As I mentioned earlier, Amit Dutt is a family friend who we’ve known since he was a toddler. After graduating from UBC he did a two-year program in International Trade at Capilano College. Part of this program was a one-year internship in Japan. This was his introduction to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo and after returning to Canada and working for the Department of Agriculture in Ottawa, he joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Japan last fall. He sent us an email shortly after we left for China in October, inviting us to visit him in Tokyo. He mentioned that he was assigned a large three-bedroom townhouse (unusually lucky for a single guy) and that there would be plenty of room for us to stay. I immediately wrote back and accepted his generous offer. We changed our plans to include Tokyo on our way home to Canada in the spring.
When we arrived at Amit’s we were fortunate that he had a three-day holiday so he was able to show us the ropes, help us purchase transit passes and introduce us to the useful shops in the area. The townhouse complex is within walking distance of the Canadian Embassy and Amit promised to take us for a tour later in the week. In fact, he thought that Friday would be a good day to visit because many of the staff members meet for a TGIF drink in the lounge overlooking the Ambassador’s residence and the business district behind the grounds of the Embassy. However, Amit wanted to be sure that if we ever got into difficulty while we were on our own, we just had to get in a taxi and ask to be taken to the ‘Canadian Trashcan’. The Japanese word for ‘Embassy’ is so close to the pronunciation of ‘trashcan’ that we would not go wrong saying it and being understood. Too funny!
On the following Friday, we followed Amit’s directions and walked for the thirty minutes to the Embassy. As we approached the distinctive building, we could see that it looked like anything but a dumpster. It’s an attractive building built using large blocks of stone and plenty of glass. It tapers off on the top with a pyramid shape all in glass. The entrance is along the side of the building up a long escalator to an open-air terrace. The design of the building, with the offices of the Embassy at the rear of the building and many of them above the fourth floor level provides unseen security. We were able to enter the building and speak to the receptionist in the large airy lobby. She paged Amit for us and he came out walking proudly. I could see he was most happy to be able to take us on a tour of the building.
Amit has always been a charmer and he did a bang up job of telling us all about the building and showing us around. There is an interesting story about the building and it’s prime location in the heart of the city overlooking one of the palace grounds. Apparently when Tokyo was still a fledgling city a Canadian businessman suggested that some prime land near the Meiji Palace grounds was available and that the Canadian government should purchase it for its Embassy. When the government balked on the purchase, the businessman bought it himself. I’m not sure if the government bought the site at a later date, or if the businessman donated it, but it later became some of the most valuable real estate in Tokyo during the boom in the 1980s. The location on Aoyama Dori overlooking the Imperial Palace is so attractive, that the Mitsubishi head office offered to buy it from the Canadian government for two billion dollars at the height of the boom. The Canadians declined the offer.
Mitsubishi wasn’t about to take no for an answer. They came back some time later and offered to build a new Embassy, the design of which the Canadians could choose, provided they could incorporate three floors of office space facing onto Aoyama Dori into the design. Mitsubishi would pay for the construction of the building provided they were given a twenty-year lease on the commercial space. After the twenty- year period, the Canadian Embassy could take possession of the entire space. It was an offer too good to pass up. The building is massive, and very attractive – Mitsubishi probably spent more than they bargained for but the building has become a landmark on this famous street and more than 10,000 people visit the premises each month.
Amit showed us through all the areas of the building that didn’t require special clearance and we were pretty impressed. The views out to the Imperial Park were especially lovely – acres of greenery and no tall buildings in sight. After seeing Amit’s office and meeting his boss, we went to the staff lounge for a drink and some snacks. Amit had to attend a function and asked if we wanted to stay on our own for a while. It seemed like a good idea as everyone was really friendly and we had no other particular place to go. We were chatting with Amit’s boss and his wife, talking about the freaky earthquake a couple of days earlier, when Anil nudged me with his elbow and said “Look who just walked in.”
I looked towards the door and couldn’t believe my eyes. There was our good friend Cecile Latour and her husband David. It seems we are always certain of running into someone from Canada in the most amazing circumstances and this was one of those times. I leaned over to tell Audrey that the attractive woman who just arrived was none other than Cecile, and Audrey got goose bumps. We had just been talking about Cecile the day before, she is the only other person that we know who has ever worked for the Canadian Foreign Service. We had run into Cecile in a similar serendipitous manner seven years earlier while we were travelling in Laos. I should give you a little history of our friendship with Cecile and you will understand how weird it was to run into her at the Embassy in Japan.
Anil met Cecile during his first week in Canada when he came as a grad student to Edmonton to do his PhD at the University of Alberta in 1968. Cecile and her sister Louise had just arrived from Quebec to teach French at an immersion school not far from the university. All three newcomers had by chance joined the International Folk Dance Society as a way to meet people and make new friends. They hit it off and remained good friends during the two years that Cecile and Louise worked in Edmonton. At the end of their teaching contracts, they returned to Quebec. Anil lost track of Cecile as she moved around, but Louise married and settled down in Hull, Quebec and Anil had her contact address there.
Years later, after we had married and had our daughter, Adia, we drove across Canada in 1978 and contacted Louise when we were in Ottawa, just across the river from Hull. She called Cecile and we all got together for dinner and a little reunion for the old friends. We all hit it off immediately and for the next dozen years or so, we kept in touch with Louise through annual Christmas cards. Cecile was single and moved often and along the way, we lost touch with her. Then in 1990, out of the blue we got a telephone call from Cecile. She was working for the Foreign Service, was newly married and was coming to Edmonton on business and wanted to get together. We were thrilled to see her again and to be able to congratulate her on her recent marriage. She came alone but brought pictures of her husband, David Horley. That evening, she told us that she had been working at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened. We were spellbound with her stories about the difficulties the Embassy had in assembling all the Canadians and evacuating them out of China. Adia was about twelve years old at this time and sat listening quietly to Cecile.
Another ten years or so passed before we were to see Cecile once again. Anil and I travelled for the first time to Vietnam in 2001 and spend a week falling in love with Hanoi. From there we flew to Vientiane, Laos and on to Luang Prabang to see the World Heritage temples there. After settling into our hotel, we went for a walk on the main street of the heritage area. We were looking at some silks in a shop window when Anil had a tap on his shoulder and a lovely woman said, “Are you who I think you are?”
Anil panicked as he is often stopped in Edmonton by the parents of former students and he struggled to remember the woman, thinking she must be someone’s mother. I was the one who recognized Cecile’s distinctive eyes – she was the one who remembered Anil, saying he had hardly changed at all.
What a surprise to run into Cecile and her husband so far from Canada. An even great surprise was awaiting us. When she asked about our travels, I told her that I had noticed her at the airport in Hanoi, preparing to board the plane. Cecile is a striking woman, almost six feet tall, and literally stands out in the crowd in Asia. She was surprised to learn that we had been in Hanoi, telling us she lives in Hanoi and how unfortunate that she did not know we were there. Her husband nudged her and urged her to tell us what she does in Hanoi, but she didn’t want to blurt it out. To our surprise and delight, we learned that she was the Canadian Ambassador to Vietnam. What a very small world we live in, to meet like that on the streets of a small tourist city in the northern part of the Lao Republic.
Cecile remembered meeting Adia and asked about what she was up to now that she was a grown woman herself. I explained that she had just finished up a degree in International Relations and was trying to decide what to do with her education. To make a long story short (and to shorten this very long story) Adia ended up working as an intern at the Canadian Embassy in Hanoi that following summer – for three weeks in the Embassy as admin staff and for three weeks with David Horley at Oxfam, Vietnam. It was a great experience for her, one very much facilitated by Cecile herself. Adia was very lucky to have the opportunity to work in the Embassy at that time as Cecile was just winding up her four-year term as Ambassador and was planning to retire to Ottawa.
We were able to visit Cecile and David a few years ago in Ottawa and had a great reunion with her sister Louise once again. But like earlier times, busy lives and lots of moving around in different circles meant that we lost touch once again. Cecile was not aware that we had retired ourselves, sold our home and had been travelling for almost two full years. I was pretty certain we would see her once again as we knew we would eventually be in Ottawa and would look her up. Little did we know that our paths would cross in Japan. No one was more amazed than Audrey. We had just been recounting the story about Adia’s time working in a Canadian Embassy overseas and how it all came about by running into Cecile in Laos. Then to make things really amazing, Cecile walks into the room where we are visiting (without Amit). It turns out Cecile and David had just arrived for their first visit to Japan the night before. They have an old friend named Peter (who is the boss of Amit’s boss) at the Embassy and had arranged to have dinner together. Peter wanted Cecile to see the Embassy so they stopped in for a tour and a drink before heading out to dinner. Now you tell me, what are the chances that we would all be in the room at the same time together?
Cecile and David were whisked off to dinner before we had time to talk, but we are planning on visiting Ottawa this September so she made us promise to get in touch with her. It just struck me that if Anil, Cecile and Louise get together this fall, it will be exactly 40 years since they first met in Edmonton. Now how is that for a great story unfolding during our visit to the Canadian ‘Trashcan’?