Brigid Keenan: Life as an ambassador's wife
The memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to Washington, raised eyebrows last week. Brigid Keenan has lived the Ferrero Rocher lifestyle for real for more than 30 years
Nobody tells you how to be a diplomat's wife, you learn every day. The Foreign Office and United Nations say that nowadays they don't expect anything from the wives, but it's not true. I was a fashion journalist when I met my husband, but I had to give it up. Most wives get involved in fundraising and we have to entertain. I'm a very bad hostess and get very nervous about it.
The most frightening time was when we arrived in Syria and my husband invited about 60 people for dinner. I decided we would have Thai and Indian curries that I'd never tried before. I didn't know you could only use the tender bits of lemongrass and I chopped the whole thing up so it tasted like thistles. I had to sieve that and make another sauce. Then there was a power cut so we couldn't use the blender. Then a huge rat appeared in the kitchen which the maid beat to death with a broom handle. There was rat blood everywhere. We just wiped it off the saucepan and served up the meal.
You have to have a very good marriage to be a diplomat's wife because it can be very lonely. When you have children with you it's easier because you meet people through the school. But when they go back to school in England - as our two daughters did for the sake of their education - then it's hard. We've been posted to Ethiopia, Brussels, Trinidad, Barbados, India, West Africa, Syria and Central Asia. Fortunately my husband, Alan Waddams, is wonderful. Tomorrow he starts a new job as roving UN ambassador to Azerbaijan, based in Brussels.
Obviously people in the diplomatic world do play bridge and golf, drink gin and tonics and have affairs, but not as much as they used to before women started working. Diplomats' lives are quite public so if there are affairs, people tend to know about them. In one country there was an ambassador who had a Thai boyfriend who was about 30 years younger than himself. If you give a diplomatic reception you usually stand with your wife in a receiving line and he used to stand with the Thai boy who would wear a gold lamé jacket. That did startle people. Then there was the ambassador whose wife was having a very obvious affair with her driver...
My husband has been an ambassador three times, so three times we've been in houses with staff. When you first arrive they eye you up, wondering whether you are going to make their life hell, and you've got to keep up appearances - you can't just lie on the floor and sob in front of the cook and housekeeper. I spend the first six months and the last six months of every posting crying. By the end of the first year I begin to see that I can make a happy life there, then I have two happy years and then I have to leave.
Expatriate women often build up huge relationships with their staff in the end. In Ethiopia if my husband and I had a row, my maid would hide behind the door with a frying pan making signs to me asking whether she should hit my him over the head with it. It was so sweet. In Kazakhstan I had a cook who I ended up really loving and she and I cried so hard when we had to be separated.
Another trial of being a diplomat's wife is having to make polite conversation at these terrible dinner parties. I remember in Syria I found myself at a table with the Indian ambassador and some other people who didn't speak very good English. There was a deathly silence that I thought I should fill, so I started talking about markets in different countries. I was gabbling away about potatoes when I suddenly noticed that the Indian ambassador had fallen asleep. Once I started to tell the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin and all the people on my table thought that it was something that had happened last week and that this terrible paedophile had made off with all these children.
In West Africa lots of people tend to have the same family name and several wives. We once invited a man called Mr N'jie and his wife and when they came we realised that we didn't know them and had invited the wrong Mr N'jie. He must have been completely puzzled as to why he had been invited and we didn't know what to talk to him about because we didn't know who he was. In the Gambia you would invite a man because you liked his wife very much, and then he would turn up for dinner with a different one.
One of my pitfalls is that I can never remember anyone's name or face. I remember when Yugoslavia was collapsing and their ambassador was called the Ambassador of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and I kept calling him the Former Ambassador of the Republic of Yugoslavia when I introduced him to people. He used to get very ratty about that because he thought I was doing it on purpose as an insult.
One of the great things about it is that you are never stuck in a routine. We lived through the revolution in Ethiopia, an army coup in West Africa and a couple of small earthquakes in Kazakhstan. And it was tremendously exciting living in India. There was a wonderful market where I used to shop with mountains of spices and vegetables. The throats of the chickens would be cut there and then, so there was blood all over the place. When I came back to England on leave and saw all the chickens neatly packaged in Sainsbury's I had complete culture shock.
We love Ferrero Rocher and I think it's a complete tragedy that they've changed the advertisement. Whenever my husband does something really awful like eating in a disgusting way, the whole family choruses, "Ambassador you are spoiling us." I haven't served them to guests but I've given them for presents because they are sold everywhere.
It can be very hard. My mother died when I was abroad and my children found it very difficult at school in England. I used to think we had the worst of all the worlds. But now, looking back, I think we probably had the best of all worlds. It was an incredibly rich life.
Brigid Keenan was talking to Julia Stuart. Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse by Brigid Keenan is published by John Murray in paperback in January 2006, priced £7.99
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