For many foreign ambassadors, “official Washington,” with its perennial partisanship, bureaucracies and cocktail parties, is about as close as they’ll ever get to encountering America.
Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) thinks that’s a shame.
So once each Congress since 1998, he and his wife, Ginny, have loaded a couple of motor coaches with members of the capital’s foreign diplomatic community for a three-day visit to his eastern Pennsylvania district in the heart of the state’s Dutch country.
During the visit, the ambassadors stay with Pitts’ constituents, take tractor rides at and tour Case New Holland, a farm equipment manufacturer in the district, and are treated to Pennsylvania Dutch family-style cooking, among other historical and cultural activities.
Pitts, who is also co-founder of the Adopt-A-Country Caucus, said he was inspired to launch the visits after hearing that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had invited foreign ambassadors to visit his home state, although he believes he is the only Member to bring these ambassadors into the homes of “regular Americans.”
The biannual trip, which costs between $8,000 to $10,000, is funded through privately raised monies, from groups such as the local U.S. chambers of commerce, Pitts said.
Last week, dozens of foreign diplomats and host families gathered at the Royal Thai Embassy for a reunion of the 2004 “Ambassador Visit,” the first ever for program participants. (The next trip won’t be until October 2006.)
Thai Ambassador Kasit Piromya, who took part last year, said he’d been impressed with the “peaceful” life he found in the Pennsylvania countryside, as well as with his encounters with the Amish community — aspects missing from life back in Bangkok.
Evan Paki, the ambassador from Papua New Guinea, stayed with an Amish family on a 108-acre dairy farm in Gap, and was also struck by the “simplicity and creativity and sense of family” that existed in the community.
Mihail Manoli, the ambassador from Moldova, said the trip provided the opportunity to see “what is a real market economy” at a time when his country, a former Soviet republic, was undergoing land privatization.
Several ambassadors present at the reunion said their countries were looking into doing business with Case New Holland.
The trips have also forged many friendships, and many of their American hosts said they had, or planned to, visit the ambassadors in their home countries.
Perry Mahaffy, a registered nurse from Chadds Ford and a former member of the U.S. Navy Rifle Team, said his family had remained particularly close to a Lithuanian diplomat, now a European commissioner, who had stayed with them a few years back.
In fact, he’d even taught her to shoot a .38 Special revolver.
After she returned to Lithuania and became its minister of finance, the woman was given a firearm for protection and asked if she knew how to use it, Mahaffy said.
“Oh, yes,” Mahaffy recalls her later relating. “My friends in Pennsylvania taught me how to defend myself.”