American Wife of Swiss Envoy Reinvents Herself for Each Posting
For Christine Sager, the American-born wife of recently appointed Swiss Ambassador Manuel Sager, their new posting is both a homecoming and an adventure that brings new challenges, which she enthusiastically embraces.
“It’s time for me to reinvent myself,” she told The Washington Diplomat. “I’m used to doing that about every three and a half years. It usually takes me a year in a new place to discover what I will do next. I’ve learned that it’s really important to be flexible. I’ve never planned anything. It all just seems to work out.”
In almost three decades, she has worked in the hotel and travel industry, been an English language teacher, relocation expert and international art agent.
After studying liberal arts and business as an undergraduate at Syracuse University, this Ohio native took a job as a travel agent but soon decided that the best way to prepare for a career in the travel industry would be to start traveling, not just sitting behind a desk. Christine was 21 then and that one decision in 1983 would change her life forever.
In a youth hostel on the Oregon coast, she met a young lawyer from Switzerland who was also on his way to travel around the world for a year. From Baden in the Swiss canton of Aargovia, Manuel Sager, then 27, had trekked across the United States before buying a big second-hand Chrysler New Yorker in Northern California. He was about to fulfill his American dream of touring the Pacific Coast by car before flying off to visit the South Pacific, Australia and Asia.
That chance meeting in Oregon changed both their travel plans. Although he did cruise down the California coast, at times with Christine by his side, he decided after a couple of weeks that his trip around the world could wait. He cancelled his ticket and followed Christine to Tucson, where she had gone to stay with family friends and work. They were married 11 months later.
Now after almost 28 years of marriage — although they still haven’t taken that trip around the world together — their life has been full of travel and living abroad, offering Christine both the opportunity and challenge of “reinventing” herself as she has accompanied her husband throughout his budding law career and his different posts for the Swiss Foreign Ministry.
The first year they were married they lived in Switzerland, where her new husband returned to practice law. For Christine, who had never even traveled outside the United States before, except for a quick day trip across the Mexican border, it was an exciting change. Eager to learn about daily life in Europe, she immediately set out to learn Swiss-German, not an easy task.
“I was a good student in school but learning a foreign language made no sense to me then. I am very practical and I didn’t see a purpose in studying Spanish, but once I lived in a different country and needed to speak the language to survive, I was very motivated,” Christine said.
“First I took an intensive course in high German before I could begin to become fluent in Swiss-German, which is only a spoken language. It took me about a year to be able to communicate easily and about five years before I was fluent, but I still don’t have a pure dialect. There are many dialects but mine is closest to Swiss-German that’s spoken in Bern or Aargovia,” her husband’s home canton. She now also understands “some French,” which is helpful in this trilingual country bordered by Germany, France and Italy.
The following year, they returned to the United States, settling in Durham, N.C. While her husband took an intensive year at Duke University to earn a master’s of laws and letters, studying American law with other international students, Christine worked again as a travel agent. They relocated to Phoenix and, after passing the bar exam, he joined a local law firm while she continued to work in the travel industry. Christine thought she was beginning another new career when she entered Arizona State University for a degree in industrial design but fate stepped in, again. After three years in Phoenix, a newspaper advertisement would dramatically change their lives.
“One day we saw an ad in the Swiss-American Review, a paper for Swiss citizens living abroad, that Switzerland needed diplomats,” Christine recalled. “So we decided, ‘Why not?'”
So they returned once more to Bern and Manuel Sager studied for the Foreign Service exam. After being a “diplomat-in-training” in Bern, their first foreign posting was Athens. A year later, when Manuel returned to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern, he began to specialize in international humanitarian law, using his legal background in his new career. During this time, Christine returned to travel, organizing packaged trips to the United States.
In 1995, the couple moved back to the United States when he became deputy consul general in New York, relocating to Washington four years later when he became head of communications at the Swiss Embassy until 2001. “We lived in a small house in Bethesda and enjoyed cross-country skiing through the woods when it snowed, but most of the time I just studied and taught,” Christine said.
“That’s when I got my master’s degree from American University in teaching ESL [English as a second language]. I worked in Virginia at the Annandale campus of NOVA [Northern Virginia Community College] and tutored in linguistics at AU, focusing on the possibility of ESL students mastering English while learning core subjects like political science,” she explained.
“I helped foreign students learn how to take notes, use quotes, write papers, do research and make presentations. Mostly, it was necessary for the students to understand that they needed to develop critical thinking skills to succeed in their studies in American colleges and universities.”
She also noted: “Different cultures have different ways of learning and perceive authority in different, sometimes opposite, ways. For instance, in some cultures, they believe that if something is printed in a book, it is true and not contestable, and they can take it as their own. They think it is an acceptable practice to copy verbatim from a book without quoting or giving credit while here it would be considered outright plagiarism.”
As an ESL teacher, Christine was also available to counsel her international students after 9/11. “We discussed all aspects of the situation, and I was in the position to guide these students in expressing their feelings of fear in such confusing times in their new home and a foreign culture.”
After six years in New York and Washington, the Sagers returned to Bern where Christine continued to teach English. She also began to work part-time for a relocation company, a job that evolved into a full-time management position.
“I did everything for our corporate clients from helping employees and their families get their Swiss work permits and driver’s licenses to finding them housing, schools for their children, and even explaining recycling in Switzerland. I loved the work and the business grew so quickly that we had to hire two more people within six months from when I first started.”
However, that career was interrupted in 2005 when the Sagers themselves relocated to London. Manuel had became the Swiss executive director at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Of the nine countries he represented and visited, Christine accompanied her husband on several trips to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It was the rich experiences in these Central Asian countries that, once again, led Christine down a new career path.
“I saw beautiful art in these countries and felt moved to promote the culture and help the artists exhibit and sell their art beyond their borders. With a friend, also from the bank, we set up the nonprofit Central Asian Arts Association,” Christine explained. “Their artwork was received with great enthusiasm in London, and all the money we made went back to the artists. It was hard work but also rewarding to make a difference in these people’s lives.”
Returning to Bern three years later, they finally put down roots and bought their first apartment. Christine continued representing Central Asian artists but at a less ambitious pace; most of her time was focused on renovating their new nest.
“We didn’t get to enjoy our new surroundings for very long before we received news that it was time to prepare to come to Washington last fall.”
Although her husband’s last two positions in the Foreign Ministry gave him the title of ambassador — first as Swiss director of the EBRD and then as head of the Political Affairs Division at ministry coordinating foreign policy — this is his first posting as an ambassador to another country.
“It’s a great honor to be here. I feel just as Swiss as I do American, sometimes even more,” said Christine. “We are so privileged to be here and be blessed with this wonderful staff.”
In fact, what’s made the transition easier for the Sagers is having already known several key embassy staff members, such as social secretary Sally Thornberry and on-site house manager Rodrigo Geron and his wife Maribel, also a member of the residence staff. “The spouses at the International Neighbors’ Club have also been very welcoming on the Washington social front,” Christine noted.
What was very different this time around was returning to a new contemporary Swiss Residence instead of the former white stucco home with its enchanting terrace that Christine so fondly remembered during their days in Washington from 1999 to 2001.
“It took some adjusting to feel comfortable living in such a large space. However, I’ve learned to appreciate how this residence is perfect for entertaining. Guests are always intrigued with the architecture of this contemporary residence and how it represents modern-day Switzerland.”
With four guest rooms in their private quarters upstairs, they are bracing for an onslaught of visitors, including family and friends from both sides of the Atlantic. “I know everyone is very proud that we are here in this capacity, especially my parents, and they want to celebrate with us.”
This past Thanksgiving, Christine’s parents joined them at the residence for the first time. “I saw this look on my mother’s face. She looked lost in this huge place. My father loved it and offered to move in with us as a handyman since he’s retired now,” Christine said.
“We had 19 for Thanksgiving dinner,” she added, “with new embassy staff members and their families and staff who are single. My mother made her traditional sweet potato balls [a baked novelty of mashed sweet potatoes surrounding a marshmallow and then rolled in shaved almonds] and Vincent, our chef, prepared the rest of the food in advance. It still took us a good three to four hours to fix the dinner. My father gladly volunteered to help, which was wonderful in this highly technical industrial kitchen. In the Thanksgiving spirit, everyone helped us to clean up and it was great fun,” Christine remembered.
“When it’s just the two of us, especially on weekends, I cook in our small kitchen upstairs and we eat there. We love having something simple like soup and a salad, especially after all these multi-course formal dinners.” Christine also admitted that living in Switzerland has sharpened her taste for chocolate and cheese. “I especially appreciate all the varieties of cheese now.”
She’s excited about sharing her Swiss experiences with Americans and especially with school children like those in the long-running Embassy Adoption Program sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society.
“They will know from my accent that I’m American, so I will tell them about the differences that I noticed the first time I went to Switzerland: how shops close on Saturdays at 4 p.m. and all day on Sundays; most Swiss take public transportation; church bells ring on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings; and all about how the Swiss celebrate holidays,” Christine explained.
“In Switzerland, holidays are not commercial. Christmas is all about being together, not about gifts, so you experience more of ‘the spirit of the holiday,'” she added. “Basel has the oldest and biggest ‘Fasnacht’ [Swiss carnival] and it is an eerie experience for first-timers. It starts at four in the morning…. It’s the middle of the night and thousands of people are moving through the streets as if there was a mass exodus. Exactly at four, you hear drums and piccolos. Then, there’s a colorful parade of big floats, with caricatures of Swiss political figures depicting the top issues in the news the past year. The different carnival groups spend all year making these amazing costumes. At daybreak, everyone goes for the traditional flour soup and onion pie.”
Christine also naturally relished Switzerland’s picturesque snow-capped mountains. Although she had always enjoyed outdoor activities like hiking and skiing, now she said she really understands these sports. “I thought I knew how to ski, but I learned on ice in upstate New York. It’s a very different skiing experience on all that fresh powder in Switzerland and the runs are much, much longer.”
When moving to the United States this time though, they didn’t bother packing their skis because “we thought we’d be too busy in Washington and we can always ski when visiting Switzerland and staying in the family chalet.”
Meanwhile, Christine is still wondering how she will “reinvent” herself this time around while participating in the wide array of activities geared toward an ambassador’s spouse in Washington. She can’t wait to take in all the museums and art galleries she missed during their first posting here — and she’s considering having artists come, one at a time, to show their work.
“Maybe I’ll work part-time but this is the moment for me to be with my husband, attend events and entertain. We’ve always made our decisions and shared our lives together and that’s what we’ll continue to do here.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.