Hi and welcome to the first in what I hope will become a weekly event – Review Wednesday. Every week I intend to review something – a book, a blog, a website, a group or forum – that I think will be useful to expats and in particular expat partners. I’m kicking off with one of my favourite expat books – in fact, one of my favourite of any kind of book: Diplomatic Baggage by Brigid Keenan. Recommended for: anyone who has ever been or is likely to be an expat partner; the spouses of all said partners.
There was a point, early on in our posting to Pakistan, where I am not too sure where I would have been without Brigid Keenan.
My good friend Lorna had presented me with Brigid’s book, Diplomatic Baggage, as a leaving gift, just before we waved goodbye to the green pastures of good old blighty and exchanged them for the scorching, dusty streets of Islamabad. I have already described our journey to Pakistan in this post – so, suffice to say, things did not get off to a good start. And nor did they get much better for a while – we were stuck indoors for hours at a time, without most of our things and with very little company (the majority of the other families having sensibly left the city during the hottest part of the summer).
So it was with a huge amount of relief that I started reading Diplomatic Baggage, and sympathised with Brigid as she described her first few weeks as an expat partner in a new posting:
Oh God, I don’t know if I can bear it. This is my first morning in Kazakhstan and it is only eleven o’clock and I’ve already run out of things to do and I have another four years to go (that means one thousand four hundred and sixty days) until this posting comes to an end. How on earth am I going to get through it?
And with that, I knew I had found a friend.
The book follow’s Brigid, previously a fashion journalist in London, now wife to an EU diplomat (known, enigmatically, throughout the book only as AW) through 30 years of her life as a “trailing spouse”. It starts in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, but then returns to the beginning and takes us on a journey through Ethiopia, Belgium, the Caribbean, New Delhi, the Gambia , Damascus (a heart-breaking read, with the hindsight we now have) and finally back to Kazakhstan. I found myself laughing out loud constantly as I read along, following both Brigid’s physical journey from place-to-place but also her emotional journey as she works out what it means to be a trailing spouse, how to occupy herself and how to cope with the constant comings-and-goings of expat life. She’s honest, she’s funny and she’s just so damn real.
As well as being a book about life as the accompanying spouse to her diplomat husband, Diplomatic Baggage is also a book about being a mother. And as we are about to move again, and this time our daughters are a lot older than they were the last time we were overseas, I am re-discovering parts of the book that completely passed me by the last time I read it, like this about schooling:
We had asked our office in Delhi for advice and they told us there was a British school in Delhi, so we had booked places for Hester and Claudia – only to discover when we arrived that there were no British children in the British school. British children all attended the American school. The British school was patronized by mostly Indians, plus the children of non-aligned or even enemy countries – North Korea, Albania, Iraq and so on, who wouldn’t dream of setting foot through the door of an American school.
I can’t believe I am the only one for whom this resonates, along with:
We knew no one, but somehow heard there was to be a Hallowe’en party at the American Embassy compound a couple of weeks later…I took Hester and Claudia along and we stood nervously at the edge of the crowd. No one spoke to us, but at one stage I noticed an English-looking woman of my age with two boys leaving the main group and setting off across the football pitch. I ran after her – ‘Hullo….Hullo!’ I cried, ‘Can I introduce myself – we have just arrived in India…’ ‘No, not now,’ she called out brusquely as though I was an unwanted salesman, ‘we are late for an appointment,’ and she strode off.
Oh how many times have I felt like that! Just reading Brigid’s words and laughing at how she dealt with it all really does help – in fact , I would say it was the best pick-me-up possible for those early days when your only friends are your staff and you’re still trying to work out where to buy the ingredients needed for your evening meal. If this is you, or if you think this might be you any time soon, I thoroughly recommend this book.
Next week I hope to review a different book, written more recently but which oozes with advice. In the meantime please let me know if you would like to recommend a book, website, blog or anything else that you think would be useful for expats for me to review. I am happy to consider anything – and don’t be shy to recommend your own work 🙂