Although this diplomatic wife was a public figure early in her life, she has spent most of her time since then staying out of the spotlight and loving every moment behind the scenes.
During 34 years of marriage to one of Washington’s most accomplished ambassadors, she has been a global “stay-at-home” mom raising three children on three continents while her husband’s impressive multiple careers in diplomacy, civil service, politics and journalism flourished. And although she can be the quintessential hostess, she is happiest wearing jeans and no makeup while cooking the family supper or tackling something around the house that needs fixing.
María Verónica Forsyth — the striking but unpretentious Chilean-born wife of Peruvian Ambassador Harold Forsyth and a former yet reluctant “Miss Chile” — says her German heritage and upbringing “makes me very honest … and down to earth. I don’t get easily impressed.”
“I was taught and I taught our children to be very modest, to never think they are the best in the world. You’ll go further in life that way and you’ll have problems if you think you’re the best. I always taught them that everybody is the same.”
She adds: “Even if someone is a king or a queen, it’s the inside of the person that matters [to me], not the title or their power, or what they are wearing.”
Her down-home philosophy seems to have worked. Today, daughter Desirée, 33, is a psychologist with the World Food Program in Rome. Their other two children, both boys, were born 13 months apart while the couple was posted in Venezuela. Harold Jr., now 30, is an industrial engineer with a master’s degree from the China Europe International Business School and is the father of their grandchild. George, 29, is one of Peru’s most famous soccer players as the goalkeeper for the Alianza Lima football club. “I get a little nervous because being the goalie is the worst place you can be,” his mother noted. “If the ball goes in, he gets all the blame and he’s been hurt so many times.”
Her 9-year-old granddaughter and namesake, Maria-Verónica, is currently in town and attending Murch Elementary while her parents visit Washington.
This 57-year-old grandmother could still easily pass for a model. As for entering beauty contests long ago, “My friends made me do it,” she explained. “I was shy in school … even my older sister Carmen insisted.”
Now, decades later with adult children, she looks back over the family’s nomadic diplomatic life representing her adopted country of Peru in Bulgaria, Venezuela, Canada, Germany, Colombia, Italy and, most recently, China, where Harold Forsyth served as ambassador from 2009 to 2011.
“I could go back to China today,” she said enthusiastically, but she remembers how hard it was to leave her three children, by that point grown, behind in Peru.
“It was our first post alone,” she recalled. “And it was so far away. It felt strange. Like all Latin Americans, we keep our children close and with us as long as we can. I think it felt worse because we left them behind in Lima than if they had left us. Lima’s a big city with lots going on and they had parties every night so they were happy, but I’m like a hen with my chickens. I’ve always had my kids around and felt somehow that I had control of the situation over all of them. But you know, some day they have to go. That’s life.”
But those two years in China flew by. “There is so much to see. The diplomatic community there is so close. I had wonderful friends there and I’m missing them. I always put down roots,” she said.
“I loved Canada. When the kids were little, Ottawa was a great place for us, quiet and a family city,” she added, strolling down memory lane. “Everyone is very polite in Bogota and even when people have problems they are so strong, they always push forward,” she continued. “In Germany, I felt ‘almost German’ because I knew the language and knew not to do this and that, but I had become more flexible [coming from a Latin environment]. I love to enjoy life.”
Here in Washington, she’s enjoyed staying at the Peruvian Residence with her granddaughter and Lucas, their 10-year-old beagle. The 25-acre hilltop estate bordering Rock Creek Park was once the site of a Civil War fortification and was chosen in the late 1920s by Washington builder Charles Hook Tompkins as the perfect spot to build his family home. Outside the gracious and meandering grey-stone house he built roam foxes, deer and other animals. “When we first came, we had five Bambis with little white spots. These are the same deer growing up. They feel secure here, away from the roads and the cars,” María Verónica said.
“When we first heard we were coming to Washington, my son Harold logged onto the Internet and we saw an aerial view of this residence. It was all green around the house and I said, ‘We’re not going to just have a garden — we’re going to live in a forest. I love animals and the countryside.”
During their Washington posting, María Verónica is also anxious to polish her English, meet new people, and find a good place to volunteer and help young cancer patients.
“I volunteered in Lima. I loved my Wednesdays when I was at the [children’s cancer] hospital at 7 a.m.,” she said. “I played with the kids and read to them. Even when they had pain, they wanted to play. They knew everything about their treatment and chemotherapy and wanted to tell me all about it. I’d get sad and would be so tired at the end, but I always left feeling completely useful and fulfilled. We can learn so much from them.”
Between foreign posts, the couple returns to Lima where her husband has been an active leader in and out of government, fighting authoritarianism and supporting democratic values for decades.
In addition to his posting in China, Forsyth has served as ambassador to Turkey, Italy and Colombia, as well as permanent representative to the World Food Program and other agricultural organizations. In 2006, during the administration of President Alejandro Toledo, he was appointed secretary-general and vice minister of foreign affairs, one of the highest posts in Peruvian Civil Service.
He was also a Peruvian congressman from 1996 to 2000, serving on the committees for defense, intelligence and foreign affairs, as well as an elections observer in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
In addition, he’s been active in nongovernmental organizations as a founding member of the Democratic Forum and the Civil Association of Electoral Verification Transparency to help clean up Peru’s elections.
A veteran journalist, Forsyth regularly contributes to Peruvian newspapers and other weekly publications. He has had several radio and TV programs specializing in politics, foreign policy and international relations, and he wrote a book on Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the highly respected Peruvian diplomat who became U.N. secretary-general and Peru’s foreign minister during the tumultuous period from in 2000 and 2001 after President Alberto Fujimori resigned over corruption charges.
Maria Verónica isn’t surprised by her husband’s varied achievements and positions — in fact, she sees no limits to his career imagination. “He’s completely an intellectual and he loves politics, but now I think he wants to become a film director! He loves movies so much.”
Maria Verónica met her future husband after performing her dutues for a year as Miss Chile. “I was working in Santiago doing public relations for Gucci and there was this party at the home of the U.S. consul. I needed to talk with a friend who I knew would be there so I went, just to talk with her. When I arrived, she was talking with this young diplomat and I kept waiting for them to finish. They kept talking and talking. I needed to leave so I finally interrupted and she introduced us,” Maria Verónica recalled.
“Right after I finished talking with her, I left. On the way home in the car, I thought someone was following me. Every turn I took, he took. Even when I took a shortcut, he took it also. I wondered what do I do? Keep driving around until I run out of gas? Or go home. When I got home, I stopped and he stopped.
“I saw it was the same man I met at the party: Harold, the third secretary of the Peruvian Embassy.”
They started dating and within the year were married. He was 26 and she was 23. Almost immediately after their wedding, the newlyweds left for his first diplomatic post outside South America, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“Our daughter Desirée was born there. Most diplomats went home to have a child but I stayed in Sofia. Why not? My family was in Chile and it was too far to travel,” Maria Verónica said. “I remember one thing that was very different. From the beginning of my pregnancy, I was always sent to the pediatrician’s office. Not until my last few weeks, did I go to a gynecologist. The emphasis there is on the children.”
Although the Forsyth children lived with their parents during those early years, their mother’s upbringing was completely different.
As a young girl growing up on her family’s ranch several hours from Chile’s beautiful southern city of Valdivia, where many German families have settled, Maria Verónica went to a German boarding school at age 9, when she was only in third grade — the same age that her granddaughter is now.
“That’s what we all did and then we would come home every weekend to be with our parents in the country. Since we didn’t have our mommy or our daddy around during the week, we learned to be more independent. We learned to take care of ourselves early and to be careful,” she said, noting that those early lessons in independence helped her as a young bride and mother far from home.
Although “we grew up alone without our parents during the week … we had all the other boys and girls, living like one big German family,” she said of dormitory life. “It got harder when I was a teenager; then I realized what I was missing not being home.”
Throughout our interview, Maria Verónica frequently referred to the interesting mixture of being raised in a German family and school in a Latin country. “My husband and our children used to call me the ‘German sergeant.’ Then I was promoted to the ‘German general.’ I always wanted everyone to clean their plates, eat all their food. My father had been very strict with us, especially at the dinner table, so that’s what I expected.
“Germans like rules and keeping to schedule,” she added. “I don’t like to change things at the last minute. I can but I like things well done, sticking to a program, and doing things quietly with calmness.”
Another gift she passed down to her children was a can-do spirit. “Everyone should have adventures,” she said. “I remember one time pushing them to cross this little river to the other side. I was urging them to jump onto the little island. Harold did and cut his foot but learned that he could do it. Kids have to hurt themselves and not get hysterical. You have to learn to take chances. Maybe that’s why George is such a good goalie.”
Today, Maria Verónica travels on a diplomatic Peruvian passport but has kept her German dual citizenship. And while she has many German traits and fond Chilean memories, she says, “I love Peru — maybe even more than if I had been born there.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.