I had the honour of speaking with Ben Greenwood, HM Acting Consul General Milan and Director of the Department of International Trade Italy at the British Consulate Milan. We met for an informal video call to chat about his experience living in Milan and about UK and Italy relations.
When the joyous news was announced that HM Consul General of Milan Catriona Graham of the British Consulate was expecting, a second family received exciting news too. Ben Greenwood and his wife Firuza were notified that Ben’s next assignment would be HM Acting Consul General Milan and Director DIT Italy while Catriona was on maternity leave.
Ben Greenwood was head of Trade Policy in China and has a background in the former Soviet Union, having worked in Russia and Uzbekistan.
He was to depart to serve his mission in Milan from November 2020 to July 2021. Like the rest of the world, Italy was battling the Covid-19 pandemic and as the appointment was temporary, the Greenwood family decided that he would go to Milan alone.
He explained, “I have three children, Oscar and twins, Alicia and Nicholas who are in primary school. We took the decision that they would stay in the UK for schooling because this is a short-term assignment. It was also a time when we had hoped that commuting back-and-forth on weekends would be easier. When I can, I return for longer periods. I was able to spend a few weeks at Christmas and Easter with my family for the holidays. It is never easy without them but it’s working out OK.”
Originally from Canterbury in the southeast of the UK another city with an iconic cathedral, he is enjoying his time here in Milan, despite the lockdown restrictions.
“There is still a lot I’d like to see and do but I have been able to get a feel for the city. I enjoy my walks around town,” he said.
Living la dolce vita in Milan
Since CG Greenwood has been here, he hasn’t experienced early evening aperitivi, holiday cenone or excursions to other towns and cities. I asked if he was disappointed that he couldn’t live the full ‘dolce vita‘ experience.
He admits what he was looking forward to the most, “Well, I’m a big football fan, so I was looking forward to going to the San Siro Stadium. Milan is so famous for its football teams and its passion for football, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to live that experience. I have been to see the stadium and had a walk around. I think architecturally it is very impressive as well. San Siro is such an iconic stadium.”
While he hasn’t lived ‘la dolce vita’ to the fullest, he remains optimistic and is enjoying the nice weather. “Spring is just around the corner. I am here until the end of July – maybe football at San Siro might be possible. I’m still hopeful.”
Similarities between Milan & St. Petersburg
After having worked in China, Russia and Uzbekistan, this is the Consul’s first European assignment.
“This is my first time on assignment in Europe. Russia and the former Soviet Union are my real areas of interest, but I am enjoying Milan very much.” He adds, “It’s quite interesting. You may have already heard this comparison; I’m thinking about St. Petersburg in particular. I find Milan quite reminiscent of St. Petersburg. Architecturally they have many similarities. Much of St. Petersburg was built by Italian architects. I see a lot of similarities with the old parts of the Milan city centre.”
“There are connections in the cultural sphere as well. For example, La Scala and the Mariinsky of St. Petersburg. Theatre, opera and ballet are very important for both cities.” As he speaks, he reflects on what he just told me, “This is the first time I’ve spent any serious amount of time in Milan. Yes, it feels reminiscent of St. Petersburg which is quite interesting. I hadn’t made the connection but now it seems very clear.”
Becoming a Diplomat
Working in foreign affairs was in the cards for Ben Greenwood from the beginning. His passion for history and love of culture combined with studies in politics, economics and humanities led him to become a diplomat.
He explains, “I always had an interest in foreign affairs. If you go to university and study foreign affairs as I did, your career options are limited, so for me, it was kind of the situation where I either entered the diplomatic service or bust.”
With a smile, he adds, “Really, I don’t know what my Plan B was, but I am very happy it worked out.”
Curious about the job application process for being selected as a Consul, he gave me a surprising answer, “It is quite competitive, a lot of people do apply. There is a process, but it’s not necessarily based on whether or not you studied International Relations or speak a particular language. It is more centred around aptitude. It’s a kind of assessment – a process that evaluates you on things like verbal and numerical reasoning. You don’t need a degree in Foreign Affairs to take the exam. You could have done a degree in science for example, there is no sort of specialisation necessary. If you have got the required level of aptitude, then you’re in. This is for the whole of the civil service in the UK not just for the foreign office and government departments.”
I asked about what happens after the selection. He replied, “You can express a preference on which government department you want to join but there is no guarantee that you will necessarily get that. It’s a tough process to go through but a very satisfying job once you get it.”
Working in Foreign Affairs
The image of someone working in Foreign Affairs always conjures up a glamorous lifestyle of international executive meetings, cocktail parties, and gala banquets. I asked if the life of a diplomat is like what we see in the movies.
“It’s a fun job, you get to do a lot of really interesting things which I am very grateful for, but in many ways it’s like any other job. There are good bits and others that are more mundane. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very grateful to be doing a job that I like – not everyone can say that. I can further my interest in history, travel and learn languages, so it’s the perfect job in that regard. I consider myself very lucky in that respect.”
Since he had touched on the subject of languages, I asked about his Italian.
“As this is a temporary assignment, I didn’t have any language training before coming out here. I studied Russian at university and before going to Russia and Uzbekistan I had formal language training, the same before going to China, but my Italian is very much a work in progress.”
We both agreed that studying a language is of utmost importance in understanding a culture.
“Yes, I think it’s really important to do that. We see language is really important in a very practical sense to live your day to day life, but it’s also an insight into a different culture, a different way of thinking. I think it’s a window into a country’s mentality. I’ve definitely found that with Russian and with Chinese. Knowing the way the language works is also the way the country sometimes states.”
He continues, “I think it’s certainly a prerequisite if you are going to spend three or four years in a particular country. In order to understand, to get under the skin of that country – which is what you are supposed to do as a diplomat. I think learning a language is essential. Having an understanding about the country’s history as well is especially important, again for the same reason.”
Working from Home in Milan
Since coming to Milan in November, CG Greenwood has seen changes in regional colour-coded zones, imposed lockdowns, travel restrictions and like everyone else, has been partially working from his apartment in Milan.
“Because I am away from my family I figured that I might as well try to make the best of the situation, and that is selectively focusing on work. In some ways, I am working more. I think this is something we might be finding more and more common in general – working from home. Working from home has its advantages and disadvantages, but it’s important to maintain a focus on wellbeing.”
UK & Italy Relations
In addition to being HM Acting Consul General, Greenwood is also Director of the Department for International Trade Italy. This government branch facilitates relations between the UK and Italy and is responsible for striking and extending trade agreements, as well as for encouraging foreign investment and export trade.
This year is a particularly exciting time for UK and Italy relations. At the beginning of the year, Britain officially exited the EU, and this year has been dubbed as the Year of Presidencies. This year the UK has taken on the presidency of the G7 and Italy is going to be president of the G20. At the end of the year, the COP26 climate change conference will be held in Glasgow with pre-conference events and discussions taking place in Milan.
“I am glad I came to Milan, rather than staying in the UK and doing the job from a laptop at a distance. I don’t think that I would have been able to build up the same understanding of Italy.
I have been very focused on work because I think this year is an interesting time to be in Italy from a UK-Italy perspective. Although I am here for a short time, it’s actually a significant time because we are concluding the transition period out of the European Union, an historical change but it’s also the beginning of a new era in our relationships. This year we will be signing a new bilateral cooperation agreement between the UK and Italy which will essentially define how we move forward together. That will cover things like trade which is what we are working on primarily in Milan.”
He continues, “The outlook for UK-Italy trade is very positive because there are a lot of areas where we can work together. We are both focusing on new technologies such as artificial intelligence and internet technology as well as low carbon and clean growth energy sectors such as sustainable fashion, sustainable packaging, and sustainable food. These are very strong areas for Milan.
We are also working with security and defense, civil aviation, automotive, as well as the food and drink industries.
Italy and the UK are working together on a global level, tackling issues like climate change and international recovery from the pandemic making sure international supply chains are resilient and secure.”
Where to Next?
Although he already knows where his next assignment will bring him, he cannot disclose it. He replied diplomatically saying, “Yes, I do know but I can’t say. We have to be a bit cagy about these things, but yes, I do know and it’s a job that sounds like it will be interesting.”
When I asked him what he would miss most about Milan he graciously said, “I will miss the team in Milan. Working with this team has been a real pleasure because they’re not only professional, pro-active and responsive and hugely expert at what they do, but they’ve also been very welcoming and very supportive in terms of advising me and supporting me. Particularly in this very unusual situation that we are living in at the moment. Yes, it will definitely be the team that I miss the most when it’s time to leave, but I’m sure there will be opportunities to come back in the future.”
Thank you HM Consul General in Milan Ben Greenwood, for taking the time to talk with Easy Milano. Wherever your next assignment takes you, buona fortuna!
Article by Celia Abernethy, Easy Milano