NZ-ITALY/UNFAO, 1971-1976

From chapter 7 of the memoir Compass Points

Rome — the eternal city. Even the drive in from the airport, along the Tiber, had us transfixed. There is something incredibly attractive about a city skyline dominated by church domes and spires. Venice is the same. We learnt there was a height limit of seven storeys, church spires excepted, to which all the property owners built, meaning that the spires and domes were not rivalled, and that apart from the churches the contour of the rooftops followed the natural topography of the seven hills of Rome.

The colours of Roman buildings too wrapped around us, all soft yellows and terracotta, in shades and surfaces which had mellowed with age and glowed in the sun. And the stone bridges, and the classical ruins, and the fountains and sculptures … Rome was mesmerising. Deep history and aged architecture were everywhere. If Washington was restrained power, Rome was the unconstrained culture of western civilisation. We studied it assiduously for three and a half years, helped always by Georgina Masson’s Companion Guide to Rome, but we can still read of gems that we missed, and of new discoveries, that will call us back.

There was no government-owned house to go to, but instead of renting, the department asked that I purchase an apartment or house — realistically in Rome it had to be the former — for ourselves and our successors. It was a policy with rather more foresight than that which followed in the 1990s, when The Treasury required the ministry to pay a ‘capital charge’ of such crippling dimensions that many of the ministry’s properties had to be sold off. The ambassador’s residence in Rome, which was just ideal for the job, good enough to have a bit of prestige about it but not over-the-top for a country of New Zealand’s size and influence, was sold in this later period for a price that was wiped out in six years’ rental for a replacement. However, I was not worrying about such matters in 1973.

The best we could identify was an unfinished apartment on the north side of Rome, in a large condominium on a side street called Via Val Gardena, off the Via Cassia Nuova. It had three bedrooms and a maid’s room, which we used as a fourth bedroom since we did not have a maid, and extensive terraces, great both for family and entertaining. On one side was a tennis court and on the other a swimming pool.

The purchase of the property was a timely introduction to Italian ways, even though most of the work was done by the senior local staff member, Marcello. The purchase of any property by a foreign entity had to be approved by seven government departments, including in this case the Ministry of Defence because there was allegedly a military establishment at the end of the street, as well as by the Communa di Roma. It was done in a record five months, a tribute to Marcello’s persistence, total familiarity with the Italian bureaucracy, and his frequent use of cigarettes and bottles of whisky to keep things moving from one department to the next.

It was a race to see if we could move in by Christmas, and in the meantime we survived for five months in two rooms of a hotel. We slept in one room, four beds in a row. The race was with both the bureaucracy and the builders. While the apartment was still not finished, we were able to move in on Christmas Eve, persuading the builders, like all Italians generously tolerant of family needs, to put doors on the bathrooms before they left. What a relief, but we had a great first Christmas in Rome despite surprise at how cold it was. We joined the throngs in Piazza Novana and the Spanish Steps, and tried the local Christmas speciality of a sweet that looked like black coal, carbone della befana.

Furnishing the apartment was another saga. Wellington had decreed that furnishing proposals had to be professionally prepared and submitted for approval. It was tired of wives making choices that the next incumbent’s wife couldn’t stand. I had some say in the policy myself. Rachel spent much time with a couple of furnishing and house decoration experts, but their proposals, and what we could see in the furniture stores, were extravagant and outside our range in both style and cost. We worked through a Danish catalogue, which had a selection of outstanding Scandinavian design, with rather more rosewood and less curvy gilt and glint, readily importable at duty-free prices, and compiled our own scheme with a mix of these and some acceptable Roman offerings, and shot it off to Wellington for approval. It was Marcello’s turn to marvel: how well I must know the New Zealand system to get such a fast approval without questioning, he said admiringly.

Schooling was another early issue. We were sympathetic to the idea of immersing the three children in Italian schools, but the hours and the stress were likely to be too much and we opted for the low-risk alternative, St George’s English School. The bus to it went along the Cassia not far from our apartment, and they all settled in, in red jackets, white shirts and grey trousers/skirt, reasonably quickly and comfortably.

The office was in a most inauspicious part of Rome, next to a busy tyre repair outfit, but inside it was tidy enough and adequate for our purposes. The ambassador, former cabinet minister Phil Holloway, had been there only a couple of months but was comfortable in the job. He felt he had two central objectives. One was to get to know, and influence, the Italian Minister of Agriculture, since he was the most senior Italian official who went to Brussels to lodge Italy’s vote on matters affecting New Zealand’s agriculture exports to the EEC. The second was to develop New Zealand’s export industries to the Middle East. At this time we did not have resident missions there, and the Rome embassy was accredited to a number of them. I thought he had his priorities exactly right. He did get to know the agriculture minister and was able to win his presence at New Zealand functions, which was a notable achievement, and the envy of other ambassadors. He frequently visited the Middle East and established a range of useful contacts there too.

My own job was similarly to focus on Italian voting in Brussels, at officials’ level; to report on other aspects of Italy’s domestic and foreign policies as were relevant to New Zealand; to cover aspects of the cross-accreditations with countries closer to Italy than the Middle East — Yugoslavia, Malta and Egypt; to be New Zealand’s permanent representative to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) based in the south Rome district EUR; and all sorts of other things, including being the administrative head of the embassy.

The office staff was small and agreeable. Peter Bennett, later an ambassador to Italy, then Phillip Gibson were remarkably able diplomatic colleagues, and fortunately both much better at Italian than I. Dianna Hunter, followed by Annette Finlayson, were the consular officer and administration chief, while more-or-less running itself was a trade staff of two from the Department of Trade and Industry, supporting the efforts of our exporters to Italy and to all the other countries we dealt with. We all enjoyed the support and loyalty of several locally recruited Italian staff, and also their song as they occasionally broke out into opera.

The ministry would have been happy for me to take time off for Italian lessons after I arrived, but that was barely possible, with the aftermath of my predecessor’s accident, the need to find and purchase an apartment, and the imminent visit of a State Services inspection team. Such visits were infrequent but when they happened, just about everything stopped. The team could virtually determine the level of our allowances and thereby our standard of living for our time at the post.

The payment system at that time was for the ministry to have a list of all the everyday items that staff at a post would need — food, clothing, petrol and so on — and to cost this out at local prices. Broadly, home salary was deducted from the total and the difference paid by way of a living allowance. The inspectors’ main job was to verify that the prices used were reasonable. At its worst, the choice of shop and the quality of a single item could be debated.

Such distractions were not the only impediment to learning more than ‘shop’ Italian. The calibre of the Italian Foreign Ministry staff was superb, all of them totally fluent in English and many with a British university education, so that trying to discuss EEC politics with them in Italian was pointless. At the FAO, Italian, not one of the major United Nations languages, was never spoken, and the languages that were used were simultaneously translated into English. It will be apparent from this that I still have some guilt over not learning better Italian.

The Italian Ministry of Agriculture, which was central to our meat and other agricultural imports, was different, fully Italian with no English, and so despite always taking Peter or Phillip with me to translate, I quickly learned some key words — surgelato and congelato, for example, to distinguish deep-frozen from chilled meat.

The Italians were remarkably receptive to our representations on EEC agriculture imports. They were not great producers of our temperate products and so were not threatened by imports from New Zealand, and they were deeply irritated by what they saw as a superior attitude towards Italy by the north Europeans — hence by voting for New Zealand’s imports they were in effect getting some of their resentments against the northerners off their chests. But they still needed to be armed with arguments and to be motivated to actually go and vote on controversial issues that were not central to their own interests. On the whole we succeeded in achieving this.

Italy’s government and its economy seemed always to be skating on thin ice. Huge amounts were lost in tax avoidance and in black and grey markets. At one point a buzz went around economic commentators and the other embassies with whom we swapped notes, mainly the Australians, Canadians and Americans, that the economy was so bad that it would collapse. There was even a precise date, 1 April. I listened to all this talk, and was fully aware that my colleagues in the other embassies were reporting it back to their home capitals, but in my ignorance of economics I remained puzzled — what form would a collapse take? What would Italy and its economy be like the day after it collapsed? I decided I had better things to do, and found that letting a subject pass by can sometimes be remarkably beneficial. As the date passed, I was the toast of my colleagues for having the perspicacity to see that Italy would in fact get through.

In the bigger picture we could not help but come to respect the staying power of Italy, and attributed this to a number of conditions that did not apply to New Zealand. One was the length of its history, from Etruscan times to classical Rome, through successive waves of invaders and plunderers, the rise of Venice and the other city states, the magnificent Renaissance in Florence and elsewhere, the machinations of the papacy, and all the rest that pre-dated unification. Italians had seen it all, adapted and could take anything in their stride.

The other was the size of its population, which also enabled it to leaven the swings and fads that can move smaller societies. Italians had a large ‘centre’ that could moderate the excesses of communists and fascists and of modern fashion and traditional attachments. Italy has surely made mistakes, as in its support for Mussolini and perhaps its slowness to tackle the Mafia, but during our time the sense of a capable and experienced core to hold the country steadfast through its trials was strongly apparent.

It was a backdrop to our work that the New Zealand economy too was skating on thin ice. The twin storms of Britain joining the EEC and the oil price shocks have been well documented, and we started to receive reports of New Zealand entering recession. I had not experienced this before and wondered what it would mean. Certainly I felt in our day-to-day work we could not afford to be generous or lax with expenditure.

In 1973 Henry Kissinger, the American Secretary of State, decided there should be a World Food Conference, to address growing food shortages in developing countries. Because of the FAO it was held in Rome, and I was appointed leader of the New Zealand delegation. Since the focus, as in FAO work, was on grain shortages mainly in Africa, there was not much opportunity for New Zealand to play a significant role, but even if the attention had been on dairy and meat products there was little likelihood that we would be leading the way with offering it up as food aid.

There was, however, one overarching policy issue of direct relevance to us, of whether developing countries should be encouraged as a matter of high priority to become self-sufficient in food production. The term autarchy became the short-hand for that. Many developing countries argued that they should, and that foreign aid should be directed to help them become less dependent on food imports. The counter-argument was the classical free trade approach that countries should develop sectors that they were good at, export the surplus of these, and import what otherwise they could only produce inefficiently. New Zealand was in the latter camp, which eventually carried the day — the conference ended without endorsing the autarchic approach.

It had been pre-determined that a new organisation should be formed to deal specifically with food aid, and at the conference the International Fund for Agricuture Development (IFAD) was born. It was of wide interest because it was composed of three clusters of countries, the developed and the developing, as was normal in all UN bodies, and the OPEC oil-producing countries. High level pressure from the Americans and others had extracted the concession from the oil-rich countries that they should be contributors not recipients in addressing world food problems.

The next stage was agreement that each group would have an equal share of total voting rights, one third each, and that each group would decide for itself how it would allocate its vote between its members. We caucused with the developed countries and I was elected to chair a committee set up to resolve a voting system for our group. Its first meeting instantly split on predictable lines, with some of the biggest donors, led vigorously by the Americans, arguing that each country should have a vote proportionate to its financial contribution, a weighted voting system along the lines used by the International Monetary Fund. Smaller countries, led by the Nordics, argued that as this was a UN body there must be one country one vote, regardless of the size of its contribution.

If I had not been in the chair, New Zealand would no doubt have supported the Nordics, although I personally was not unsympathetic to some recognition that who pays the piper calls the tune. It always seemed to me that the UN would ultimately fail if on every issue each tiny island state had the same voting power as the United States or China. And the reality was that New Zealand had little riding on the decision in practical terms; we were not going to be channelling significant amounts of food aid through IFAD. However, all that was irrelevant as I listened to country after country stake out in uncompromising terms their support for one side or the other. I closed the first meeting by fixing another for an early morning start the next day and a homily that delegates would have to start contributing to a compromise.

The next day no one budged an inch. At one stage the Americans advanced the argument that they had special issues relating to the separation of powers under their constitution, and that if they did not report back to Washington with a weighted voting formula there was no way the senate would ratify any agreement approving IFAD. I growled that all our countries in this group had parliaments or legislatures to deal with for obtaining the ratification of treaties, ignoring that under the parliamentary system the government normally controlled the majority in a parliament. This put that particular argument to rest, but did not change the dynamics of the situation. No one moved.

I called another early morning meeting. It would be our last; we were to report back to the conference plenary at 9.30 a.m. that day. I made another plea before we broke from the second for delegations to show flexibility, but found in the new day it too had fallen on deaf ears. I had heard of a mixed system used in one of the IMF/World Bank family of Washington-based institutions in which countries’ votes were partly decided by contribution and partly by an equal vote. This gave a diluted weighted voting outcome, depending on what were the proportions of each component.

I knew of no other possible solution, and pondered whether to lay it on the table at the beginning of the meeting and seek buyin after discussion, or leave it until there was no choice. I opted for the latter, and after letting the main proponents reiterate their positions for the third uncompromising time, I interrupted to outline the precedent for a mixed system and to say that we would have to support that. In recognition of the fact that the majority of the countries present had supported the one country-one vote approach, and that whatever mix was used the outcome was a form of weighted voting, and perhaps also in recognition of my own country’s position, I said the chair had decided that we would have 60 percent of each country’s vote determined as for an equal vote each, and 40 percent according to the size of its contribution. There was no resistance as I said I would report this to plenary in five minutes time and closed the meeting.

IFAD was followed a week or so after by a meeting of Commonwealth development ministers in London. No New Zealand minister could go and I was assigned to act as ours. Rachel had looked forward to coming, and had arranged for friends to look after the family for a week, but the day before Philip had an accident with the school bus, breaking his hip, and Rachel felt she had to stay back. It was a pity because as our acting minister and delegation head I was accorded guest-of-government status by the British government.

I found I had little to contribute besides occasionally sounding positive — my brief certainly was not permissive of offering to contribute further to Commonwealth development activities. But it is sometimes the case at international meetings that making sure nothing is agreed that is contrary to New Zealand’s interests is a valid justification for the effort of being there. Late in the meeting — day three of four — the subject of food self-sufficiency came up and again, as initially in Rome, there was widespread support for this. None of the ministers present had been to the World Food Conference. It was easy, drawing on that conference, to explain how the issue of autarchy in food production had been rejected in favour of dealing with food as another tradeable item. There was no point in the Commonwealth trying to reverse this or fly off in the opposite direction. The meeting accepted this and dropped the thought of supporting self-sufficiency.

There was not much time to devote to the embassy’s crossaccreditations, but Egypt called for several visits because New Zealand was stepping up its relations there, partly because it was influential in the Middle East and in the non-aligned movement which was then quite important, and partly because it was perceived as a growing dairy market. My first visit started badly: I arrived late in the evening at the Hilton Hotel to be told that my booking could not be upheld. A foreign head of state was making a short-notice visit and the entourage had taken over the whole hotel.

The receptionist made a pro-forma call to another hotel to confirm that it was fully booked like every other liveable hotel in Cairo. Surely you must know someone in Cairo to help, the receptionist asked. I didn’t. In the end I asked him to phone the Australian ambassador for me. As soon as I explained the situation he said, of course, his car would be there in ten minutes. Robin Ashwin confirmed the close support that New Zealanders and Australians gave each other abroad.

In reflection of Egypt’s political status I had to arrange for a senior reporter from Cairo’s main newspaper to visit New Zealand. We would meet all expenses, but needed a commitment to three stories and photographs of some prominence. Eventually at a meeting with senior editors we found words that encompassed this, the visit to New Zealand took place, and positive stories were published.

The dairying interest posed different challenges: New Zealand had decided, as part of a relationship that included better access to the Egyptian market, that it would support the development of a domestic dairy industry in the Nile delta. I had to extract reports on how this project was going and be satisfied that it was money well spent. Well, documentation was forthcoming, and I decided I was unlikely to be able to add anything much to it by insisting on walking around the delta in boots. More to the point I concluded that the main benefit was the obvious goodwill and appreciation of the Cairo officials, rather than the efficiency and output of the farm itself, and the main effect to be measured was the increase in Egypt’s dairy imports from New Zealand, not the contribution of the farm to expanding consumer interest in dairy products.

Yugoslavia was a united country then and firmly in the grip of Tito’s regime, which was labelled communist but might equally have been fascist. Like Egypt, it was prominent in the non-aligned movement and its officials were duly interested in swapping views and expanding political co-operation, particularly about issues in the United Nations. The visits to its capital were fleeting but I took early mornings and evenings to try to get a feel for the mood of the citizens towards the regime. Even the fact that I could walk around at will indicated a measure of openness: Belgrade was not Pyongyang. The residents looked contented enough with their prescribed life, perhaps reinforcing the theory that people value security and stability first, and freedom and democracy next. I felt their standard of living was steadily improving. I was interested to find one newsstand where I could buy a Western newspaper, the Herald Tribune, and I guessed if I could find that, the people living there could find their own ways of keeping in touch with the outside world.

Annette Finlayson kept a firm hand on the consular work, which involved looking after New Zealand citizens when necessary. The likelihood of New Zealanders being robbed of everything while just walking along the street or going to a night-club was rather high, although it happened to other nationalities too. New Zealand (and Australian) men at that time wore short shorts and jandals when out in the summer, attire that no Italian male would be seen dead in. Once walking to a meeting with my Australian counterpart Richard Gate we saw two such people walking towards us. We turned to each other and said simultaneously, ‘They’re yours!’

One consular case came up that I couldn’t avoid. Annette told me of a New Zealand-born woman in Rome whose family had shifted to the United States. This person claimed to have information the Italian government did not wish released publicly about the fascist connections and corruption of many members of the government and parliament. She felt she was being persecuted and at risk from the Italian authorities. Her stress over this led her to make irrational threats and to threaten suicide. The Italian authorities wished to take her into a mental hospital for her own good. They needed to have a family member, or in the absence of that the New Zealand embassy, formally consenting to taking her in against her will. Annette, with medical advice, became convinced the risk of suicide was serious, and recommended we consent.

This was the last thing I wanted to be responsible for, but after sweating on it I agreed and signed. My sense of responsibility meant that I could not just leave her to her fate, and I visited her whenever I could in the hospital on the outskirts of Rome. I was amazed at her progress under the drug treatment the Italian doctors prescribed. She put on weight but otherwise became relaxed and level-headed. Eventually the time came when the Italian authorities said she could be released, provided she went home and did not stay in Italy.

That posed a new problem: her closest relative, her brother, was living in one of the southern states of the United States. It would not be easy to get US approval for a New Zealander in effect deemed mentally incompetent and expelled from Italy to enter the United States permanently. I sought an appointment with the deputy chief of mission in the American Embassy, whom I knew, and went over the case, stressing the absence of any other option. We had ascertained first that the brother was willing to accept her at his home.

Finally it was agreed, the brother arrived in Rome and I went to see her released into his care, an operation of some precision, and watched and waved as they were whisked off under escort to the airport. It was a day of great relief; she had run on in the background of most of our three-and-a-half years in the eternal city. I at no stage passed judgement on her original concerns about the risks to her because of the information she had uncovered. For all I knew this material may well have been accurate and she could have been essentially sane throughout the whole episode. I had signed up because we were truly concerned she might take her life, not because we thought she was obsessed with shonky information and unwarranted fears of conspiracies against her.

The other really difficult exercise that caused a fair bit of stress and lasted seven or eight months related to a New Zealand bid for the position of director-general of the FAO. The term of the incumbent expired while we were in Rome, and an eminent New Zealander, Dr Eric Ojala, an assistant director general, informed me he was going to seek the job. He could only do this with New Zealand government support. I had come to know Eric quite well, and felt he was totally able and would be very competent in the job, but I was doubtful of the political support he would get. We went through a potential campaign and studied where his support would come from. Eric’s case was that he knew and had the respect of the ministers of agriculture who would decide their countries’ votes, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

In the end I advanced his case to Wellington — it would take resources to bankroll a campaign of this nature and it had to be a government decision. There was a long silence and in my preoccupation with other matters I had almost forgotten the matter when one day a memorandum arrived saying that the prime minister had committed to the campaign. I must say my heart sank because in the intervening period other candidates had been announced and the prospect of Eric’s success looked slim. There was also not much budget allocated to it.

Eric however was delighted and set off on lobbying tours of the capitals throughout the developing world, mainly at his own expense. I convened meetings of the permanent representatives to FAO resident in Rome and put his case, arranged a number of one117 on-one meetings between him and government representatives, and in other ways was incessantly lobbying. It was like all these situations, a difficult numbers game: he reported back on many commitments of support but I doubted they would be realised on the day of reckoning. Late in the piece the Canadians fielded a strong candidate who took a key block of Caribbean votes from Eric. But the main threat was a candidate from Lebanon, whose campaign was immensely well funded and drew core support from the Arab and Moslem world, which included African and Asia countries. In the end he won handsomely, with Eric getting few votes outside of a loyal South Pacific.

There were light-hearted moments at work too. We took turns in alternate years with the Australian embassy to organise an Anzac Day service in an inner-city church. One year it was Australia’s turn and in the lead-up to it they received an instruction from Canberra — this was the Whitlam years — that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was to be used as its national anthem, not ‘God Save the Queen’. But then on the eve of the service another instruction came in: the words of the anthem were being reviewed and while it should still be played it should not be sung. If the audience wished to join in they should hum!

Thankfully life in Rome was not all office work. We wanted to see as much of the country and the surrounding Mediterranean as we could, and set out to do so. We bought a large tent and the necessary equipment and from time to time ventured afield, mainly through the neighbouring provinces of Umbria and Tuscany, but sometimes further. One trip was to the far south and Sicily, where the maddest thing we decided upon was to go up to the upper levels of Mt Etna by cable car without proper clothing. Our reasoning was that it couldn’t be too cold up there in the midst of the heat below, and if it was we would just come straight down again. That last option was certainly the course of action we took. But between the Roman amphitheatre at Taormina and the Norman churches of Palermo we had it confirmed again and again that Italy’s history and art were amazing.

Our biggest adventure was to aim for Turkey. We drove south to Brindisi and then by ferry across to Greece. We saw the Acropolis, Marathon, and below the ruins of Delphi went to a night club of sorts in a cave where only Greek music was played and only the men danced. Then on to Turkey. This was when tension between Greece and Turkey was at a peak, and there was a strong military presence at the ready on both sides of the border, which was a river crossed by a bridge. Both countries still wanted tourists, so it was possible to get across. The traffic in Turkey was chaotic, the roads overloaded with trucks driving in a hair-raising manner, and when we made it to Istanbul we knew we could not go much further.

Istanbul was still in the earlier stages of becoming a modern metropolis. It was fascinating to explore, finding winding back streets, roughly paved, washing hanging across the street, and street entertainment including dancing bears. We encamped on the outskirts of the city but survived there only one night before shifting into a city hotel. That one night held a conversation that has stuck in our memories: a campervan with four young couples heading for Australia parked alongside us, and in talking over evening meal preparations we found that one of them was not of the original party that had started off from the UK weeks before. A woman had dropped out in France and they had met this stranger of the same sex and age who wanted to come with them and seemed suitable. But she had proved to be a total misfit.

It is central to add here that she was a redhead, and apparently Turkish men are particularly attracted to red-haired women. So since they had entered Turkey they had had a number of offers to buy her. Our male informant said they were seriously tempted! But some sense of values held them back, and they were stuck with no obvious good options. But the next day from the modest comfort of our hotel we explored Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the great underground cistern, and bought two colourful Turkish rugs at the Grand Bazaar.

For all the heat and dirtiness and bad driving, we liked Turkey and the Turkish people, and were almost as taken by their history and architecture as we were by Italy’s. It seemed to be moving firmly towards a modern, secular state. We went home a different route, to Edirne and through Romania, then back into Italy around Venice at the top. I remember most vividly our last night, near Florence, for the wrong reasons. We were in the tent on a gentle grassy slope when a sustained downpour drenched the site and threatened the inside of the tent. I was up digging a ditch around it to divert the water, soaked at two in the morning.

The children must have grown up thinking all holidays consisted of seeing classical ruins, cathedrals and mosques, and endless museums. They were remarkably patient. We found it hard to know what they were absorbing but once back in Rome Rachel and I unsuccessfully tried one Sunday afternoon to get them to accompany us to see a church in the Roman Forum, the basilica Santi Cosma e Damiano. I said it was famous for its early mosaics. One of the boys said he knew what they would be: Christ in the centre with six sheep on either side representing the twelve disciples. This was a recall of the basilica church, Sant’Apollinare in Classe near Ravenna. He was right.

There were plenty of pleasant routines about life in Rome. We had a favourite restaurant where the children could watch their pizzas being made with some showman-like flamboyance. We had a default Sunday morning project of going to the American library at Santa Suzanna and changing our books. School concerts and sports days at St George’s were pretty much the same as at home. But there were also plenty of everyday difficulties that at times caused substantial stress — strikes and traffic jams, getting things repaired, erratic rubbish collections, buying in the face of crowds that would not queue and with a perpetual risk of rip-offs over negotiated prices, social mores that were so different from ours — there was a long list that qualified the pleasure of the posting. Rachel and I said to each other on departure that we should not forget these, that we would be unfair to ourselves if over time we remembered only the good things.

Once, attending a conference in Milan, I was surprised to find how orderly that city was compared with the chaos of Rome. However, when delegates from Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe found I had come not from New Zealand but from Rome, they asked how could I live in such total disarray? I laughed to tell them that we got by, there were compensations, but that after Rome, the Italy they were seeing in Milan was the epitome of order. They listened in disbelief, that Rome could be worse.

Needless to say we have in fact largely forgotten the difficulties of daily life — time has indeed given us nothing but a warm glow about the posting, a sense of privilege at having the opportunity to live in the place where so much of the history of western civilisation has been played out, and where the people, language and lifestyle are so warm and admirable.

There is too much to write about to cover adequately our time in Italy. We won a prize at a school gala evening that gave us a Mediterranean cruise to Barcelona. Philip Gibson found an Italian bride and we had a wedding with Gillian as flower girl. We were taken to some Etruscan tombs near Civitavecchia and saw much vivid activity drawn on the walls that might well be described as erotica, reflecting the Etruscan belief that the dead should take with them into the afterlife all the best things they enjoyed in this world. We attended an outdoor opera in the famous amphitheatre of Verona, and Aida with the elephants at the Terme di Caracalla near Rome … and much more.

But it had to end. We were lucky we could fit in a stopover in Jerusalem on the way home, then back to the house on the hill in Wilton, Wellington.