A Virtuoso Diplomat and Piano Player

by Agneta de Bekassy
Virtouso

When I walked into the Chilean Ambassador’s residence on a very humid morning, I was greeted by H.E. Ambassador Christian Rehren, Chile’s Ambassador to Thailand. It was a warm welcome, as warm as the climate, but more gracious and forgiving. This man belongs to my list of favourites and I’m very proud to call him my friend.

We only met recently, but it was “mi honor” upon first meeting, or let me say, “simpatico” in the first instance. It was hard to concentrate on the obligatory questions, as we immediately had several private stories to share. This morning I, along with the renowned Swedish photographer Thomas Engström, got a thorough and edifying history and geographic lesson
about the unique Latin American country, Chile. What did I know about Chile? Well not too much if truth was to known.

My incipient thought was, of course, fine Chilean wines. Chilean wines belong in the category of the best of “New World Wines.” I also happened to know that fly-fishing is something spectacular in Chile, and that it is also popular to choose Chile as a world-class destination to train as a ski instructor. Sketchy and arcane knowledge, I admit, but after having spent hours interviewing Christian, I know a lot more.

Chile is sometimes seeing distinctive from other Latin countries: “We look very serious and not as lively as many of our Latin American neighbouring countries”, Christian tells us. This cannot apply to him: he is the most spontaneous man with ready bursts of laughter, as I got to know from the outset. “We are also a country far from everyone else in a way.” To travel to Chile means you have a very long flight in front of you. If travelling from Bangkok to Santiago, you must be prepared for a flight duration of 23.5 hours, effective flying time, and if via Dubai, you can count on 16.5 hours. This in contrast to perceived long flight journeys, usually to Australia.

Chile is a relatively small country with a population of 17 million, almost the same number of inhabitants as Bangkok. In the south of Chile, you find mountains, you have snow and in the north the terrain and climate are similar to Arizona in the USA. Here you will find desert, the Moon Valley. You have four seasons. In the autumn the leaves of the trees turn beautifully red, yellow and orange and the lakes and rivers are getting cold. Christian showed us photos from different parts of Chile, and it is indeed a country that offers all kinds of habitat. In the south, you can see the midnight sun, though a bit different from what we have up in the northern part of Scandinavia.

Incredibly, the southern tip of Chile, is not more than 3 flight hours from Antarctica. Christian was born in a place called Los Andes, a city in central Chile’s Aconcagua Valley. Here you find the scenic mountain route to Argentina and nearby is Rio Blanco National Reserve, home to pumas and condors. Christian has brothers and sisters and two daughters, all living in Chile. His mother is of Italian origin and is still a vibrant woman at the age of 86 and a musician and poet.

Christian himself could easily have become a famous concert pianist if he hadn’t applied himself to diplomacy. I had to ask if he had always wanted to become a diplomat. He laughed and said, “Not at all. I saw one day an ad in the paper, gave it a try and sent in my application and before knowing what happened, I became a diplomat.” He was only three years old when the family moved to a place close to the capital Santiago.

He went to school there and later at university, studied biology and focused on marine science, a considerable distance from his current duties and focus. His diplomatic career started in 1981 with a post at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Chile. His first posting abroad was in Ecuador, a country that has very good ties with Chile. He stayed three years in Ecuador before getting transferred to El Salvador. That was a tough time as a civil war was going on, in 1988. The country had all the political extremes: left-oriented with close ties to Nicaragua and the former Soviet Union and hard right wingers. Christian calls it “a bloody time”. He was shot at twice while in his car: everybody seemed to be trying to kill each other. Not an easy situation and period for the weak hearted, he admits.

Mountain

“It was a warm welcome,
as warm as the climate,
but more gracious and
forgiving.”

This was the FMLN period, circa 1989, with longstanding social problems, a growing youth population with limited job opportunities, a “dirty time”. During this period both the Swiss and Swedish Ambassadors were killed there. Before the end of the Cold War, the country was without a government for a number of days, and no one knew what to do with the abundance of arms and the violent behaviour of its parties. Chile has always been very attached to Sweden. Chileans have always been attracted to Sweden, perceiving that it has a very strong, socialistic government with the popular (late) Olof Palme as Prime Minister. (Olof Palme was murdered in Stockholm, February 28th, 1986.)

In 1990, Christian was back in Chile before being reassigned to Romania. This was a very strenuous assignment as there was not enough food; Coke didn’t exist, a very austere time. It was cold, with hardly any heating, with only the regime enjoying such privileges and salaries were extremely low, as evidenced in a very poor country at that time. After some struggling years, it was time for Christian to travel to London (the contrast must have been heavenly!).

He arrived in 1995 and stayed 5 years in Great Britain, until December 1999. There have been many ups and downs for Christian during this period, as former President Pinochet was arrested and Spain tried to extradite him from the UK for a trial, charged with torture and civil atrocities: much back and forth discussion and negotiation. The 29th of January 1990, was the day Pinochet finally was charged with his crimes after 17 years of military dictatorship (1973-90).

Christian had hoped to be able to discover the UK during his last 1½ years of his posting, but instead he found himself working 24 hours, seven days a week. It was a very interesting time, but also tough, he admits. He entered the UK at the same time as John Major become PM, and ended his period there with Tony Blair in office.

Christian pointed out repeatedly how Chile looks up to Europe, admiring European open mindedness and liberal attitude, among other values. Chile has many citizens in its southern region who speak German, and this comes with the heavy traditions associated with German culture, alongside Dutch, Swedish, Swiss and Croats Diasporas. Many Chileans speak German. For the past 3/4 years, Thailand has become a tourist destination for Chileans. More and more people from Chile want to come and explore Thailand.

In 2017 around 25.000 Chileans came as tourists to Thailand and the amount will increase in year 2018. As with most countries, Thailand and Chile have an exchange of students. It is rather easy for Thai students to go to Chile as no visa is required. As a student you can go for 1 year to study in Chile.

For Christian, let us now jump to year 2001: Japan became his next destination. This is a country with such an interesting culture, the music, the costumes, their philosophy, Christian says. “I really enjoyed my time there and it passed too fast, I had to leave in 2003.”

Time for the Big Apple, New York. “I was posted during 2½ years in NY at the Chilean period in the UN Security Council. It was also a difficult time, but I learned so much. The UN has 194 countries to deal with. I was involved with Human Rights and worked closely with Sweden. I can honestly say it was a work all day round, but time passed very quickly. After the New York experience, I went back to Santiago 2006 – 2007. This was an extremely productive time. It was during the time of the Iberoamerican Summit (the Conference of Heads of States and Governments, a yearly meeting of the heads of governments).

In 2008 I found myself in Washington D.C. and here lasted 3, almost 4 years before I received my first posting as Ambassador in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “I very much enjoyed my time in Kuala Lumpur, and Asia”, Christian tells me, “but everything comes to an end and in April 2015, I was back in Chile.”

His next destination as an Ambassador, you can probably guess, he tells me with a bright smile, is Thailand and Bangkok. In May 2017 Christian settled in Bangkok and he happily admits, this short period here has been one of the best in his life. I can’t help smiling, as I know he hasn’t only found a vibrant city, interesting people, but has also found something else that is very important, or let us say someone who has become too special to him.

One of the questions I usually ask is: “Are you an early bird or a night owl?” Christian laughs and says: “I think I’m both. I don’t need that much sleep, but with age, I think you have to be a bit more concerned and at least 7 hours a night is probably much healthier”. Another character question: “What is your goal, what would you like to reach during your stay here?”, and Christian responds as do most Ambassadors, “To promote my country, trading, make our wines even more popular.

I want to transfer and promote experiences, e.g. the hospitality in Thailand is working extremely well and the way the people in hotels and resorts welcome you, the way of politeness and smiling that is something that I would like to transfer to the people at home. Thailand is renowned for its hospitality and that, we need to work on. I also admire the handcrafts here, the musical abilities, dancing, you name it”.

Now I must say Christian is not only a good historian, he writes poetry, something he has in common with the Russian Ambassador Kiril Barsky, and he plays piano and the organ like a professional: a Renaissance man indeed! He’s also interested in food and cooking and yes, he likes Thai spicy food. Thailand is exporting a lot of canned foods to Chile.

There is almost no production of tuna fish in Chile, but there is huge production in Thailand. Thailand is also very successful in computers, InfoTech, etc., which we are taking advantage of. Chile has also invested in manufacturing in Thailand and, as mentioned before, tourism is increasing both ways. I don’t misspeak when I say, I could spend days listening to this man.

He is spontaneous, a good dancer, in good shape, his list of attributes is long, not the least because he is a wonderful host. Before we ended our talk, he went to open a bottle of Chilean red wine and his lovely maid Sita, served homemade Empanadas which tasted heavenly. My last question was: “if you could pick one person on our globe to have a private dinner with, who would you choose?”

I didn’t get an answer., except, “I have to think, I really don’t know, as there are so many interesting people around, it’s impossible to pick just one, but you know I have a favourite, but that’s another story……” It was time to leave. Christian took half a day to talk to me and to be a model for the photographer. He was also kind enough to dress casually and to catch a basketball. Thank you for a most enjoyable morning and everything you told and showed us. It felt like having a geography lesson back in school, when you took out your globe and showed us Chile and its isolated location.

Chile is now on my bucket list to visit in the future.

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