Norwegian Embassy in Bangkok one early morning. Consul Birgit Brantenberg has hardly reached her desk, before the phone starts ringing. It is a fellow Norwegian desperately begging to borrow money for a huge hospital bill. After lunch, she conducts a marriage and just when she wants to go home, she receives information about a family father being tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.
With 1800 registered Norwegians in Thailand and 150,000 visitors a year, being in charge of all consular tasks is quite a job, and everyday life is never boring or quiet for Counsellor Birgit Brantenberg. For three years now she has taken care of her countrymen and their requests and problems. As well as their deaths. But Birgit Brantenberg is never afraid of the job tasks, only challenged.
“You have the whole scale of problems here and go through the entire range of emotions, and that’s what makes the job so special,” she says.
When Birgit Brantenberg arrived at the Embassy as Counsellor in the summer of 2007, she found that Norwegians living in Thailand only had one chance a year to meet with Embassy representatives getting answers to what ever questions they may have. Today the Embassy invites Norwegians for coffee and cookies while providing all the information needed at yearly meetings in both Pattaya, Phuket, Cha-am and Udonthani. An initiative that Birgit Brantenberg has been the prime mover behind, and it has been somewhat of an eye opener to the Norwegians who have realised what a great job the Embassy is doing.
“In earlier years many people thought that counsellors and embassy people in general sat on their high horse only concerned with their own interests. Today we have a much stronger, mutual relationship with the Norwegian community,” she says.
According to the 65-year-old Birgit Brantenberg, to whom the job as counsellor is the last one before retirement, there is a great and rare unity among the consular team of 11, making the job much more efficient.
“We are so strong because we truly work together. We give each other ideas, input and inspiration. Something that is much needed if the Embassy’s tasks should run smoothly, but it’s definitely not a matter of course,” she says.
The hardest part
Last year 53 Norwegians past away while in Thailand. Most of them elderly people living here, and dying of natural causes, but every year some also loose their lives in tragic ways such as traffic or diving accidents. No matter the cause, every time a Norwegian takes the last breath in Thailand and a life ends, a big part of Birgit Brantenberg’s job begins. The hardest part. The Counsellor takes care of all the practical arrangements concerning the deaths, from the shipping of caskets and urns to the contact with family members or friends.
“The first thing we do is to let the relatives back in Norway know that we will handle all the practical stuff. They have enough on their mind in tough situations like this. It’s always hard telling someone that a family member has died, but we meet immediate relief and appreciation for the things we do,” she says.
“Most of the people dying, I have never even met, and it’s just so tragic that the first ‘acquaintance’ is under those circumstances. It’s a sad but necessary part of the job,” the Counsellor continues.
Another equally tough and unfortunately recurrent issue is when Birgit Brantenberg has to deal with Norwegians threatening to take their own lives. Often the suicidal people are very desperate and have no one else to contact than the Embassy. But Birgit Brantenberg’s options are limited.
“We are human beings so of course we are empathetic and concerned. But at the same time we let it be said that we cannot work as a pastoral carer or psychologists. We do not have the resources nor do we have the proper education.”
Luckily in cases like these the Embassy has a close cooperation with the Seamen’s church and its Priest, Jan Olav Johannesen, in Pattaya.
Not the Bangkok oracle
24 hours a day, every day, people can contact the Norwegian embassy. A phone service has been set up, meaning that all calls to the counsellor office after 4 pm are automatically put through to a call centre managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo. Here, skilled workers asses if the matter can wait until the next morning or if it is truly urgent. In those rare cases, Birgit Brantenberg, or one of her colleagues, will see to it. The phone service has been nothing less than a gigantic improvement of the working conditions at the embassy.
“Before we were never really ‘off’, even when we left the office. We had to have the emergency phone with us at all times. People calling from Norway in the middle of the night not thinking about the time difference. Drunk travellers calling about a missed flight or whatever. No one should have to bring their job home like that, and it was a huge stress factor,” says Birgit Brantenberg and the relief in her voice is striking as she tells about the burden being lifted off her shoulders.
Birgit Brantenberg loves the daily contact with Norwegians in Thailand and back in Scandinavia. But with the thousands of calls she receives every year, necessarily some are more frustrating than others.
“Many call because they are planning a trip to Thailand month away, asking me this and that about the future. I wish I could tell them, that ‘I’m not the Bangkok oracle.’ Instead I have to tell them that they have to look for updates on our Embassy webpage,” she laughs out and continues to another example. During the crises in April and May people were dying in Bangkok and Norwegians worried about their safety.
“When you, in the middle of a situation like that, receive a phone call from someone asking about transferring flights, or something else seeming completely irrelevant at the time, you have to count to ten and stay professional,” Birgit Brantenberg says.
But at the same time the Norwegian Counsellor would not have it any other way. Sitting in the middle of the gathering point of all problems inspires her.
“Solving problems means that you’re helping someone. That’s what I love about my job. The day I feel I don’t make a difference anymore, I will stop. Instantly,” Birgit Brantenberg says with determination.