'I only go to countries where there is durian," says Gilles Garachon. This would explain why the latest French ambassador to Thailand's diplomatic career in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has included only Asian postings in India, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.
French Ambassador Gilles Garachon.
Durian in the south of India are different from those available here, he elaborates, and the ones in Java aren't exactly the same as what the Thais prefer. The durian-only comment is a joke, of course, though Garachon's passion is real, and it is no secret that he is a fan of fine food, as any Frenchman would be. At home, the fight is always on for mangoes, especially when his younger son -- Arthur -- has a tendency to devour them, alone in one sitting.
Food, culture, economics and more are high on his agenda in the year when France and Thailand celebrate the 160th anniversary of diplomatic relations. For the Garachon household, Thailand also has a special place in the family biography. His second son was born in Thailand while the first arrived here when he was a few months' old when the ambassador was posted to Thailand from 1999-2003 as first counsellor. The family nanny was a Thai who got the Garachons hooked on local dishes (the ambassador's sons kept asking for rice even when they were back in France) and even moved with them to Jakarta after the diplomat moved there in the mid-2000s.
His connections to the region date back even further into the 70s, when aged 16, Garachon first discovered Asia in a tour to Hong Kong and Thailand -- after some family friends dropped out last minute and passed him their tickets.
"I found that it was very interesting. I found a deep attraction for your culture so I decided later on to do something about it," Garachon says.
A fascination with all things Asian led him to complete studies in Asian history and archaeology, only to discover that there was something he was more intrigued by.
"I've always wanted to be an archaeologist, but I realised that I was more interested in modern and contemporary history. I then started studying economics and law so I could join the MFA. By the time I did after passing the exams, I was very much connected to Asia already and have been very lucky to get my requested postings to Asia."
Already armed with the ability to speak Hindi and Burmese, Ambassador Garachon's Thai is a promising work-in-progress, as he explains that Thai does share a few words with the latter language. We're back to food again, even when talking about languages.
"Burmese and Thai come from the same family of monosyllabic languages with tones," he explains. "They are completely different languages but some words are the same, like kapi. In Burmese it's gapi, because ga means fish and pi means paste, while in Thai it just means what it is. There are a lot of common things."
Presumably, the 60-year-old is fully attentive of the importance of culture in diplomacy and how to continue long-lasting relationships.
"We must base co-operation not only on projects to transfer knowledge and know-how, but also in training people," he envisions. "It's very important that Thai people train in France in many sectors so there will be bridges. If you invest in training somebody, a lifelong connection between this person and the country will exist."
Political and economic diplomacy may be the core business of his job, but the ambassador puts emphasis on understanding culture, where reading may not even be enough.
"I think reading a book is very good, but watching a movie or painting sometimes makes you understand the culture and people's psyches better than words," he says. "Culture is extremely important if you want to understand what is happening in the country you are staying in. You need to learn the language and the issue is you must invest in understanding people's psyche and the history of the country. But if you want to do it well, you also have to listen to your counterparts -- not only talk. It must be an exchange and I think this is where cultural diplomacy stands."
Thailand and France share 160 years of diplomatic ties and this year's celebration will see a large gastronomic event in the ambassador's residence's garden.
"For us French, we think that gastronomy is part of cultural diplomacy. There will be no competition between the Thai and French cooks, as it will be more of a chance for people to taste many different dishes. I want it to be an exceptional garden party reflecting the identity of two countries crazy about cuisine," the food-enthusiast says with a smile.
The plot of land that the French embassy and residence sits on near the river in Bang Rak was bestowed to France by King Mongkut in 1857. Diplomatic relations first began when a treaty was signed in 1856 during the king's reign, where embassies were exchanged and Thai ambassadors were sent to Napolean III's court in Fontainebleau. While the first floor of the ambassador's residence used to serve as the office as well, today a spanking new and sleek, grey building has been unveiled as the new embassy.
If anything, it represents the changing times and an increasingly urban society, but Ambassador Garachon is confident one thing about Thailand remains, after living in the country during two different decades, as well as in other Asean countries.
"This great refinement in human relations that you call politeness, to me, is really sophistication," he says. "What I love about Asia and Thailand is the heart and core of the culture do not really change so much. The way they behave or their psyche do not change -- like when you see comics and it moves onto the internet from paper, but the aesthetic sense of humour is still the same.
"I see a great cultural stability but also a lot of new channels of communication and it's not the core that's changing. It's the surface that does but the core is still there and this is very important because it's the heritage and DNA -- what makes Thai people Thai."
It's only been three months so far since the native of Burgundy relocated to Bangkok but just as he marvels at the amount of new restaurants available in the city today, he's just as excited about his work and what the new AEC community has in store for him. The ambassador says: "Thailand has always been influential in the region and still is now.
"The economic market is a great chance for Thailand because when Europe had their common market, you see how it develops trade so much. Thailand is a hub for communication and transportation. I see a really bright future for Thailand and the whole region. It's a very promising and dynamic region and the pace is going to increase even more.
"My job, to develop better relations between Thailand, Asean and the EU, is a challenge and a great pleasure."