THE FIRST time they saw Hai Rydberg, wife of the Swedish ambassador, dressed in Swedish national costume at a reception for the country's national day, guests raised amused eyebrows. Rydberg in no way resembles the typical Scandinavian; hers is but one of many diplomatic stories of foreign spouses who took on the nationality of their partners. Born in Vietnam, Rydberg wore an exquisite Chinese-style dress with floral embroidery near the neckline at the most recent Swedish National Day. When asked whether this was the new Swedish national costume, she laughed and said she'd bought the dress in Vietnam, but noted that it was in the Swedish national colors.
The streets leading to the Swedish residence in Herzliya Pituah were jammed with cars, and an hour after the start of the reception, guests were still lined up outside, waiting their turn to both greet and say farewell to Ambassador Robert Rydberg, his wife and their daughter Helena, who attended school here and will be going on to university in Sweden. The Rydbergs are winding up a four-year tour, and combined their farewell party with their National Day reception. The size of the crowd was a tribute to their popularity and their involvement in many areas of life here. Speeches were made from the ambassador's favorite platform - the roof. Speaking in both Hebrew and English, Rydberg spoke of the four years in which he and his family had shared Israel's joys and sorrows, traveling to the North to see the damage of last year's war and to the South to see the damage caused by the rockets fired at Sderot. They had also witnessed great economic and cultural achievements, and had offered personal congratulations to three Israeli Nobel Prize winners.
Rydberg acknowledged that there had been 'significant challenges' in bilateral relations, but these have been ironed out in five separate meetings between the two countries' foreign ministers, he said, adding that there is now an in-depth dialogue and understanding.
He thanked all the Israelis in his garden for allowing him to share in their joys and sorrows, but also for 'helping us to cope and to begin to understand.' Rydberg also had warm words for his diplomatic colleagues, saying that he his wife had made 'friends for life' with some members of the international community. Hai had also enjoyed her period as president of the International Women's Club, he said, and Helena had enjoyed the challenges of the American International School. Rydberg also praised Esther Barnea and Ulpan Akiva for contributing to his fluency in Hebrew. 'Israel will forever remain in our hearts,' he said
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ya'acov Edri, who represented the government, said he would love to be able to address the guests in Swedish with the ease that Rydberg speaks Hebrew, but since he knows none, he would follow Rydberg's example and speak in Hebrew. Edri attributed the significant improvement in bilateral relations to Rydberg's endeavors, and declared: 'This is a wonderful ambassador who deserves our approbation.' He went on to praise Sweden for its social welfare system, which he said was a model for the rest of the world.
Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Henri Etoundi Essomba, who has served as ambassador of Cameroon since October 1998, and before that for several years as counselor and charge d'affaires, told Rydberg that there were not many diplomats who had been able to get to the hearts of the Israeli people as he had, simply because of his ability to speak to them in their own language. Essomba admitted that after the long period that he has spent here, his Hebrew is nowhere near the level of Rydberg's.
Traditionally, departing ambassadors are presented with a large silver tray by the dean of the Diplomatic Corps on behalf of its members, and Essomba did the honors, with a little difficulty because the microphone kept fading out on him.
Among the other guests was Swedish parliamentarian Annelie Enochson of the Christian Democratic Party, who has been here many times and who said how happy she and her colleagues were with Rydberg's achievements here. Also present was Zvi Mazel, a former and controversial ambassador to Sweden, who said of Rydberg: 'He's an excellent diplomat.'
Among the most frequent comments made to Rydberg by guests who queued up to wish him well were variations of 'you weren't speaking in terms that were politically correct. You were speaking from the heart.'
Some of the guests were curious about the origin of Hai Rydberg's name, which means life in Hebrew. However in Vietnamese it means sea, and in Swedish it means shark. Go figure.
One of the happiest guests at the reception was artist Ziporah Segal, who won the door prize of a round-trip ticket to Sweden. She's now planning to take an art exhibition with her.