on a monthly basis, one month there and then stays in Germany for one month, so we will meet almost every second month,” Peter explains. “When my husband is in Berlin, we can enjoy spending all our time together, doing whatever we want. Berlin is a young, dynamic city,” Lucia happily says. “There is no chance I will become bored. I will also be closer to our children” she adds.
My last question to the Ambassador, as always, was “If you had the chance to dine privately with someone, anyone in the world, who would that be?” I looked at Peter and he shook his head and said “I really don’t know”… but Lucia knew; “Barack Obama of course. I would also like to include Michelle and their two daughters,” Lucia confessed. “Their family is a role model for me” she says with admiration.
Who knows, maybe Lucia will get that private dinner someday, somewhere in a cosy restaurant on Kurfürstendamm together with the Obama family. In this case, I would love to be a fly on the wall… We said our farewells, after almost 3 hours. On our way out we passed two big concrete panels from the Berlin wall that arrived in Bangkok and the embassy property a few months ago.
These two huge panels with graffiti represent and remind the Ambassador and visitors of the fall of the Berlin wall. All the best to both of you, so long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodbye… We will miss you in Bangkok.