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In Charge of International Incidents

Protocol chief makes foreign guests, dignitaries feel at home in Los Angeles

June 02, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elga Sharpe knows how to eat the herring. And it is important to know how to eat the herring. You pick it up by the tail with two fingers and swoop it into the air just above your mouth, quickly so the sour cream and chopped onions don't slide off. You tip your head back and then lower the fish in whole, exactly as if you were a seal.

It is a bit shocking to watch Sharpe do this, swiftly, expertly. It is not a series of actions immediately associated with a well-heeled cocktail soiree, and certainly not with Sharpe, who is a woman of notable poise. But if she is eating like a seal, then that must be the way it is done because she is the new chief of the mayor's office of protocol, and knowing how to do things properly is her job.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 13, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 190 words Type of Material: Correction
Protocol chief--In a story in the June 2 edition of Southern California Living about Elga Sharpe, the chief of protocol for Los Angeles, an incorrect title was given for Sharpe's assistant. Ginger Barnard is deputy chief of protocol. The same story mentioned a board of commissioners, which should have been a reference to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Indeed, all around the room men and women in dark suits and cashmere twin sets are raising fish above their heads. A hundred or so have gathered in a banquet room of the Petersen Automotive Museum in honor of the birthday of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, which explains the proficient consumption of the herring.

The consul general of the Netherlands who put together the event is not there (a sudden illness in his family), but many of his colleagues are--diplomats from Austria, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Liberia, Honduras, as well as many members of the Dutch community in Los Angeles.

One of Sharpe's main duties is to aid the foreign missions in the city, to help coordinate visits of dignitaries and represent the mayor at functions such as this. She is relatively new to the job--Mayor James K. Hahn appointed her in January--but she seems to know most of the people here. She moves through the room fluidly, chatting, plucking the occasional hors d'oeuvre from the endlessly circulating platters but turning up a hand at the generous portions of Danish vodka that are filling glasses in many guises. "Ooooh, no," she says, laughing, "dangerous, dangerous. I'm working."

An hour into the after-work event, the deputy consul general of the Netherlands is dutifully presented with a series of certificates, from the L.A. County Board of Commissioners, from the city of Beverly Hills and from the mayor's office. Stepping behind the lectern, Sharpe, 52, quietly offers the mayor's congratulations on the birthday of the queen and reads a bit from the document. Then, as she hands it over, she repeats these things, and a few more good wishes, only this time in Dutch. Not halting, just-memorized-from-the-Berlitz tape Dutch. Fluid, flawless Dutch.

If Madonna had just walked into the room, the crowd could not have been more electrified. After the obligatory singing of the Dutch and then the American national anthems, Sharpe was swarmed by people all wanting to know the same thing: Where had she learned to speak their language so well?

"I'm from Aruba," she said again and again, the accent of the Caribbean rolling out the R and U like breaking waves. "So I speak the Dutch."

And four other languages in addition to English--Spanish, French, German and Papiamento, a Spanish creole with Dutch and Portuguese influences. "In Aruba," she said, "children speak four languages by the age of 5. And my parents always, always entertained all sorts of interesting people. So I learned early the importance of manners, and of understanding other people's ways."

Much of Sharpe's background is sort of standard issue for the diplomatic corps--after graduating college in Suriname, she studied linguistics at schools in the Netherlands, France and Switzerland. She worked for the Belgian Consulate in Toronto for several years and then for Air Canada for 15 years, often coordinating the visits of foreign dignitaries. There she met and married musician Bill Sharpe. "We met at a dinner party, found out we shared the same birthday, and the rest is history," she said. "People find out we've been married 22 years, they say, 'What? To a musician?'"

The two moved to Los Angeles in 1986 when Sharpe headed language and translation services for Warner Bros., the 1994 World Cup USA Organizing Committee and, most recently, DreamWorks. After taking several years off to be home with her son, who is now 10, Sharpe began watching Hahn's campaign. She had closely followed the career of his father, longtime county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, she said, "and I decided I wanted to work for this man."

So she submitted her resume and waited. After a month or two, she got the call.

"Elga is a key part of our team," Mayor Hahn said. "She is the perfect liaison between my office and our large international community."

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