Greek-Swiss Combo



Françoise Mallias is bubbly, cheery and always happy to see you. As the 58-year-old Swiss wife of Greek Ambassador Alexandros Mallias, she straddles two very different countries, languages and cultures with grace and ease.

“I have always lived in two different worlds,” she explained. “My parents divorced as soon as I was born.” Her father was a Swiss broadcast journalist who covered the Algerian war and later lived in Paris. Her mother was from a wealthier, more traditional Swiss family.

Françoise and her two sisters lived with their mother in Lausanne, but she visited their father in Paris regularly. “I remember opening his appointment book and being so impressed by the names of people he was interviewing: Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir.

“It has helped me greatly to know there is not only one way to be,” she said. “I am used to living in two different countries, and those early experiences prepared me to be the Swiss wife of a Greek diplomat.

“Of course, there are sensitive areas to which one must pay particular attention,” she added. “But over the years, I have learned to adapt. I have great respect for other people’s cultures and traditions, and I believe this is the only way for people and countries to get along. There are no inferior and superior cultures, and the quicker someone understands this, the easier it is to get along.”

Besides their diplomatic postings abroad, the Malliases enjoy their two different homes in their respective European homelands: a chalet in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland and a country house on the Greek isle of Euboea, where they enthusiastically grow organic fruits and vegetables. Of course, in the European tradition, they also have flats in their families’ homes in Lausanne and Athens.

From the start, it is obvious that nothing is more important to this diplomatic wife than the family unit and lifelong friendships. “No matter where we live, our family comes first. That’s where you get your values, your sense of self worth and unconditional acceptance.” This devotion to family is why during many of her husband’s trips abroad, Françoise often stayed at home with their two daughters when they were young.

As we sat in the glass sunroom of their temporary Kalorama residence (the handsome Sheridan Circle residence is to be renovated), we overlooked an outdoor terrace and pool where Françoise swims daily and where the couple often entertains. “My husband loves casual barbeques. He’s always the chef and I make the rest of the meal,” said Françoise, who is famous for her homemade ice cream and other French-Swiss confections.

Their younger daughter, 25-year-old Ariana, lives in Geneva where she works in human resources for Total, a French oil company. On July 7, she will be marrying Antoine, a French-Swiss university student studying business administration.

The Malliases’ older daughter, Leonora, 27, is a project manager for Terre des Hommes, a nongovernmental organization that helps abused children in Africa. Although she returns to Lausanne every other month, Françoise said, “Leonora is so involved with her work that you almost have to make an appointment to talk with her. She reminds me of her father.”

Trained and educated as a child psychologist, Françoise worked for the Swiss Board of Education before marrying Alexandros Mallias, and she has found her knowledge in this field extremely helpful not only in rearing their daughters, but also in diplomacy. “My education and training gives me a good sense of other people’s needs and helps me read their body language. That has helped me a lot, especially since we’ve been in Washington.”

Although her husband is a career diplomat and they have lived in the United States before (while he was posted to the United Nations), it is only here in D.C. that she has been able to devote all of her time to being a full-time diplomatic wife. “When we lived in New York, the girls were still very young, and much of my time was devoted to making certain that they developed into well-rounded human beings, to let them know they are important, and to build their self-esteem.

“Here in Washington, I am the wife of the ambassador, which can be both difficult and rewarding,” she said. “I take great pride in helping my husband represent Greece and the Greek people in the best possible way. This has been a journey of self-discovery. So that I may live up to my own expectations of what that means, I have had to develop skills and tap into my own attributes, many of which I didn’t even know I had.”

American culture has helped in that process, according to Françoise, who said Americans seem to be on a perpetual learning journey and are very generous in the encouragement of other people with their “can-do” attitude.

Her Greek husband can barely hide his own pride and high esteem for his wife and her profession. “We have been together for 35 years and [are] still in love,” he said. “Françoise has a sunny disposition, always in a good mood, which is not always the case with me. Sometimes, I think she practices her profession on me,” he quipped. “She is the most stabilizing factor in our family and a safe haven for me. Our job is very challenging. It has its ups and downs, and she is my most valuable support.”

He added: “For the past 35 years, Françoise has been a true Greek by choice and sentiment. She is excellent at family networking. I have cousins and uncles with whom I had practically no contact. After Françoise joined our family, we all celebrate Easter and Christmas together every year. She is the unifying factor for my family.”

This summer for the first time, Françoise will be bringing together all the members of her own family as well—her parents, all of her siblings, cousins and all of the in-laws—for her daughter’s wedding. “It will be a ‘party on the go,’” she explained. “We will be staying in a famous castle on Lake Geneva nearby Antoine’s family. We’ll meet in the morning and travel on a bus to City Hall for the civil ceremony and then to the reception and garden party.”

The Malliases’ own romance began when he was a graduate student in Geneva. “It was a difficult time in Greece with the military dictatorship,” recalled Françoise. “So lots of students went abroad to do post-graduate work. I lived in a student home when I was in my first year working as a child psychologist. There was a meeting room there where different events took place. This was the time before cell phones, and when I went to make a call on the hall phone, I decided to check what was going on downstairs. Alexandros was there and the next thing I knew, he had invited me to a ‘spaghetti party’ the following night.

“I didn’t want to go alone so I brought along my Turkish roommate, who later was the witness at our wedding, and she brought along a Turkish boy she knew. When Alexandros opened the door, he instantly asked, ‘Is he with you or your friend?’

“We had a wonderful time but the spaghetti was cold and sticky,” she added, grimacing. “I must say his cooking has improved. The conversation was very political. The Greek students were talking about perhaps not being able to go back, maybe not being able to renew their passports, and we wondered how we could help.”

Politics would quickly come up during a different incident as well. “I remember later when the three of us—my Turkish girlfriend, Alexandros and I—were on a driving holiday through the Swiss countryside, when an announcement came over the radio that Turkey had invaded Cyprus. My girlfriend was quite upset and kept saying out loud, ‘What is my country doing?’ and Alexandros kept calling Greece, wondering if this meant the end of the military dictatorship. True to my Swiss heritage, I was neutral but wanted to know more. We stopped every half hour all day to make more phone calls,” Françoise recalled.

The spaghetti may not have been so good during that initial date and political uncertainties may have weighed heavily on Greece at the time, but Françoise and her future husband began a romance that has lasted more than three decades.

“My husband is very spontaneous, enthusiastic and quick in his responses,” Françoise said. “So when he asked me right away to marry him, I was surprised. I said, ‘You don’t know me. We must build something together.’ Now I understand that he lives in the moment.

“We love being in Washington,” she continued, with a twinkle. “In New York, being within the U.N. community, we made friends from all over the world who are practically family, but here in Washington, we have the opportunity of a real American experience. We have made many friends in the community and enjoy many activities, from the arts, the theater, opera, to flower shows, to antique hunting, taking in the wonderful countryside, and developing real friendships.

“I am also called upon to help with so many good causes, which help both people in need and cultural institutions,” she noted. “I find that the American people are very charitable and giving people.”

But because this is the Malliases’ last posting before the ambassador retires after 35 years in diplomacy, they are relishing new thoughts about life after Washington. “Although my husband will officially retire, I am almost certain he will continue to consult and teach,” Françoise said. “This has been such a fantastic experience—who knows, I might even try my hand at writing about it, or even go into [public relations] or event planning after all this entertaining,” she mused.

“One thing I have always dreamed of doing is setting up something like a women’s cooperative back on our island in Greece, to preserve and conserve vanishing traditions and crafts—where the older generation of women, the Greek yayas, would teach women my age, and our children and grandchildren, the beautiful but endangered crafts, from making phyllo to weaving, the kinds of things that distinguish cultures and individuals and provide relief from mass production,” she said.

As for her husband, Ambassador Mallias loves his current position, but admits, “I’m looking forward to retiring and having a splendid time together with Françoise.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.