Their Excellencies

In his office above the Union Oyster House , which his family has owned since 1971, Joe Milano gestures in the direction of a ferocious-looking trinket. “The Exalted Order of the White Elephant,” says Milano, who is Boston's honorary consul general for Thailand. “It's for non-heads of state. The only other person I know who has one is Tiger Woods.”  

Honorary diplomatic consul. It's a grand string of words, marbled with Latin roots. Although 22 countries station professional diplomats here–Canada and Israel, for instance–places like Denmark, Bolivia, and Thailand don't bother. They enlist locals who do the job not only for the diplomatic license plates, but for the glory of it.

“I've always volunteered for civic duties,” says Milano, who, at 60, has a chipper animation and a solar-flare tan. “And I was always curious to be a diplomat, but I didn't want to leave home.”

Most Americans don't like leaving home. George W. Bush rarely did before he took office. Now, under his administration, the Pentagon reaps billions, “soft power” gives way to screeching hardware, and the legacy of Talleyrand and Metternich sinks deeper into the mud under Fortress America. We've never been so despised abroad–not even when Melrose Place was still on. So any sputtering of internationalism within our borders, no matter how faint, is a virtue. Boston's honorary consuls are among the more dedicated sputterers. And they match their ideals with their checkbooks.

“I go to Thailand once a year at my own expense,” says Milano. “I meet with the foreign ministry, have dinner and protocols, and enjoy.”

I'm something of a connoisseur of diplomats. My father was a State Department economic officer, and I grew up in the concrete bosoms of American embassies. I recall that most foreign service officers looked unevenly nourished: ruffled, pale, not unlike potatoes in ties. There were odd sparks of glamour–my mother's shrieks of laughter, for example, when my father had to don a top hat to attend the Dublin Horse Show–but mostly it seemed like grueling stuff: cables to be written in short, declarative sentences; congressmen to be chaperoned. There was always an office fug clinging to my father's shirts when he came home, the soft sweat of deskwork.

Above the Union Oyster House, Milano's offices are lavish with golden teak, while photos show him with the Thai royal family, Mitt Romney, and the Pope. Milano landed the job after visiting Bangkok during a fall tour of duty with the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, in which he holds the rank of brigadier general. One visit led to another, and before he knew it, he was issuing Thai visas.

To be an honorary consul means to be a committed internationalist, more so than the BU kids who hang around the Emporio Armani Caffè pretending to be Florentines. Without even the prospect of a government pension, consuls help international visitors who have lost their passports, tried to export shrimp, or pissed off John Ashcroft.

This cosmopolitanism was on full parade at this year's Consuls' Ball. Deep inside the polished innards of the Fairmont Copley Plaza, several dozen men and women gathered to support the United Nations Association of Greater Boston. Joe Milano was there, dashing in Thai national dress, a scarlet tunic garnished with a salad of gold braiding, rosettes, and, of course, the Exalted Order of the White Elephant. There were African costumes and Indian ones and something woolly and vaguely peasant. Perhaps Dutch or Hungarian.

After knocking back a few volleys at the bar, the consuls marched into the dining room, accompanied by a big-band rendition of “We Are the World.” Then Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, once general director of the World Health Organization and former prime minister of Norway, took the podium. She spoke in a steady, Scandinavian cadence, saying things like “human dignity and value” and “breastfeeding in a global perspective.”

One of the diners navigated the vacant dance floor, several sheets to the wind and tacking in the direction of the bar. A ripping snore erupted from a rear table.

“We can solve burning issues without dramatic change,” concluded Brundtland, upon which everyone shuffled off to the dessert buffet.

In a cynical moment, my father once told me we could probably replace all our embassies with fax machines. He didn't mean it, of course. He had spent too many years gulping from the plastic wine glass, each rubbery chicken dinner adding its grease to the wheels of international diplomacy. And while the Consuls' Ball wasn't quite the Congress of Vienna, it had an extremely satisfactory result. All the proceeds went to pay for Model United Nations programs in Boston schools.

Nor have Milano's labors gone unrewarded. At a grand ceremony in Bangkok in August, he accepted the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand. Which trumps even an exalted elephant.