Globetrotting Swiss-Israeli Wife Takes Diplomatic Tours of Duty in Stride
We first met on the dance floor. It was the annual Ambassador’s Ball in September 2006 and Swiss Ambassador Urs Ziswiler and his wife Ronit had arrived in Washington earlier that May. But with the summer vacation in between their arrival and the start of the fall diplomatic season, the ball was like their social debut. Trim and fit, they danced together with great verve, loving every minute and looking like professional ballroom dancers.
Since then, they have showed Washington how they also “dance” through their daily diplomatic duties with that same style and precision — a dance they’ve practiced and perfected over the years.
In 1979, Urs Ziswiler joined the Swiss Foreign Service, which sent him and his wife to posts in Canada, the Bahamas, the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Argentina, Israel, the Congo, Belgium, Nigeria and Norway, among other places, before coming to Washington. Along the way, they had two daughters.
“This is the only post where I haven’t worked as an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher,” said Ronit, who is fluent in several languages. “Washington is so busy — I knew I couldn’t work outside the embassy here. I like to be involved and know what’s going on. Every event is planned by me,” she said.
“Here, I think of myself more of a food and beverage manager and event planner…. Urs and I create everything together here: the event, the entertainment, the menu and the flowers with our team,” she added, noting the invaluable assistance of residence manager Rodrigo Geron, chef Vincent Muia and social secretary Sally Thornberry.
Later, when I got a moment with her husband, I asked what it means to have Ronit in charge of the Swiss Residence. His answer was simple: “We’re the best team in town,” he said, laughing. “With 250-plus guests at the residence, you cannot do it without a good partnership, and that’s my wife and the rest of the team.”
When they do get the unusual evening off, the couple likes nothing better than a quiet dinner out at Matisse, Bistrot du Coin or Black Salt. “But when we go out to dinner, people sitting around us are always asking us where we’re from because we might start talking in English, but then we switch to French, and go to Swiss-German. I might end up in Hebrew,” said Israeli-born Ronit, who also counts Spanish among her languages. “Our older daughter Maya speaks Chinese,” she proudly added.
In fact, having worked twice in Beijing, 25-year-old Maya now does marketing for Procter & Gamble in Geneva, where she met and recently married her American husband. Younger daughter Anna, age 23, meanwhile, holds a degree in economics and currently interns at the Inter-American Development Bank, after which she will enter Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service this fall.
Globetrotting and multiple languages come naturally to this international family, and over the years Ronit has embraced her somewhat nomadic lifestyle. “I got used to moving around and could do it easily. I found it ‘a plus.’ If you do it all the time, you get very flexible and it becomes easier to pick up languages. Plus, we both love traveling.”
Although Ronit hasn’t had the time to teach while in Washington, she picks it back up when she can. “I love to participate in the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Embassy Adoption Program and regularly go to our adopted school, Takoma [Park Community] Learning Center, to read to the children myself,” she said. “I miss ‘the touch of teaching.’ When we were in Nigeria, I helped at a school for deaf students. Teaching has always been part of my adult life, wherever we were living in the world, except here.”
And together, this Israeli woman and Swiss man have lived in a lot of places, weaving a rich life of family adventures over the past 27 years, all of which began in Ronit’s home country of Israel.
“We met back in the late ’70s when Urs was working for the Red Cross in Israel. I was a student then and we met at a party,” Ronit recalled. “He already understood about Israeli society, having spent some years in Lebanon, Gaza, Tel Aviv and Iran. I was impressed and I liked that he was very spontaneous, cheerful, fun to be with and down to earth. He was open-minded and almost always in a good mood.
“But I also didn’t take it too seriously because I thought, one day he’ll have to leave. We did keep in touch though and then one day, he came back to Israel on another assignment.”
After a lengthy long-distance romance, in the end, it was a hasty marriage for the couple. “I was 22 and teaching. Suddenly, he was asked to leave for Zaire and he asked me if I wanted to get married. I remember our wedding day. He had to go to the dentist right before our ceremony because you have to do things like that if you’re leaving the country the next day. And we were.”
So, where does Ronit feel at home? In the Middle East? Switzerland? The United States? “Wherever I am, I guess,” she replied. “I can’t deny his Swiss roots and I’ve been representing Swiss life and living in Switzerland for so long that it has become part of me too. We have a townhouse in Geneva where our older daughter now lives and a 200-year-old summerhouse on a hill in Ticino, the southernmost part of Switzerland…. We sit on the wide loggia and look down into the valley to Italy.”
As much as Ronit enjoys the picturesque charms of Switzerland, it is very important to this hard-working diplomatic wife to show that Switzerland is more than its storybook image. “It is not anymore just ‘Heidi-land,’” she said. “Switzerland is one of the most industrial, modern countries in the world, and our relationship with the United States reflects this. It is still a beautiful country of chocolates, cheeses and chalets with tourism as an important pillar of Swiss economy.
“But what people don’t always know is that Switzerland is one of the most advanced countries in the world, with one of the highest per-capita incomes and only 2.5 percent unemployment. We are strong economically, the seventh investor in America, creating 400,000 jobs in 500 different companies.
“Yet, we are the most environmentally friendly country on the earth, according to a recent Yale-Columbia University study,” she added, proudly showing me the report. “I think the Swiss learn how to protect the environment when they are born. From the time they are little, they are always separating rubbish, making compost piles, and they love to go for walks.”
The Swiss in fact have long been famous for their eco-friendly building regulations. “For constructing new homes, we have very, very strict energy recovering systems and for old houses; you must always try to replace the old with the new technology,” Ronit explained. “I know. When our old boiler broke, we had to change to a whole new system.”
That adherence to sustainable development is reflected in the “green” designs of the Swiss Residence in Washington, which opened more than a year ago. The Ziswilers were actually the first to live in the sleek, contemporary structure, a collaborative effort between the New York firm of Steven Holl Architects along with Swiss architect Justin Ruessli (also see September 2006 Luxury Living section of The Washington Diplomat).
Since then, the Ziswilers often host events to showcase their environmentally friendly residence. For instance, on May 5, the Swiss Embassy will partner with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) D.C. Chapter for an afternoon tour of the residence followed by a panel discussion with Swiss and American experts on the latest trends and innovations in green building practices from both countries — capped off by the annual Washingtonian/AIA Residential Design Awards reception.
“I love this residence,” Ronit said. “It has a lot of light — you’re inside but you feel outside. There’s lots of space and it’s so perfect for entertaining that it makes my job easy. All we need to do is add that special personal touch. They did a beautiful job.
“The furniture and all the art were already chosen, the lights and even little tables and stools too,” she added. “The only things on the main floor that are ours are those pieces of sculpture on that shelf.”
Behind a narrow, long alcove is a handsome ebony pineapple from what was then Zaire, an almost friendly stone crocodile from Mali, three urns from the Middle East and a big round water jug from Nigeria. “They are all from our travels,” Ronit noted.
“We like contemporary art but we are not art investors. Upstairs in our private quarters is the only place we have our personal things, our art and our books. When we were in Nigeria, we found a painting made with sand. It’s the body of a woman carrying a water vase. It always hangs in our bedroom, wherever we live.”
Ronit’s worldly sense of color and style has made her one of the chicest ambassadors’ wives in town. “I like black and white but sometimes I also like bold colors. I usually choose simple, comfortable and classic clothes that you can change and rearrange with a scarf or piece of jewelry. I have collected clothes and accessories from all over the world and don’t wear any particular designer,” she said. “No labels for me.”
But she makes an exception for Akris, the Swiss line designed by Albert Kriemler, who now has an international following. This past winter, Ronit invited the designer for a bright and colorful fashion show at the residence. “He is now one of the top designers in the world. I love his classic clothes of clear shapes, simple lines, extraordinary quality and fine fabrics,” she said.
“He designs right in St. Gallen, looking out over a Swiss pasture for inspiration and uses the fine embroidery from that historic town,” Ronit added, noting that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and actress Nicole Kidman wear his clothes, which are sold in the Washington area at Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks Jandel and Neiman Marcus.
But clothes — and shopping for them — is only one of Ronit’s favorite pastimes. “When I want to relax, I play the piano. I love classical music,” she said. “I spent eight years at the conservatory, from the time I was 6. I can stay and play for hours and hours — I just forget what time it is. My daughter Anna and I used to play together; she played the violin.”
Like many Swiss, Ronit and her family also enjoy outdoor sports. “We used to cross-country and downhill [ski], especially with the girls. When we were posted to Canada, we lived right in front of a lake which always froze. There were long, long winters in Ottawa and we’d always take the girls skiing, just going out on our front lawn right down to the lake. It was lovely,” Ronit recalled.
In warmer months, Ronit and her husband used to play tennis but now more often play golf on local courses around Washington. “On the weekends, I love to read and go out for a quiet dinner or cook something simple like raclette or cheese fondue at home. We have no staff on the weekends so we just keep it simple. Urs helps.”
But with all these rich cheese fondues and Swiss chocolates, how does she stay in shape? “I usually go for a walk every day with Lola, our white labrador, and twice a week I go to the gym,” she said.
But at some point, like so many others in the past, Ronit’s routine will be uprooted by another diplomatic move. Over the last quarter century of crisscrossing the globe, one thing she hasn’t enjoyed is “leaving behind the fine people we meet in each post, taking our children out of schools they love and away from their friends and seeing them so sad. In fact, many children of diplomatic families don’t know where they belong.”
But now, with her children grown, the number-one thing Ronit doesn’t like is not having the time to nurture deep friendships. “Friendships — profound and good friendships — take time,” she said. “But we have already met wonderful people in Washington who will be hard to leave.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.