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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most