'Would you like Italian or American coffee?" the maid asked me when I arrived early for my appointment with the wife of the Italian ambassador.
It occurred to me - though I am not known for my grasp of diplomacy - that I should opt for Italian. It was a good choice: divine coffee poured from a silver pot into delicate cups with the letters R.I. - for Republica Italiana - embedded in gold on the white porcelain.
Sitting next to a vase of predatory irises on the table, I glanced around the enormous room and noted no less than five separate sitting areas. I had gravitated automatically to the one next to the window, a green and white affair with a stunning view of the garden and pool outside.
The decor was as beautiful and colorful as you would expect from the nation that gave us Michelangelo, Botticelli and Armani. When the wife of Ambassador Sandro De Bernardin arrived, I was on to my second cup of coffee and had lost count of the number of melt-in-the-mouth buttery "langues de chat" cookies I had consumed.
The residence of the Italian ambassador is in Ramat Gan, half a minute away from busy honking Jabotinsky and overlooked by a skyscraper which is rumored to be the tallest in the Middle East.
It is truly astonishing to find such an oasis of beauty and calm only a step away from the Ramat Gan business center, with the Diamond Bourse, five-star hotels, wedding halls and office buildings clustered together in a heap of urban ugliness.
The area was chosen for the embassy residence for its proximity to Tel Aviv; the ambassador and his wife find it a convenient place to live even if many of their colleagues live in Herzliya Pituah. It's less convenient for their 16-year-old son, who attends the American School in Kfar Shmaryahu. But his mother often drives him back and forth. The couple's other three children are older and live in Italy.
The De Barnardins arrived in Israel to take up their posting just over a year ago. They are happy to be here to share what Signora de Bernardin calls "this important moment" in our history. Also, as Catholics, they can enjoy visiting the holy places. The house, rented by the Italian government, was more or less ready to walk into when they took up the posting. All the d cor and furnishings were in place and they brought small items like lamps, family photos and souvenirs from their last posting in Zaire. These include African masks and two framed pieces of handwork on the walls on either side of the fireplace, which I was told are in fact traditional dance skirts woven from a thread made of tree bark.
The Italian colors are green, white and red, and certainly the dominant colors of the different sitting rooms are green and white. A stunning floral display on one of the tables is made up of the three colors, the red being provided by pomegranates and antirrhinums.
Signora De Bernardin explained that the pomegranates were to honor the upcoming Jewish New Year. "It's important to know the traditions of the country you live in," she said.
The sofa and two armchairs in the furthermost sitting area are cream with green satin cushions, and next to this is an indoor garden which provides another good helping of green from the palms and ficuses flourishing there. The sitting area next to the chimney is the favorite at Christmas time, and it's there that the traditional nativity scene is placed.
On the other side of the immense room there is a 1.2-meter dinner table with 10 chairs around it and this can be extended to seat 24 people comfortably. Bowls of white roses are reflected in the polished wood. A splendid mirror-topped console completes the dining-room. In the summer, much of the entertaining is done outside on the terrace - where, on June 2, more than 1,000 people are invited to celebrate Italy's national day.
Halfway up the stairs to inspect the bedrooms, the ambassador's wife pointed out the oil painting of Moses receiving the tablets of the Law by Moritz Oppenheimer. It belongs to the owner of the house, who rents out the building to the Italians.
The bedrooms are suitably regal - in particular the guest bedroom, with its gold- and brown-striped silk fabrics. A quick peep into one of the bathrooms yields a view of unusual vase-like tiles covering the walls from ceiling to floor.
Finally, it's down to the basement to check out the family living area, and from there straight out to look at the cactus garden and a lawn worthy of Wimbledon center court.
It was a privilege to be able to experience a corner of Israel that is, to paraphrase Rupert Brooke, forever Italy.
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