Hitchhiking, Mountain Climbing & Vespa Riding

Q&A with Wolfgang Waldner, Ambassador of Austria

Name: Wolfgang A. Waldner | Age: 62 | Hometown: Dellach in Carinthia, Austria | Twitter: @WaldnerWolfgang
Ambassador to the U.S. since: January 11, 2016

Tell us a little bit about your background — did you have any international exposure growing up? I grew up in a very small village of a couple hundred people in the Austrian Alps, only half a mile from the Italian border, which explains my later interest in foreign countries. The town was very beautiful and to this day attracts many tourists. Life was very protected, clean, and full of beauty, nature, and outdoor sports.

My parents didn’t have many financial means — my father was a policeman, and I had three younger sisters — so it was the local priest who persuaded my father to put me in boarding school in Tirol (the adjacent state), because we didn’t have a school in the entire valley. I spent 8 years studying and ended up being the first boy from my village who went to college.

How did your boarding school experience shape your career choices? When I entered boarding school I knew that I couldn’t go back to the small village I came from; at the time there was no university in my home state of Carinthia. After graduating from high school, I wanted experience life in the big city, so I went to Vienna to study.

So how did you end up choosing your career path? During my teenage years, I spent summers back home working as a gas station attendant. We had long, long lines of cars lining up for gas at our station — lines that extended out into the street. When I saw the cars of the tourists lined up to get gas on their way to Italy, I wanted to go myself. I had been to Italy a couple of times as young boy with my parents to go shopping, but we didn’t have a car at that time. So I went hitchhiking.

As a boy of 16 or 17, after finishing my work for the summer, I’d spend a few weeks hitchhiking in Italy; all the way down to Sicily — down one coast, and up the other. Over time, I made friends there and eventually became fluent in Italian, because I took Italian courses in school. I was one of the few boys from our valley who could communicate with the Italians when they would come over during the weekends to go to our discos and dance with our girls (chuckle).

In addition, alongside my university studies in Vienna, I worked as a tour guide. Dealing with foreigners and different languages made me realize that I wanted to lead a nomadic life. I went through the roster of professions that would bring me closer to this nomadic life, on a higher level, and one of the careers on the top of this list was the career of a diplomat.

Aside from your work in the Foreign Ministry, you’ve worked as Director of the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and the Austrian Cultural Fora in Washington, D.C. and New York. Tell us a little bit about your career path after University. My studies were all centered on the classical subjects: diplomatic history, international relations, law and economics, and so on. After two years in the Foreign Service, I ended up in the Cultural Department of the Foreign Ministry — and there, for the first time in years, I learned something new! Because it was not about diplomatic history — but about culture. I didn’t have this exposure to high culture growing up, due to my family background and where I came from. I had always loved music though — I played the guitar when I went hitchhiking with my Italian friends, and we even earned some money this way.

There in the Cultural Department of the Foreign Ministry, all of a sudden culture appeared in a different context: as an instrument to project messages — not only cultural messages, but also political messages. We used it to project an image of Austria as a nation of culture that was not only historical, but also contemporary.

It was fun to bump into some of my colleagues at this time because they would say, “Why would you do this? You have such a great career path ahead, and you’re going to ruin it,” because culture was the least important part in this whole spectrum. And I’d say “Well, I like it.” So I stayed in the Cultural Department…and instead of it being the slow path, it became the fast track in my career because I was one of the first in my cohort to get the best possible job at that time: Cultural Attaché in Washington, D.C.

I started my career here in 1983 as a young diplomat, right here on Mass Ave in our old embassy, with our old ambassador who would later become President of our country. And the rest is history.
Ambassador Waldner with Austrian-born neuropsychiatrist and Nobel Laureate Professor Eric Kandel in his office at Columbia University.

In your role as ambassador, what is your favorite part of the job? The constant change that is built into this position: meeting new people, being placed in new situations, having new challenges every day and working with changing environments. It’s not only the people around you that change, but also the countries and cities.

What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve faced in your career? I was once in charge of the Mediterranean countries as a young consulate officer, and one of the most difficult situations was when a 20-year-old girl from Styria, Austria, died on one of the Greek islands. I was the intermediary when accidents happened — we didn’t have cell phones at the time, so communication was slow and difficult. It was up to me to locate and inform her parents, and also tell them that they had to wire money within just a few hours to be able to transfer their daughter’s remains back to Austria. This was one of the toughest moments for me as a young officer.

These are the kinds of situations that are not very pleasant in the real life of diplomats. And there are thousands of situations that most diplomats deal with that the general public doesn’t think about when they think about what a diplomat does. They always think about the nice, glamorous side.

What advice would you give to young diplomats entering the world of Foreign Service? Be yourself. Try to tap into your own potential, be open, be curious, listen to others, set goals for yourself — high goals — and persevere.

Get up when you fall, and learn from your failures. Every failure has success built into it. That’s how I look at life: you have to fail in order to succeed.
Ambassador Waldner with his wife in the living room of their residence in Washington, D.C.

If you weren’t an ambassador or in the Foreign Service, what would you be? It would definitely be something international, something that has to do with crossing borders, or trying to overcome them. For me, the European Union exemplifies the idea of overcoming borders and difficulties. Whenever I go back to my hometown, I see big mountains on either side. These mountains used to be real, physical borders during World War I and World War II. You’d have the razor wire on top of the mountain, artillery pieces and shells lying around. Now, it’s called Via della Pace, or “the path of peace,” in Italian; you find hikers on that path that used to be a border for centuries.

That’s the effect of the European Union. It has a direct effect on daily life, even in our own little valley where there used to be borders and we had to go through customs and passport control just to go for a coffee on the other side. Now you can freely travel back and forth. You have Italians as neighbors in my little hometown; they buy houses there or they come for vacation. At restaurants, the menus are in two languages — many of the young people now speak Italian, and the Italians that come over speak some German. And you feel that this is a really historical achievement that would never have been accomplished without the European Union.

You mentioned the EU: how do you like working with the EU Member States and ambassadors here in DC? Very much. Because it really feels like family — we are a big family, with 28 members. Maybe we’ll get some new ones…families usually get bigger. You have problems with some members (you don’t always have the best relations with every single member of your family), but the important thing is to spread this feeling of family. You have similar interests and try to overcome challenges that you face jointly in a cooperative way, as a group, as a family.

It’s a special situation here, because in Washington, you are better heard as an EU family. The EU as a whole has more access, power, and weight. There are certain problems you can never solve by yourself, so you attack them jointly with the other EU countries.

But let me say — to the EU — I think David O’Sullivan is doing a good job of holding our EU network together, and I really enjoy it.

Ambassador Waldner and his wife attending the Diplomatic Corps Reception at the White House in Washington, D.C.

This isn’t your first time living in DC, so what’s new this time around? It’s more vibrant than it used to be. And there are so many new museums: the African American Museum, the Newseum, and the National Building Museum, just to name a few. At the same time you live in a very green city that offers a terrific mix of being the political center of power — not only for the U.S. but the entire Western World — and a cultural and recreational center at the same time. It’s a great mix. Almost as beautiful as Vienna (laughter).

Ambassador Waldner on a morning run along the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa.

Favorite hobbies? Jogging with my wife and reading. If I take you downstairs, you’ll see that we have four rooms filled with books…

What are you reading right now? I’m reading Henry Kissinger and Kurt Vonnegut — I usually read a few books at the same time. Recently I finished a book called Paper Love by young U.S. journalist Sarah Wildman, who lives here in Washington, DC. She’s the granddaughter of an Austrian physician who had to emigrate and leave the love of his life behind. The book is a history of her family, and it tells the tragedy of the people involved in the Holocaust who were left behind and couldn’t escape. I bought a couple of copies to give to my daughters, because it’s important for young people to learn history. I also read poetry and great literature…I like the lyrics of the new Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. I went to see his birthplace, actually, and I really admire him. Leonard Cohen is another one of my heroes.

One of the four rooms in the Ambassador’s residence filled with books.

What’s something quirky or unique that most people don’t know about you? For one, I am probably the only ambassador in Washington, D.C. who rides a Vespa. Something else is that I try to avoid loud environments and large crowds. I love to watch tennis, but even tennis stadiums with 4,000 people give me an uneasy feeling. This maybe has to do with underlying political reasons, like our history. Finally, I love mountain climbing. My father was a mountain guide and instructor. He tried to instill this in me, but didn’t succeed…I became a diplomat instead.

Ambassador Waldner heading out to a meeting on his Vespa.

Are there any mountains on your bucket list? In Austria, I have already climbed many mountains. In the States, I have been to the Rocky Mountains many times, but mainly for skiing. I’ve only climbed one mountain higher than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) — Wheeler Peak in New Mexico. But I would love to go do a very high mountain, maybe Mount Kilimanjaro, after I retire as a diplomat. I love the feeling you get standing atop one of these big mountains.

What would you say you are most proud of? My daughters and my wife.

If you could pick one thing to share with Americans about Austria, what would it be? Austria is a gem. It is a small and beautiful country in the heart of Europe that managed to overcome and rise from the ashes of two world wars. After WWI, we left with only one-ninth of our previous territory. After WWII, we were totally down, occupied, and starving. Now we are one of the most prosperous and beautiful nations in the world.

So the message is simple: small is beautiful, and you can fail but you can also rise again.

Austria is rich in history, tradition, classical and contemporary culture; we have also been very successful in business and innovation, with so-called “hidden champions” in business: companies that are among the top in the world in their field — and you don’t even know about them. You can find these hidden champions all across the country: 700 Austrian companies operate in the United States Today and the U.S. is our second most important export partner. That is coming from a small country of 8.7 million people. In short, Austria is the best destination for your next trip.

This story is part of the @EUintheUS “Ambassador Spotlight Series,” featuring in-depth, personal interviews with ambassadors from the European Union’s 28 member states. Follow our publication and stay tuned for the next story.