FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: May 8, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Today is May 8, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I am interviewing Filippo Tattoni-Marcozzi. So welcome, Filippo, and thank you for participating. So, tell us your ethnicity and the posts and the dates where you accompanied your husband, Eric Nelson.
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: I’m an Italian citizen, and I married Eric five years ago after the Equal Marriage Act was passed, although we’ve been together for almost 20 years. So, I followed Eric in numerous posts. We met when he was Consul in Milan. After that, we had our first stay in Washington, DC, then he was Consul General in Munich. Following that, he went to Islamabad, but Pakistan was an unaccompanied post, so I lived in London, where I used to live before meeting Eric. Then we were in Costa Rica, where he was Deputy Chief of Mission and then five years in Washington, DC again. When he was nominated to be Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I followed him to Sarajevo for the last three years. We just moved back to Munich, where we lived 15 years ago, and he is the Ambassador-in-Residence at the Marshall Center for Security and Military Cooperation.
Q: What languages do you speak?
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: Italian, English, Spanish, and a bit of Bosnian.
Q: When you met Eric, he was already in the Foreign Service. So, what were your greatest challenges pf living with someone and then marrying someone who was in the Foreign Service?
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: I think the biggest challenge is that you have to make a plan about your relationship sooner than other people might have because American Foreign Service members have rather short posts, three years maximum, while Europeans are usually four and even five. So, when you meet and fall in love with an American Foreign Service Officer and sometimes abroad, you have to evaluate your relationship rather quickly to decide: am I going to follow or am I going to stay behind? and is this going to be a future for us? So, you get on some kind of speed dating mode, trying to reach a point where you know what you want to do when it’s time to move to the next post. So, that was the challenge. And, as everybody might agree, things sometimes just happen at the right time in your life and in the right place. So, we were lucky enough to be in that kind of mode at the same time, and it wasn’t too difficult for me to reshape my life and my career and follow him after his Milan post was over.
Q: So how does your background and your experience impact your life as a FSO [Foreign Service Officer] spouse?
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: I think it does enormously and on so many levels. First, you bring to the table another set of skills from a different culture and a different background and sometimes also a different understanding of world politics or cultures. So, you do feel that your point of view, which might be different from your spouse, is appreciated and sometimes beneficial to the conversation. From that point of view, you feel quite empowered because you feel that you are able to open some doors and some windows into the understanding of other peoples and cultures, languages, and vice versa. Of course, at the same time, it is a bit of a challenge, because once you start living that life, following your partner in the Foreign Service, you have to rather quickly understand not only the American way of living and working but also the American bureaucracy and the American system and thousands of acronyms which you’re not used to. So that, it’s a sort of double-edged sword. Somehow you feel that you totally belong, and you actually have a very good role, but at the same time, you do feel like a fish out of water because you haven’t grown up organically in that culture.
Q: So, you had to learn not only the American culture but also the American Government culture. And all those acronyms, how an embassy works, and all of that, especially as Eric moved up the ranks to be DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], and then finally Ambassador. So that’s kind of how you adapted to Foreign Service life and living abroad. How was it being associated with American embassies? You were in the American life but a foreigner within the American Embassy.
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: Well, it was actually quite special. And I was fortunate enough to follow Eric as the U.S. Ambassador to a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the love and gratitude and the special, heartfelt relationship between the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and America is astounding. Sadly, less and less in the world, you still have that incredible bond and welcoming. And so for me, it was a wonderful experience to be able to be associated with an American by being able to see what those American values can still bring to the heart and mind of a lot of people. And especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it reminded me what might have been in my own Italy after the Second World War, where the Americans were the liberators and enjoyed decades of special friendship and special relationship. I felt that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that was quite a unique experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. In other places, of course, the relationship between Americans and the local government or the local culture might be a little bit more difficult. And in that case, being a foreign national spouse sort of allows you to also be perceived as a kind of in-between: Somebody who is married to the American Foreign Service Officer but at the same time, for example in Costa Rica, where I was also very much seen as a sort of Latin, somebody who would understand them and their culture possibly more than an American from Texas. So, you learn to use the best in both ways and to bring that and also absorb accordingly. It’s great to have the double vision but also to be seen differently because you can appeal differently to the people you meet.
Q: I want to talk about your experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because as you know, we served there too. And it was a great place because they were so positive toward Americans. You may not know this, we have a neighbor who was part of a Congressional Delegation, a CODEL, and she went to Bosnia recently, and as the spouse of the Ambassador, you showed her around. So, I want to ask you how it was for you being the spouse of an ambassador or spouse of a DCM and what your roles were in the American Embassy in Sarajevo with CODELs and other kinds of official business.
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: First of all, let me tell you, Bonnie, that as my predecessor, and as the spouse of the ambassador, you were the one that left the warmest memories, and your name came up so many times during my visits to different organizations and different groups that the embassy had been supporting for years. So that’s definitely something that we, the spouses, hope we can leave behind. We are usually tasked with a lot of work that is not necessarily recognized, because it’s a sort of gray area where there are expectations but at the same time, there are no rules and no real assignments. So, you have to come up with your own agenda and what you would like to do. But the freedom is very limited, and you constantly have to make sure that you don’t step on someone else’s feet at the embassy and that you have the support of the people at the embassy. And at the same time, you have to make sure that there’s no conflict of interest, both personal and workwise, for your spouse or for the policy that the American Government is pursuing. So, it’s a very complex and at times a little uncomfortable position, because in a way, you’re very much required to be seen and to be involved, not only from the host country, but also from the U.S. Government and the people who work at the embassy. They really want you to participate and to take the lead sometimes, but at the same time, you have to constantly make sure that you do not say or do what you are not allowed to, and that is, at times, a little complicated.
If I would give any advice to any spouse of an ambassador, it would be to remember that you need to make sure to have a special, frank, honest and direct connection with the DCM. The DCM is tasked with approving anything that you ask to do, any meeting that you are invited or any conference, or anything that you’ve been asked to do from outside of the embassy; you have to clear it with the DCM who checks on conflict of interest and with the lawyers in Washington. So, it’s a very bureaucratic, complex situation for them. And I found that having a great relationship with the DCM made it clear that I could have explained directly to her why I thought it was something that I would have wanted to accept, in terms of the invitation and also asking advice from her and PAO [Public Affairs Officer] on how to handle that specifically. If you have some allies in the DCM and in PAO, they will make your life much easier and more enjoyable, and you will be able to actually feel more useful. Failing that connection and that alliance, it’s going to be very complicated for you to be able to express yourself or to engage yourself; even charities can be complicated because of course one of the rules is that we are not allowed to fundraise in a foreign country. So, everything has to be well considered. And I think if you manage to have a good, frank, and open relationship immediately with the DCM and PAO, a lot of things can be done together and then you start feeling useful, and you can leave the mark that you wish to leave behind.
Being a same-sex spouse of an ambassador was, of course, more complicated. When we were in Costa Rica, Eric and I were still not legally married. There was no same sex marriage law passed in the U.S., and although I was on in Eric’s orders as his partner, when we arrived in Costa Rica, that country had a very conservative Christian government that opposed giving me a full diplomatic immunity. And of course, for family members and spouses, especially when your spouse is senior, and in that case the DCM, not having a full diplomatic immunity could be an issue in case there is an evacuation, and in that case without diplomatic immunity and status, you drop to the end of the list. So, we were fortunate that the Secretary of State at the time was Secretary Clinton, who fought very hard for every family in the State Department. And even before the Equal Marriage Act was passed within the Department, Secretary Clinton changed the rules where everyone was able to put their partners on their orders, regardless of the sex or being married or not. That made a huge difference. And Secretary Clinton pressured the President of Costa Rica for me to be recognized as a diplomatic spouse.
And fast forward several years, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we were the first same sex couple arriving as the American Ambassador. This time, we were married but we were posted also in a very conservative country, where not only there is no gay marriage but where the LGBTQ community still suffers great discrimination, and at times, people are physically attacked. When we were there actually, we were able to enjoy the first Gay Pride parade ever held in in Sarajevo, and the only European capital that still hadn’t had one. So for me, it was difficult in order to make sure that I was using my position, by just existing and being there in that role, to inspire and to open minds, but at the same time, making sure that I was not going to make myself the center of the issue, because it was about the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina who deserved those civil rights. And that was definitely something that I learned with the help of a lot of advisors in the embassy to use my role towards advancing American values and the stance on human rights.
Q: Very interesting. So, it sounds like things really moved forward. I was surprised to learn that before you were married, you could be on Eric’s orders. So, there is progress. But speaking of bureaucratic constraints, tell me about the process of your security clearances.
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: My first security clearance was almost 20 years ago, when I started dating Eric. I’m not sure if you’re aware that back then, diplomats were required to disclose any foreigner they were having a relationship with. So of course, Eric disclosed when we met in Milan, and we started dating and we started living together. And so my first security clearance was required then; that was my first series of interviews. Then you need to update that every number of years or just before going to post. So, I was interviewed several times in Washington and elsewhere to update my security clearance. It was quite standard. I never particularly felt that it was complicated. Sometimes I found those questions a little obsolete. You, as Americans, never have to go through the process of asking for a visa, and some of those questions must have been in that form since the Cold War. And so sometimes doing your security clearance as a foreign national, you are asked very similar questions about your family and about possible political connections of any of your family members and about your military service, any particular allegiance you might have to a foreign government, past or present, or possibly future. So, you have to take that process with a pinch of salt and understand that it’s also a very bureaucratic legal procedure. Try not to take anything personally and just answer the questions and go with the flow. And there’s no need to elaborate too much on these questions, but just accept them for what they are. Otherwise, you feel they can be a bit intrusive. And they can be slightly demeaning in a way, because you think they should know better about my country and my culture before asking that question. But then you understand that it’s pretty standard. And so if you just breathe in and let the process go, it’s usually the best.
Q: Alright. So, I want to ask you about your work life. For all spouses of Foreign Service Officers, we move every few years, so I want to know how you navigated with your career, and whether you ever worked in an embassy, whether you work locally, or internationally or online, how did it all turn out for you?
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: When I met Eric, I was working in a gallery in London. I work in the art world, and I’m a contemporary art expert, curator and dealer. After that when we were in Washington, I started working for a gallery and a foundation in Texas. I was going between Washington and Dallas every other week, so I was able to keep a day job. And then throughout Eric’s career, I realized that it was going to be more and more difficult to actually keep a physical job in any one place. So, I was able to turn my career into a self-employed version of what I was doing for other companies and started being an advisor to people and corporations that buy or sell contemporary art. And by doing that, I made this job movable because it was just me, myself and I, and my computer, and I was the one going to the client wherever the client was. Of course, it wasn’t easy because with the commitment of being able to travel to where work is, because I never ended up having any work opportunity where I was living. It was always far away. It’s a commitment in terms of time, energies but also a financial commitment because your commute becomes the most expensive daily commute, if you need to take a plane from Costa Rica to Texas every time you need to go to work. So, it wasn’t easy. Throughout the years, I was able to add a set of skills and knowledge that I acquired in every post. As you also know, there are very strict rules that forbid any conflict of interest, especially when you’re the spouse of the DCM or the Ambassador, and any appearance of you taking advantage of your position for your personal business is very much scrutinized. So, that was also very complicated, because if you go by the book, it’s incredibly restrictive. And the Residence is also your home and your home office, so it’s a very complicated set of circumstances to navigate. Again, the DCM is a great source of advice when it comes to things like that. I chose never to work in the embassy, even if some jobs are available to spouses, because I was lucky enough to be able to keep my career and keep myself busy. Especially when Eric was DCM, and then when he was Ambassador, I made the conscious decision to not work in the embassy because I always thought it might be slightly weird to have a boss whose boss is your husband. Also, when you’re the spouse of the ambassador, being part of the embassy is also quite different than when you are just the spouse of any diplomat. You have a different role; people have different expectations from you, and you want to sort of be supportive of the community and what the community experiences, especially during COVID. In Sarajevo, it was very important for Eric and me to make sure that the entire community was looked after, including the kids with the homeschooling, etc. it was easier to do it from the outside.
Q: For those of us Americans who are married to American Foreign Service Officers, living in Washington is coming to our home country. But for you, living in Washington is another foreign post. So how are those five years for you in Washington?
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: I have to be honest; I was not a fan of Washington. Also, Eric was on the seventh floor [of the State Department] during those five years being Special Assistant to three Secretaries of State. He was flying with each of them constantly on every single trip, from Vienna to North Korea and all around the world again. So, I really didn’t have a lot of personal support since he was so busy. And I found Washington a very difficult city to integrate into. People come and go in Washington at such a fast pace. And in Washington, it seems that the first question is: “What do you do?” And once you answer that you are an art advisor, I found that very seldomly was there a follow up question! People seem so focused on meeting you and talking to you because of what you do and what you could do for them. It’s not a very welcoming environment if you don’t work in politics or in finance or in foreign government. And so I found it very difficult. I also found that, unconsciously, there is a bit of a patronizing attitude towards foreign spouses of Foreign Service Officers. And sometimes, you feel like people look at you like you’ve just been picked up at the duty free of the last country where the FSO served!!! I felt that throughout my 20 years in Washington, sometimes you do feel a little bit looked down upon, while when you are outside of Washington, you feel more of an asset.
Q: So, do you have a few words of advice for other foreign-born spouses?
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: Yes. Never be afraid of making sure that who you are, your culture and your language are seen as assets. There is nothing better than to support your husband or your wife by making your home even more welcoming to other foreigners you come across. The food that you can bring and the stories that you can tell and the accent that you can bring to the table can make so many other people even more comfortable at the home of an American diplomat. So always look at it as an asset and embrace it and have fun with it.
Q: Thank you so much, Filippo, for a terrific interview and a lot of wisdom. And good luck in the next chapters of your life.
TATTONI-MARCOZZI: Thank you, Bonnie. It was wonderful talking to you and thanks for inviting me.
Download a copy of Filippo Tattoni-Marcozzi’s interview transcript below.