On the Eve of Independence Day



“Remember to eat beforehand, and drink lots of water. We don’t want anyone passing out.”

My group of badge-wearers nods in agreement. Even in the palatial gilt foyer of the American ambassador’s residence in Paris, there’s no air conditioning. But there’s no time to worry about the unusual heat. This is the official Fourth of July party, and there are major logistics to consider. A reputation to uphold. Expectations to surpass.

The volunteer coordinator quickly moves on with the briefing, ticking off a subgroup of people: the few, the proud, the fluent French-speakers. They will have the honor of welcoming guests through the front doors and quickly herding them out to the back garden.

The rest of us embassy spouses and interns sag a bit, as if we didn’t make varsity. But not to worry: there’s plenty of guest-wrangling responsibility to go around. Group B will cover the terrace. Group C will hand out gift bags.

Our volunteer coordinator pushes ahead.

“Now, the VIPs will have stickers on their invitations. All VIPs go to the left.”

Left: through the stunning teal salon, with enough gold molding to make Louis XIV stop and gape. But there’s no time for admiring the architecture. Volunteers have got to keep those 300 or so Very Important People moving toward the receiving line at all costs.

And what about the rest of the guests? The 1,000-plus not-quite-as-important people who managed to score an invite?

“To the right. And don’t let them stray up the stairs!”

To the right: directly out onto the sunlit terrace. From there we see workers installing Route 66 signs along the garden path. On the manicured lawn sit a dark blue Harley Davidson and a creamy white vintage Pontiac convertible, ready for a très Americaine photo op. It’s important that guests get a little piece of Americana with their canapés, after all. They need some shiny reminders of why they love—and should want to work with—the good old U.S. of A.

Our leader snaps his volunteer corps back to attention. The terrace is where the ambassador will give his opening remarks at precisely 19:10, or so the plan goes. That means the terrace needs to be closed off no later than 18:50. (The party starts at 18:00.)

The group stands silent, doing the math. A hand shoots up. “So you’re saying we have about 50 minutes to get 2,000 people through the door?”

“That’s right.”

Just a beat passes before the troops regain confidence. “Eh, we invaded Normandy. We can handle it.”

It seems the American spirit is alive and well, even in the surreal realm of diplomatic party planning. The group pushes onward, descending briefly to the lawn before turning sharply toward some shrubbery-hidden stairs. We file down into the basement of the residence, the volunteer “war room.”

An old table and a few beat-up chairs sit under fluorescent lights. Well, at least it’s cool. And there’s plenty of space to store our munitions: extra water, Band-Aids for blistery feet, Powerbars.

We get a brief look at the one available volunteer restroom and then exit down a long hallway. To the left, a florist’s workshop overflows with arrangements while a woman makes last-minute stem adjustments. To the right, an industrial-size kitchen bustles with a team of sous chefs. The air hums with the sound of 10 or so extra refrigerators lining the wall.

Pushing past a few caterers, the group marches up the back staircase, arriving once again in that opulent foyer. As the volunteer coordinator reviews arrival times and gives his final orders, BlackBerrys are pulled out. He’s about to confirm a critical detail when the florist staggers in, lugging a huge box of what looks like wheat.

Of course. The Amber Waves of Grain.

Our leader jumps into action, making space for the burgeoning arrangement and offering to go grab the next box.

“You see, you guys really need to be ready to help with anything. Whatever might arise!”

The group nods, stands a bit straighter. For this party, we’re ready to be all we can be.

Jennie Willson is a writer currently posted in Vienna with her FSO husband, Nate Adams. They spent their first tour in Paris, which is a tough act to follow. You can follow her (mis)adventures abroad at www.unlikelydiplomat.com.