The staff of the Embassy of Dominica never gets bogged down in diplomatic protocol. After all, the most junior member of the staff calls the ambassador "Dad" and addresses the staff's only other member as "Mom."
The smallest embassy in Washington, nestled in a high-rise condominium in Alexandria's West End, is occupied solely by Ambassador McDonald P. Benjamin, his wife Hanelore and his 24-year-old son McDonald Jr. Except for a colorful flag that stands on a six-foot pole at the front door, the offices resemble any other apartment at the Watergate of Alexandria.
"We certainly have the best view of any embassy in Washington," said Hanelore (Angela) Benjamin, as she gazed across Northern Virginia's skyline from the eighth floor residence and embassy.
Ambassador Benjamin, 64, represents the tiny island country of the Commonwealth of Dominica. "No, not the Dominican Republic, I often have to tell people," he said.
The nation's 305 square miles of lush tropical rain forests, rugged mountains, 365 rivers and the world's largest boiling lake are cradled in the Caribbean between Guadeloupe to the north and Martinque to the south. Living there are the world's only Sisserou and Rednicked parrots, and behemoth frogs called mountain chickens (yes, chickens).
Benjamin serves the country's 84,000 residents as ambassador to the United States, ambassador to Italy and ambassador to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization. He and his family are unpaid and operate on an annual budget of $20,000.
"We are constantly moving," said the ambassador, distinguished man whose work has taken him to every corner of the earth. He is an expert in agricultural trade and is retired from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a United Nations agency.
"I spend about four months a year in the United States and the rest in Italy. And my wife spends about six months in the U.S. and the rest in Italy," Benjamin said. Their son, McDonald Jr., an Oxford graduate who grew up in British boarding schools, spends most of his time at the embassy here, taking care of the daily correspondence.
"If there is an emergency, I always have a direct line to wherever my parents are," the younger Benjamin said in precise Oxford English. In addition to answering roughly 50 letters a day and taking calls from the State Department and other government offices, he is working on his doctorate in economics at Georgetown University. The Benjamins also have a daughter, Sandra, 22, who is a graphic designer and travels between Dominica and the United States.
They said that when the family travels together, customs officials often are confused because they carry passports from three countries among them. "We all have to come through different entrances at the airports," Hanelore Benjamin said.
"We often have races to see who will get through customs first," said McDonald Jr. His mother is German-born and holds a German passport; the ambassador has a Dominican passport; their son has a U.S. passport, and their daugter holds a German passport.
Running three diplomatic missions has its ups and downs.
"We have a logistical problem in Rome," the ambassador said.
"Whenever I meet the ambassador from the Dominican Republic, I say we should merge our two embassies because, I tell him, 'I know all your secrets because we get all your mail,' " he said.
"We really do get some very important, very top secret mail delivered to us in Italy for the Dominican Republic," his wife added.
Ambassador Benjamin said the most difficult part of his job is to compete among the bigger countries for the same pool of assistance. "The smallness of the country to some extent is overcome by the fact that we have developed a good reputation in the world," he said.
The Benjamins are fiercely devoted to the country and people they represent. They brag about the 94 percent literacy rate in Dominica, and of the recent anniversary of its independence from Britain on Nov. 3, 1978. Much of their time these days is consumed with plans for a mid-January visit to Washington by their beloved prime minister, Mary Eugenia Charles.
"We get up early and get our work done like any other embassy," Hanelore Benjamin said. They often entertain in the apartment, while larger functions are held at restaurants or other rented spaces in Washington. The Organization of East Caribbean States has purchased land in Northwest Washington with the hopes of constructing a building to be used by several embassies, including Dominica, the ambassador said.
"Until then we operate just fine here in Alexandria," he said. "We really are just like any other embassy, only with a staff of three. I think three is plenty."