Consulates of the New Eastside
When they’re not battling global intrigue or issuing visas, which is most of the time, foreign consulates in the United States are promoting the interests and spreading the culture of the countries they represent. In Chicago, the New Eastside is home to the Midwestern diplomatic offices of Canada, France and the Czech Republic. We sat down with the Consuls General from each organization to find out what exactly they’re up to.
Besides inventing hockey, supplying the US with half of its oil and sending more visitors to America than the number of people who actually live there (many Canucks come more than once), Canada’s greatest foreign relations challenge, according to Consul General Roy Norton, is “getting noticed.”
“Americans, I think, have a pretty positive impression of Canada,” he says. “But we’re not top of mind.”
Culturally, Norton would prefer more time to “sit down and impress upon people why they should care about the relationship.” But politically, he deals in US trade and legislation to a greater degree than perhaps any Consul General in the country, mostly due to the volume of business between the Midwest and his homeland.
“Illinois sells more goods to Canada than (it does) to your next five best global customers put together,” he explains.
At that level, legislation can impact entire industries. The Farm Bill of 2008 introduced a measure called the “Country of Origin Labeling” that wreaked havoc on Canadian agricultural and meat producing interests because, according to Norton, it was discriminatory and illegal.
“We fought it for six years and we kept winning in the World Trade Organization,” he says. “The United States didn’t do anything.”
So Canada retaliated by “introducing tariffs on US agricultural exports to Canada in the amount of the losses,” which were in the billions, says Norton.
“It was a very uncharacteristically Canadian thing to do,” he admits. “But we said ‘enough of this, it’s just not fair.’”
After meeting with several Midwestern agribusiness leaders and members of Congress to “impress upon them why they should act to change and what would happen if they didn’t,” Norton helped get the law repealed in the Omnibus Appropriations last December.
There are no hard feelings. Norton is still a huge Chicago Cubs fan and Canadians continue to not only “love” Americans but also remain “fascinated” by them.
“Indeed,” he says, “Maybe we’re obsessed: the entrepreneurialism, the can-do spirit, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”
Among the Americans who have made a lasting impression on Norton is a former classmate from Harvard, where he studied Public Administration as a post-grad. The man was a law student who always struck him as “very sincere, intelligent and inquisitive” named Barack Obama.
Vincent Floreani, Consul General of France
205 N. Michigan · (312) 327-5200
The nation of France inspires and provokes Americans by merely existing, much in the same way that the United States does to everyone else in the world. This similarity bonds the countries together like siblings, especially in Chicago, the sister-city of Paris. According to Vincent Floreani, the French Consul General, “We are at a highest point of very close relations on all topics.”
He mentions the recent Paris Agreement, which President Obama referred to as “the best chance we have” to protect the planet from climate change. He also praises the “Iran Nuclear Deal,” which was crafted in part by the permanent members of the UN.
But it is the American response to the recent tragedy in Paris, when more than a hundred people perished at the hands of violent extremists, that appears to move him most.
“We were overwhelmed by the support we received everywhere in the world,” he says. “But especially in the US. Mayor Emanuel came to the French consulate. It was so nice.”
Floreani helps to return the kindness by awarding the Legion of Honor medal to American military veterans in the Midwest who saw action in France. Last month, he met soldiers in Ohio. Next month, he’ll be in Kansas City.
“The French people remember that we were freed twice by American soldiers, in 1917 and 1944,” he says. “I meet them and say you are heroes, you came to France and risked your life for us. This is one of the most rewarding things I do.”
On the business end of his post, Floreani pushes French innovation that “many people don’t know about,” especially in the high-tech and automotive industries. “We have giants like Michellin and Valeo and Faurecia, which make automobile parts,” he says. “When you sit in an American car, there is one chance out of two that the seat you are on is made by a French manufacturer.”
This October marks the 20th anniversary of the Chicago – Paris sister city partnership. Floreani hopes to celebrate the occasion with an encore of 2015’s “A La Carte Chicago,” a weeklong feast of French cuisine in more than a hundred local restaurants complemented by wine tastings, speeches and cooking classes in the Alliance Française, the French cultural and learning center on Chicago Avenue.
For those who cannot wait that long, the second annual Good France / Goût de France event on March 21 will feature “1,000 chefs on all five continents” presenting a typical prix fixe French meal. Eleven of the participating restaurants will be located in the Midwest; seven will be in Chicago.
Given Floreani’s appreciation for Chicago — a “beautiful city” with excellent architecture and cuisine that he considers “very European” — the ambience will mix well with the meal.
Borek Lizec, Consul General, Czech Republic
205 N. Michigan · (312) 861-1037
In May 1918, 150,000 people filled the streets of Chicago to cheer for a visitor named Tomas Masaryk, who would become the first president of the newly formed nation of Czechoslovakia by year’s end. Roughly three decades later, the city would support another visiting Czechoslovakian President, Edvard Benes, who came to launch his campaign for Czech independence after the Nazi invasion of World War II.
The resulting bond between the Czech Republic and Chicago — the Sister City of Prague and historic center of Czech immigration — is incomparable.
According to Consul General Borek Lizec, “The largest Czech celebration of 2015 in the US was Prague Days Chicago.” Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the sisterhood between the two cities, the main theme of the festival was “celebrating Czech history in Chicago,” he explains.
The event featured a startling lineup of famous Americans who claim ancestry from the Bohemian and Moravian regions that constitute much of the Czech Republic. Kim Novac hosted the “Czech That Film” program. Astronauts Eugene Cernan and James Lovell made personalized YouTube invitations. Ray Kroc, Anton Cermak and George Halas were among the other notables honored.
The event also included a concert at Thalia Hall, the historic music venue modeled after the Prague Opera House and built in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, which was named after a town in the Czech Republic. Since the majority of the area’s current residents are of Mexican descent, the show was titled “Bohemian Past, Mexican Present” and included both Mexican and Czech artists and musicians.
The emphasis on the past does not reflect some Czech obsession with history; rather, it is a stage in the renaissance of self-determination that began in 1989, when the Czech people launched a protest against their Communist government. Their efforts initiated a non-violent transfer of power known as the Velvet Revolution.
Lizet was a sixteen year-old student at the time. “My high school was the first high school to go on strike,” he says. “We refused to take classes. We went to Wenceslaus Square to take part in the protests.”
Among the speakers addressing the crowds was writer Václav Havel, who would soon be elected President of Czechoslovakia and, after the peaceful division of the Czechs and Slovacs, President of the Czech Republic.
In the 27 years since, according to the Consul General, it’s been all about moving forward for the ancient kingdom. “After the Velvet Revolution, to come back to the west was our greatest ambition,” he says.
Since the country’s traditional export is beer, their cultural journey westward has been well received by the United States. Leading brands include Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, and Czechvar, which also sponsored last year’s Czech days. The Czech Republic is also renowned for its decorative glass, which adorns the lobby of the Langham Hotel in River North.
— Daniel Patton | Staff Writer