About the hard times…

I’ve been pretty optimistic in all my posts. Some people have told me I wasn’t telling the full story about the life of a diplo wife. And it’s probably true. I tell you how I feel when I feel it. But I don’t write when I’m down. Because that’s not funny and people tend to hate whiners. But it happens! It happens to all of us. Whatever your position, your city, your character! You have bad days, terrible ones sometimes! 

“You only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low.” Passenger

I live in a gorgeous city, Abu Dhabi. I chose to come here, so like I say, « I can’t complain about it ». Every spouse can’t say the same. Sometimes you have to go to a place you didn’t want to go! It’s part of the job! Acceptance isn’t easy for some characters and it turns out to be a real challenge. 

Abu Dhabi is classified in the Belgian system as hardship 2 (on a scale of 7), so it’s a pretty easy posting. Although I recently talked with a diplomatic spouse who did Abu Dhabi and higher hardship postings and she made me realize, Abu Dhabi also has a form of hardship, higher than what we think at first. I love this city, but honeymoon is over, and I’ve come to see and accept her weaknesses. 

The weather is one problem. We have to live inside all summer and even more, the heat combined with humidity is unbearable. Try to explain to kids they can’t go outside although the sun is shining! I experimented insane temperatures, 52 degrees Celsius in the shade, all day long, for months. Car batteries die pretty much every year because of these temperatures. All year long we live with the AC on, filled with dust, mold, dead rats, and bacteria, crazy expensive to clean properly every year. The air outside is extremely polluted some days. 

About the expenses I should probably mention that we are in the desert, electricity and water are very expensive here. Like around 700-1000€ per month during summer (yes, we pay that). And I was complaining in Belgium for 185€… So are the groceries by the way. When a pack of waffles costs you 10€, you can imagine how much we spend on groceries. Almost everything is imported so the price is very high. They grow cucumbers, those are cheap, but I should warn you they have a pretty relax policy on pesticides compared to Europe (a couple of years ago they used 4 times the average amounts of pesticides in Europe).

The country restrictions are the other problem. We live in the most secured city in the world. I love the UAE for the security it provides to my family. But this also has a cost: Privacy. “CCTV”; I didn’t even hear about it before arriving here. While in Belgium they fight against a couple of cameras in the streets, here cameras are everywhere. I normally don’t really think about it but once you do… I have nothing to hide so I’m fine, but I can tell you that from the little coffee place I’m writing you, I can see 8 cameras watching me. The richest mom at school is the wife of a CEO of a security and camera company. Her car comes straight from an episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and they retired at 40, logical. 

They can listen to my phone, they track where I go, probably who I see too. They block facetime, Skype, WhatsApp video,… It’s not North Korea but it can be bugging that they bugged you. In exchange, I feel safe. Safer than in Brussels. So, I accepted this. 

All this to say, Abu Dhabi might look perfect on picture but don’t be fooled, it has bad sides like any city in the world I think, I just learned to accept them. It’s easier when you know you don’t have to live your whole life here, you kind of take the best of it and leave the rest. 

Us, diplomatic spouses, we chose to follow our husbands. We change city every 3/4 years. We abandon our career as what people think of it, and we start again. Or not, because in a lot of postings we can’t work. “Do you have an MoU?” the magic word for us partners, trendy topic in my diplo wives group, meaning Memorandum of Understanding. If our country doesn’t have a MoU on the employment of diplomatic spouses with the host country, it means we are not allowed to work outside an international organization or other Embassy (if they themselves allow for it)… Unless we renounce the diplomatic immunity we have and need. The decision is yours to take, the consequences will be yours too. Think twice.

So, we reinvent ourselves. With more or less success. It’s very hard to decide what you want to be when all options are on the table BUT you also have to fulfill your diplomatic obligations (and in my case your motherhood obligations). You don’t have your family  present to help you in case of problems with the kids. And the husband job will always prevail. It’s normal, it’s the reason we are here! More than in any other expat job, the notion of Duty is always around. This job has to be vocational, because it’s hard and it requires commitment to an whole new level. It’s a part of your marriage, of your family. There is no “I don’t want to go to this meeting” or “I’m on holiday, I’ll turn my phone off” or “it’s the weekend”. Diplomats are always on call (at least the good ones). You have to accept it or leave it. But don’t complain about it. This comes with the privileges we get. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The ministry says they want us to develop a portable career. Very clever for nomads like us. Although it won’t be an ascending one like we would have had if we stayed in the same place. Because you move, of course you take your experience with you, but it’s hard to climb the hierarchy! It’s not a vertical career, it’s a different one (not any less good but different, and people don’t like different). You will always have to start over, almost from scratch. And it might feel bitter to see your ex colleagues going up while your rowing through this new life. I liked the challenge this time, but I’m young, very busy with my kids and open minded. I didn’t expect things. It might change with the years and I might get frustrated, we’ll see. 

While our husbands go from trainee to diplomats, to deputy to maybe ambassador one day, our freedom of work vanishes progressively. The more responsibility they get, the more time we have to give to help the job. It’s not fully clear if you are allowed to work as an ambassador’s spouse, depending on your country, but it’s quite clear to me that it becomes almost impossible in that position. You have to organize the diners, the visits, the residence. Your presence is required at a lot of events. And we don’t get all the help we should (at least in some postings) so, a huge help is required from the partner. Let’s be honest, this doesn’t really leave any room for a personal « standard » career. 

From where I stand, I’m still fine. I just have to organize a couple of small diners per month, do some receptions every week, but I’m pretty free. Although I have to take care of the children, but that would be the same in Belgium except for the subsidized day care (oh God I miss this one, and the fries, the Belgian fries). 

The worst is when I think about what would happen if my husband died. Let’s be clear, as a spouse, you are fully dependent on your husband and if something happens (sickness, or worse… we all think about it) your diplomatic visa will melt as fast as your savings. A plane ticket back to somewhere you don’t want to go filled with people thinking « I told her so ». A small tragedy, always at the back of my mind. Life is a risk.

All of this to say, yes, we do have bad days where all these problems and the distance with our family and friends are heavy on us. I’m super lucky to be able to talk to diplomatic spouses from all around the world now thanks to my Instagram account and we are aware to be very lucky but also very brave. It takes courage and confidence. It’s not a position for every personality. You have to be social, open, but also understanding, resourceful and rational. You also have to have some manners, most of which can be learned, basic respect for other people, cultures, traditions… is a must. The rest, I think, comes with who you are and how life has shaped you. We get kicked and it’s not a pool in the garden or a free champagne night that will help us forget it. The key is to look at the glass half full. I don’t envy others, I’m happy with who I am, and I wish everybody to be happy too. So, I just wanted to make a big shout-out to all diplomatic spouses around the world. With or without kids, working or not working, in a hard posting or in a dreamy one, you rock. Do not doubt it for one single second.

A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.

Henry Kissinger

It’s a secret.

This won’t be a shock to you, diplomats have to keep secrets. By extension, their wives have to do too (or they are supposed to). They are dealing with a lot of info that mustn’t be revealed to the wrong person. Yes, even a small country like Belgium has intel. From the real diplomatic files to the place where this guy meets for lunch with another diplomat. We’ve been taught that everything could be used as valuable information, so we have to be extremely cautious. 

But if you know me, you already know this; I’m terrible at keeping secrets. I mean, I could keep a secret pretty easily IF I could share it with some good friends… which basically isn’t keeping a secret, I think. I’m too honest, naïve some may say. I should make sure my brain Is running before I put my mouth in gear. 

So, my husband has been coaching me for two years. It worked so well… I really got better at keeping secrets, hiding stuff, … then I decided to open a blog and an open Instagram account and be quite transparent about this life. To his great despair.

I thought, because I wasn’t using my real name, that this blog thing would stay hidden forever. My husband told me from the beginning “Everybody will know in about two months”. I laughed; he has always been a little dramatic. Literally one month after opening this blog, I got an email from my Ministry of foreign affairs of my home country about it… How did they know? I still have no idea. But I’m lucky, they liked it and wanted me to write an article for their newspaper. So, we’re good. For now. (Hello to them reading these lines btw).

There is no real problem to have this blog, I think, because I never talk about politics here or on Instagram. I’m free to say where we are, mention some meetings and receptions. Probably because we’re in a safe posting. I wouldn’t do it in a posting where you risk being attacked or mugged if your location is out in the open. I remember meeting this Latin-American woman at a diplo night (I can’t tell you which country exactly and I can’t tell you which party either). She told me (after probably one too many wines) “In my country, honey, you would have been raped or killed.” Delightful women. 

Although I recently read a book resulting from a blog held by an ambassador’s wife posted in Pakistan. It is possible to do it, even in high risk postings. Let’s be clear for the Ministry people reading me: I’m NOT saying this as a wish for our next posting. But dealing with this border of sharing information is very interesting wherever you are posted. Share enough to tell a true interesting story, but don’t share the full picture with names, locations and what was behind those meetings. This creates a distortion of the reality. We can’t always tell our friends and families what we are living. First, they probably wouldn’t understand it (they don’t know half the system here or the things going on), and second they might worry for nothing. That’s why I try to write the stories I can and to write them with as much as I can without stepping on some long or short feet. Except for this diplomat who called me pregnant… 

Us, diplomatic spouses, we are no spy or anything like this, but our husbands have hands on some info they sometimes cannot or prefer not to share with us. I mean, it’s his job, I don’t need to know everything, and I don’t want to. I don’t see him that much, he is working like crazy, so when we are together, we are not talking about work all the time! But from time to time diplomats talk at a diner, some national day reception, a meeting at home, whilst the diplo partners are there. In our diplo wives club, we know there are some grey zones about what we can share to each other about our husband’s job, so we try to stick to the basics and avoid getting into too much details and that’s it. Some trips, some meetings, better left untold. There’s too much “non-work” things to talk about anyway! (Yes, you know me, also some gossiping.)

But this is often what people fantasize about. “They are diplo’s, they know things and people.” For the Game of thrones fans only, if there are any left after that last season, I should probably say: “That’s what I do, I drink and I know things”, people think diplo’s are some kind of Tyrion Lannister, yes.  Some people will even befriend you ONLY for that. I learned it the hard way. Now, I’m more cautious. I never tell what my husband is doing for a living unless I’m really asked. The problem is the diplomatic license plate. With these, you can’t really hide. Your neighbors know what you do and so does everyone at school pick up. Talking to new people from time to time I wonder why they tell me this and that. Some days I might even be a bit paranoid. We’re Belgium after all, we tend to be quite ok and on friendly terms with everyone… most of the time. And in any case, it’s fine, we live in a decade where everybody has a mental problem, some strange disorder, allergy or intolerance and kind of “brags” about it. I probably have several, I’m kind of a collector.

However, in this job, you have to GET information too. From time to time well hidden, from time to time hiding in plain sight or in need of a more profound look. Not only you have to keep some of your secrets, but you have to get theirs! The diplomats do it every day (the “share and you shall receive game”, but what do you share?), but us, the wives, we have our role too! And this is where I found myself quite good at. They are mainly working in this country. We are actually living in this country. Talking to parents at school, having a lunch or coffee with other diplo partners or, what afterwards, appears to be the partner of a CEO of some big company. People in general trust me with some of their experiences, worries or secrets and I end up being full of information on this country. I don’t really know why people trust me quite quickly. Probably because of my honesty. Or because I talk a lot. Or because I look so young and naïve (to not say stupid or drunk). Either way, it’s ok with me and trust is a two-way street. I have the time to create a huge network (I’m “only” a mom of 2). I meet new faces every day, and I have to quickly identify which ones I have to be careful with, which ones I actually like, or have to at least be on good terms with for the network or might come to trust and care about. I’m very social and it helps for sure but It’s a new job for me and I have to adapt to it. Best way to do it is to practice! So, if you wish to share a secret with me, go ahead and I’ll do my best to keep it!

Want to know a little secret? I suffer from severe endometriosis, I wasn’t even supposed to have these 2 little miracles.

The Economist

It is time I tell you a little bit about who I was before this move. Because I haven’t been a diplomatic housewife all my life. I used to have a job, probably like you, except I kind of hated it.

It all started when I was about 8 years old. I was convinced that in order to be happy, one needs to be rich, and in order to accomplish that, I would either marry a prince or become the CEO of a bank. The first option became more tricky by the day as I was really bad at faking feelings (I’m still not good at this) and all the princes I “knew” weren’t that attractive. So, at 10 years old I decided to go for the bank CEO option. 

Then teenage hit me. I had a revelation, I wanted to be a hairdresser. Express my creativity and be close to people. My parents were coming from a period with high unemployment rates. They didn’t think hairdresser was going to do it. To them, a university degree equals employment. They basically told me to choose any university degree I wanted but to forgot about the styling. And thus, I took the most open degree that I could find, the only one that could get me into all fields of work and maybe even to the bank CEO option: Economics. 

I ended up getting my degree with the highest distinction. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, I was good at it, it all seemed quite easy to me and it scored good on the effort-result scale so my lazy-me was ok with it. 

Immediately after my graduation, I was hired at the University to work there and do a PHD on the side. 2 years, and a lot of fun, later, I realized this was not my cup of tea and I quit. This is when I became a real economist. 

Well, first, economist means nothing and everything at the same time. This is one of the job titles everybody can tag himself without any degree needed. (Just like consultant…) And it can mean anything. In particular where I used to work. I did project management, statistical analysis, event manager, policy maker, hostess, writer, mover, social counsellor, cheerleader …

I worked there for almost 10 years. I’m not going to lie; some moments were more than great fun, and this is where I met my husband and some really good friends (I miss you Sophie and Gauthier) so I got some good things out of it. But in general, this wasn’t the environment I blossomed in.

I was working in a very modern governmental entity. Maybe a little bit too modern for its own people. We didn’t record our working hours. We could work from home because we had no fixed office, just a locker with our stuff and empty desks in – off course – an open office with some fishbowls for those wanting a quieter environment. Not enough desks for everyone by the way, which really encourages you to work from home. We had the freedom to organize our work the way we wanted. They even pushed the system until the point where you could choose someone to evaluate you, ANYONE. 

It was great. But very quickly, the flaws of the system appeared. It seemed like 30% gradually started working less and less, gradually not even showing up anymore half of the time, 20% arrived really early so they could hide in the fishbowls all day. From the motivated colleagues half started to get very demotivated by the first two categories and the rest unleashed their motivation on another job on the side (since this first job in any case didn’t monitor hours or work presence). Some jobs on the side with a clear conflict of interest btw. I didn’t, I told you, I’m lazy time effective. One job was more than enough for me. 

On a home working day, I called a colleague of mine for an urgent question and her daughter took the call, “Mom is riding our horse, …. No, no, she’s not working today, it’s HOME working.” You have to love children’s honesty. 

We could choose our evaluator, our boss. I choose my friend, it worked. I never got better evaluations. My previous boss was great too, extremely funny, but he brought his Kalashnikov to work (don’t know if I can explain that story once…), so I would say he had some issues too and in any case, he unfortunately retired and, being the more experienced, motivated, always spitting new ideas fun guy, he left the young guard in distress. The balance between the younger and older generation was gone. Progressively this modern system was pushed towards some extremes and left to die by the middle-management. The great minds behind these ideas left the place (promoted) and it seemed like “the revenge of the 80’s managers” without them.

Then the day came, I realized I HAD to leave too. We had a colleague, let’s name him Georges. Georges has been an alcoholic all his life and now needed a liver transplant. In order to get it, Georges quit drinking, we celebrated it with him. Because we could choose our desk, Georges worked next to me from time to time. And one day I realized he carried everyday a full 2 liters water bottle filled with what appeared to be some sort of juice. The young guard thought that is was some kind of superfood treatment. With all his health problems you know. He started drinking his juice at 8am and by 3pm, the bottle was empty. But then we noticed that around 3pm Georges was always… sleepy. I decided to look what was in his bottle while he was in the bathroom. It was no vitamin water or detox mixture. It was cheap wine. I’m not easily shocked, but I felt so bad for Georges and his liver that I told my (middle-)manager. Her answer was “Yes, I know, but he will be retired in one year, so it’s ok”. And she added “If he doesn’t behave badly and can still stand up, I’ll close my eyes until his retirement.” I was in shock. What kind of management is that??? I was even more pissed to discover he was probably behind the disappearance of my mulled wine stock for the Christmas party I used to organize every year at the office. Who drinks cold mulled wine anyway? 

Then my husband got the news he was hired as a diplomat and that we would leave the country in one year. So, I informed my direction and started drinking at work with Georges. No, I’m just kidding. I don’t drink cheap wine! But Georges and I, we shared this year like a prison sentence. Looking everyday how many days were left. Although in the end, Georges wanted to stay a little longer at work. He realised he was REALLY well paid for doing 3 emails a day. Pass 10 am he couldn’t write anything in any language I know… he did try one time. Some colleagues of a very serious working group received an email from Georges saying he peed in his bed while being with a woman who was clearly in another business than us… True story, yes. I told you we had fun stories.

That’s how I made the most controversial choice for a woman: following my husband and be “just” a housewife. This is worth a post by itself, but I can already tell you people were thinking I lost my mind; I was locking myself in the lower position. But it’s quite the opposite. I felt so lucky. For the first time in my life, I felt I could make a real choice. I can finally do what I want to do and not what I HAVE to do. What a luxury. I can take care of my children who during the week I used to see 30 minutes per day only! Yes, because this insane job kept me out of the house from 5:30 am until 6pm. I remember this nurse at daycare telling me at pick up: “Are you going to make a third one?”. Without letting me the option of answering, her colleague said, “You need to take care of them first, it’s not having babies for having babies…” Was she right in all her impoliteness??? Still, I could, and should, have kicked her in the face, for the sake of all working moms.

As I was now given the gift of choice, I first needed to figure out what it was that I wanted to do. Do I still want to be a hairdresser? Because now, it is possible. No, that is not what I want anymore. People are way to nasty and rainbow hair disgust me. What do I like? Writing, social media, pictures and talking with people.

After one year, I decided to go back to University. Yes, me who hated studying, I choose to study again. Because I think learning is enriching and although the first year I learned tons of things just by moving abroad, this second year I feel like I need the adrenaline provided by the new experience. It might be a total disaster, but I started some writing classes, some social media marketing classes and I’m this close to buy a new camera to get back to photography (I’m open to any sponsoring, Belgian diplomats are poor). I have no fun colleague at the moment and I kind of miss Georges and the others but I’m sure I’ll get some other funny stories to tell! Wish me luck!

Santé!

Superwoman Cloak in black please.

This is me, in a black Abaya, the traditional attire for women in the UAE. (and Belgian heels)

I’m not going to lie. I came here with some misconceptions of Islam. Like a lot of Europeans, I think, the face of Islam that I usually saw [and was presented with] in my country wasn’t always lovely. Walking to work I was sometimes confronted with Islamic men and women that made remarks for the way I was dressed. I took the train 10 minutes before the Brussels terror attacks on March 22th 2016 claimed by ISIS. So, like a lot of others, I was shocked and confused. Imagine my face when I arrive here and at 5:30 I got woken up by an “Allahu Akbar!”. Of course, I had no idea what a call for prayer was and that explained why we chose a hotel next to two mosques without worrying a bit. My kids loved it. They thought it was a nice music to wake up for the day. Me too, but I have to admit 5am was a bit early for me. And this is how my long learning process started. It’s still on by the way. 

The UAE is a very open country. Visually speaking it’s a lot like the USA, except for the mosques and the Abayas and Dishdashas. Arriving here and being exposed to their traditional costumes was very impressive for me with my European background. In Europe, Muslim women are covered but not men. I quickly had some nice encounters that opened my mind. Let me share them with you. Wherever you are in the world, it might change your idea too. 

The first weeks, as other expats know, we have to do all administrative formalities. New driving license, new ID (the one of the host country), etc. Until this point, I did all formalities with my husband. He’s a diplomat (work wise and quality wise), he knows a lot of stuff, so it was very convenient for me to let him do the work. But here in the UAE, administrations are often separated for men and women (kids can accompany both mom or dad). In order to request my ID (and those of our kids), I had to go alone, in a “women only” office.

I was stressed. For diplomats it’s a special process, they might get annoyed by me. I can tell you that in my country, most of our admin stuff was accompanied by sighs, remarks, or even worst, fake news and laws. Like this administrative lady in Belgium with whom I had to run through some administrative changes the city needed to do. I patiently explained that we were going to leave the country because my husband is a diplomat and he was posted in the UAE, and provided her with the necessary explanations we received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With basically half the work already done for her, she just told me “No, you can’t go with him, he has to go there alone for 4 years and you have to stay in Belgium. Sorry, that’s the law madam”. I was so stunned that I laughed. She didn’t take that well… That’s pretty much the idea I was left with about administrations for diplomats. So here I was in the women only office, asking for diplomatic ID for me and the kids. First, I immediately noticed that Emiratis working for government are paid slightly differently than the Belgians. Each civil servant had a – very nice ! – designer bag. They were all in black abayas. Some ladies were totally covered, including their faces, all I could see was their hands, full of jewels and henna tattoos, and their feet, garnished with designer high heels. Go to the administration in Belgium, it’s NOT like that. I felt super naked in my little white dress. And cold. Although it was 40 degrees outside, they clearly put the AC at an Abaya wise level. I was kind of embarrassed, but the second they talked to me, I felt at home. It was like a coffee at a friend’s house. Eight women left their office and came to help me. They offered me tea, cookies and dates. They started to rhapsodize on the picture of my kids and asked about them and then started talking about theirs. Being a mom definitely helped. It’s like they know it’s the hardest job in the world and they value it (where in Europe, being “just” a mother isn’t a job). In general, the family is hugely important in this country, for men and women, but that’s for another story. Then one fully covered lady came to me and told me “you are very beautiful”. I was truly moved but, in the meantime, I had no idea what to answer. She was fully covered, I couldn’t say “you too”. So, I touched her arm and just said “Thank you”. This was the first real encounter I had with Emirati women, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. 

Whilst I adapted with small steps to life in a Muslim country, our kids just barged into this new culture. You know kids, they have no filter, they say exactly what comes to their mind. So very quickly, Agnès, 3 years old, started to ask about the abaya. At first, she had no problem with it. But when Halloween came, she got super scared of a ghost guy in a candy store (very useful to keep my daughter out of the candy store). For a while she was confusing women in abayas with the Halloween ghosts, coming at her to scare her. She was super impressed, pointed at them screaming “FANTÔME” (GHOST in French and hide every time she saw one close to her. Embarrassed is an understatement for how we felt. Until one day, we went in an elevator my husband, my kids and I, with an Emirati couple. The wife was all covered up in black, even her face was covered, very impressive for Agnès standing next to her. Agnès freaked out and started crying very very hard, pointing at her. We didn’t know what to do. But very quickly, this nice lady removed her vail, kneeled down next to Agnès, took her hand and smiled to her. With her husband gently smiling to my daughter, she went against her believes to help my little girl. When we left the elevator, she put her veil on again. From that day on, Agnès has never been scared of any covered women. I was so thankful for what she did (though Agnès also lost her fear from the candy store…). She showed me a face of Islam so kind and loving. She could have been upset by my daughter’s reaction. We are in their country as guests and us should adapt to their customs and traditions. Instead of that, she made one step towards us, trying her best to make Agnès understand her culture. 

As for my son… I remember a day, like two or three weeks after our arrival. I was extremely tired. My son, Jack, woke up 3 or 4 times every night, refused to nap at the hotel where we were. We were waiting for our container that was lost somewhere in the port of Jebel Ali. We had found a house, but some administrative papers blocked us from getting it. I didn’t have a car at this point, so I was blocked in this crappy hotel while Fred had to work. I wasn’t acclimated to the heat yet and I was suffering from staying all day in this tiny hotel room. I went for a walk at the mall close to our hotel with my kids. Jack, super sensitive, chose this moment to throw a huge tantrum in the middle of this very Emirati mall. I couldn’t calm him down, I was so stressed out and almost in tears, when an old Emirati man came to me. He gave Jack a toy, smiled to him, played with him. He was so calm and peaceful; he was actually able to calm him down. His inner peace fascinated me. He had a traditional white Emirati Dishdasha and a white Guthra on his head. I was very impressed. Then he looked at me and said:“You have one boy and one girl; you’re blessed by God. You are the luckiest. This one – showing Jack –will be harder, but he will be your great reward.” He smiled at me so deeply, it made me feel happy. I don’t know how to explain his face, but once again, this face of Islam was amazing. 

I have lots of stories like that. In general, our feeling is that most Emirati people keep their customs and traditions but are so tolerant and pragmatic about them. “The Family” seems to be the higher power. Not very European if you think about it. Muslims here are welcoming and very kind. Women are proud and have such a big place in the society. They are valued. Even covered, they don’t hide, it’s quite the opposite in fact, they stand out. So that’s why I bought an Abaya. When I get to wear it, I feel stronger, it’s like my superwoman cloak. I know for many Europeans it’s completely crazy. In fact, when I first posted a picture of me in an Abaya, almost none of my friends liked it! But I guess you have to experiment it by yourself… The only regret I have is that the designer bag and shoes didn’t come with the abaya! 

All these amazing pictures are from my friend the talented photographer Kelly Acs. She followed me in my crazy photo shoot idea even if it was 45 degrees with 70% of humidity. It probably got her sick. She IS a friend.
Beautiful Abu Dhabi

The first come back

You have to forgive me. I haven’t written in over a month. I went back to my country. Well, not really though… I guess now the UAE is my country. I mean I went back to Belgium. People were thinking I was going back home, but it was more of a holiday in a country I know very well. My son Jack was so terrible on our last trip abroad, we decided to go back to Belgium for 2 weeks, enjoy the fresh clean air, see friends and family, and let him be awful in a country we don’t really care about what people think. 

But the closer we were to going back, the more nervous I was. Ghosts from the past, plus unrealistic expectations; The recipe of my old life. But I have to admit it now, it turned out way better than I expected! 

First, my son Jack was perfect (at just 2 years old). No screaming on the plane, slept immediately through the night, even enjoyed himself. I guess we were in a good phase. He discovered a country he had absolutely no memories of. He was one when we left. The baby boy everybody knew had become a little boy very afraid of all these new faces. My daughter is more of an open book. She says what she thinks. She immediately said, “This is a lovely country, I’ve never been here”. And so, began the talk about where she was born and where she used to go as a baby. She was super interested by what was her life back then. She wanted to try every dish she used to like as a baby, go every place she ever went. But she also had no memories of Belgium. Not of any place, not of anyone except from some pictures. It was hard for people, they didn’t understand. But Agnès kept on telling them “I don’t know you, but you seem pretty nice, we can be friends if you’d like”. Kids don’t really have memories before 3, true story.

It was funny to see them rediscover what a European country is like. The first day we arrived, it was 16 degrees in Brussels, compared to 42 in Abu Dhabi. Every Belgian was in a T-shirt, we were wearing 2 sweaters and a jacket. The first reaction of my daughter was to ask me “Mom could you please turn off the AC, I’m cold”. There is no AC here darling, it’s Belgium, it’s cold. So, I turned on the heating system in the house. System she had absolutely no recollection of because she asked me “Mom, why is there some strange boxes in every room of the house, what is it for?”. She had already forgotten about the radiators. How quickly did they adapt! 

When we went to the grocery store, we had to self-scan and pack the articles we bought (the cost of labor is extremely high in Belgium, so they cut all services). As a little girl raised in the UAE, it was impossible to imagine. “Mom, you’re not going to do that yourself right? Someone is going to help you”. And, somewhere deep inside me, a little voice was telling me the same! I hadn’t fill up my gas tank myself in a year… but, hey, a little reminder that not being entirely normal every now and then is quite necessary and a blessing. The first time I went back to the grocery store in the UAE, I packed my things myself as an old habit. The Indian guy in charge of packing was super upset, thinking I was snubbing him. I tried to explain but, he ended up carrying all the things in the trunk of my car for me to compensate. Not normal, still pretty awesome.

Second, Belgium wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I probably made it a little darker in my mind than what it is to be able to fall in love more quickly with my new country. The survivor strategy. Anyway, it’s not a hellhole like Trump said. It has some benefits; the soft green of the lawns and forest, the fresh air, the water, the social security, the food! Being able to drink the tap water and not feeling your hair completely damaged after every shower with the chemical water of the UAE was so pleasant. We went completely crazy with the food… Prices are on average 3 times cheaper in Belgium than in UAE. We went nuts on chocolate, wine, and meat. Up to a point after 10 days that our livers were seriously complaining.

We enjoyed all these things but not without missing all the things we love in the UAE; the opening hours of the shops (Need something in Belgium after 6pm or on Sunday? Too bad…), the sun and the smile (these two go in pair, I think), the service, the cleanliness, the size of the roads, … 

When I arrived in the UAE, I was impressed by the traffic and very scared. Going back to Belgium made me realize why. In the UAE, there are lots of cars, but the traffic is very fluid. You never stop and they drive very fast (80km/h in the city center). In Belgium it’s a permanent start and stop. It drove us crazy. We took 2h to do 80km to go visit Brussels. This country has a serious congestion problem, and it seems to get worse every year.

I couldn’t help to notice that the mindset of people was different. In Europe, it’s almost a tradition, you go sit on a terrace (with some cheese and beer) and you watch people coming by. You criticize them. It’s almost a sport. People stare at you. I immediately felt uncomfortable. This is completely inexistent in the UAE, where nobody watches you. You can literally go pick up your daughter in your pajama pants, nobody will notice (yes, I might have done it, for experimental purposes). Except maybe in my compound, where you will be judged, but it’s full of Europeans, so it doesn’t count. 

Third, as I was meeting friends and family, I realized nothing had really changed and we talked like we met the week before. Years go by so quickly; everybody is busy and me not being there wasn’t such a big issue. Nobody really changed. Not even me, I guess. Although I’m a little bit more open to telling the truth since I’m living so far away, or I thought so… my best friend reminded me I had always a tendency to say whatever I want. She’s right. But I was prepared to all types of questions, even rude ones. But in the end, they didn’t ask (m)any questions. First because I posted a lot, so they knew about our life here, second because we are happy, people are often uncomfortable with happiness, and third because expats are specimens not really understandable. And this might be the trickiest thing when you live abroad. Your whole world is overturned, and you have the feeling you live 10 years’ experiences in one. People back home, they stay on track, and they don’t really understand or care about what you live. And it’s ok. That’s life. We follow different paths. 

In the end, we were happy to go back but it was far from a holiday. We saw around 140 people in 15 days, went all over the (tiny) country. We also did what expats do when they go back… dentist, administration, work meetings (the ministry does like it when you pop over once in a while)… it was a real pleasure. Besides, we had the excellent idea to take a week off here in Abu Dhabi, to enjoy the amusements parks, the sun and the family time by the pool. 

What about next time you’ll ask me? Well, I don’t know, I try not to plan too much in advance. Agnès, she’s 4 and already pointing at life’s limitations. She recently told me, out of the blue, « Mom, your dad must be sad that you live so far from him and never go visit. I mean, you would be pretty sad too if I didn’t live with you. But don’t worry I’ll never leave you, even when I get boobs » I laughed but I also had to tell her already that life is what you make of it. That she’ll take decisions in her life later on that will lead her to be happy (I hope). And if it means not living in my country, I’ll deal with that even if I’ll be sad from time to time, I’ll be happy if she’s happy. I’ll probably spend all my money on plane tickets, but I’ll be happy for her, or at least I’ll try to. 

Expat life isn’t always easy. You see the exotics, the change, the money. We see the challenge of starting a life from scratch. You don’t know anything or anybody. This is the life we choose, and I love it, so I won’t complain. But it does not fit everyone and even if you like it, it doesn’t mean everything is easy. Now we are back among the expat animals, sharing our stories about this summer. Complaining around a pool about how tired we are from vacations. Oh, home sweet home!

Baba Zayed

Why travelling is so virtuous for us? Because it puts us in front of our lack of knowledge. It reminds us how little and self-absorbed we are. And it feels good to be reminded from time to time. The latest example for me is named Sheikh Zayed.

I studied for 22 years. I went to university, studied economics and I went halfway through a PHD (that’s another funny story but for another time). I think I can consider myself as cultivated. And I had NEVER once heard the name Zayed before arriving in the UAE. 

Arriving here, I saw huge images of him everywhere. ‘Forever grateful’ was written next to him, he must have done something right. Hospitals, highways, streets, mosques, sport stadium, schools, everything carries his name. In every lobby people have pictures of him. Who is this guy? I started to wonder. 

Wikipedia will tell you that Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was the Ruler of Abu Dhabi for more than 30 years. He was the founding father and the principal driving force behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates,  becoming the Union’s first President, a post which he held for a period of almost 33 years (1971 until his death in 2004).He is popularly referred to in the UAE as the Father of the Nation.

From what I learned during this year, I can add he was a great ruler. He praised diplomacy, patience and generosity. He tried to be on friendly terms with every nation. He ended up being one of the richest men in the world according to Forbes. He probably had more than one wife (I couldn’t find anything about the number, but he had 35 children, so I really hope he had at least 10 wives). He was from a time where the succession between the Sheikhs was pretty chaotic and very violent, but his mom made him swear he wouldn’t ever use violence against his family, and he kept his promise. He didn’t receive a real education and he lived like a Bedouin for a big part of his life. He stayed close to his people despite having money. He wished to bring civilization to the Bedouin, and not the Bedouin to the civilization. This is very important. He wanted his country to keep its culture and traditions. He built hospitals, schools, sports stadiums, roads, airports. He granted Emiratis free access to education, health care and housing. He used to organize Majlis (Arabic council, comes from the literal translation of the verb “to sit”) where people could come, meet with him and talk to him about their concerns. He saw education as the greatest investment a country could ever make. I also have to add that he was a pro women’s rights, much more than the other countries’ leaders in the region, it explains the historical background of why we are so well treated here. 


It hit me. I was such an idiot. I had no clue about this amazing man. I, who had studied economy, the oil sector, history, geography, and never once learned about tris guy who created a country. He created a country from scratch, or in this case we should say from sand. He designed it pretty good if you want my opinion. Give all this petrol money to any other leader in the world and I’m not so sure he would spend it for the greater good of the population… 

It’s an understatement to say that one year later, we LOVE Baba Zayed. Recently, Agnès, my 4 years old daughter, asked for a Sheikh Zayed security blanket. He’s on my iPhone case. Just to tell you how much he’s cool, He used to drive a nice Mercedes in the desert. Then he went for the Nissan Patrol, reason why, if you ever drive here in the UAE, you’ll see the Nissan Patrol is the non-official official Emiratis car. They all have one. Some expats try to drive one too, but really, it’s a thing for them, we shouldn’t be able to have one, I think. He’s the father of the nation. They called him “Baba” meaning daddy in Arabic, so we started to call him baba Zayed too. And it’s so good to look up to a leader like this. Not that I don’t like my King, but I would never put him on my iPhone case if you see what I mean. No offense Philippe. So, I figured it out I needed to talk about him as he is in some way, a very important person in my daily life here in Abu Dhabi. Also, I wanted to bring the discovery of his name to every citizen in the world who reads me and never heard about him. Did you just discover him too? No problem, you’re smarter than yesterday, this was a good day, go back to bed now.

He smiles like Grandpa Lou being proud of you.

Honest or rude?

I recently read an article about rude people.

Basically, the article said it was a civil obligation to tell these people about their rudeness. Because otherwise, they wouldn’t be aware of it. If nobody never tells them anything, they keep going and the society never improves itself. 

Amazing idea. 

Just very hard to apply! Especially in my job. Let me give you one example. A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Italian embassy’s national day party with my husband. None of my diplo friends were going, I was already in a bad mood. After walking through the ally of Ferrari’s and mozzarella stands (true story), we walked into some colleagues of my husband. We chatted a bit. Then, a lady waved at my husband from the other side of the hall like they knew each other. She came to us, but without introducing herself, she just immediately turned to me and said « Oh, congratulation on your pregnancy! ». I replied, « I’m not pregnant ». Instead of taking this opportunity to shut up and gently crash to the ground, she went on and said « Oh, from the side you really look pregnant ». I was in shock. Like, it’s rude to another level. I’m not the thinnest woman in town, but I’m far from fat. Why the hell did she say that to me? She then stayed there talking with us about politics, like nothing happened. Clearly, she missed something in her education. But she was a diplomat! Not even a diplo wife! She was the diplomat of her country (I won’t tell you which one, I really don’t want her to have emails of insults. Thanks for your support btw). Even her husband was super ashamed. He was trying to leave the conversation every minute. Diplomacy oblige, I kept my smile on and I talked to her about politics, like nothing happened. My smile has NEVER been so fake in my life. Usually, after any altercation, I think about it (a lot) and I tell myself “Oh I should have said that”. But this time, I knew I had the only reaction possible in my particular diplo situation, not saying a thing and giving up. 

This is what this job is also about. One of the first advices the ambassador’s wife gave me was “In this job, we cannot make enemies. You will have to be nice with everybody. Be friendly but not a friend. In case of a problem, you will have to find a way to prove your point and make yourself respected in a polite way.” Great. I have NO clue how to do that. Where is the manual? I’m often more of a “Black or white” person. I don’t know all these shades of grey (nothing linked to the book). I’m also very direct and honest. You will know if I don’t like you. My face is over expressive. But after a year at this, I guess I mastered it. Because to this rude diplomat I smile all the way. Ok, discretely I tried to get back at her. I might have paid the waiter to drop red wine on her, I won’t admit anything, but she deserved it. Turns out, she was a “serial ruder”. Meaning I wasn’t the first victim. She asked another young woman if she was pregnant. I guess it’s her not dealing really well with menopause if you see what I mean. 

But you can’t base all your interactions on fake smiles. People love honesty. In this job, you have to be natural but also very polite. Where is the frontier between honesty and courtesy? Clearly it depends on the people. Culturally speaking, some nations are more honest than others. Sometimes even rude. Where a British will take gloves to tell you that maybe red isn’t your best hair color in this particular light, a Dutch will go straight to the truth and tell you that you look like the little mermaid. So, every comment and its rudeness or not must be analyzed in the light of the cultural background of the person. The Americans will lie to you and tell you they love your new haircut. Is that preferable than the ones telling the truth? The French saying “All truth is not good to be said” might be right. It might also apply to these rude people. Do we tell them they are rude, or do we show them the good example by saying “This is your opinion, I tend to think differently”? I have no answer to that one. I’m still in the process of figuring how to deal with all that. But I wonder how do you react when someone is rude to you?

On the opposite, what is the limit of courtesy? Like the ambassador’s wife told be, we have to be friendly but not befriend everyone. I also have a problem with that. I smile, I laugh, and I end up with an unwanted Facebook friend request. This is probably why a lot of people in the diplomatic family don’t use social media. But I’m not ready to quit it. I’ve quitted a lot of things for this job, please, let me keep this a little more. And now, I even have a blog, where I complain and laugh about the job. I’m pretty sure it’s frowned upon but I’m playing on the fact that it’s part of those “unwritten rules”. Can’t read them, can’t apply them, sorry. So, I don’t mean to be rude but until they write a clear manual, we’re good!

Haters gonna hate

That’s how she became the Nanny.

Yes, I have a nanny. 

Here it’s the norm. I knew it before we arrived. But still I thought that I was going to be able to do without one. I was a fool. To be really practical, imagine you move in a country where you don’t know anybody. So, no grandma babysitting on Friday nights (not that we have ever had that in Belgium anyway). This new job of yours requires 3 nights out per week, so you will need very often a babysitter (10 euros per hour). School of the older one stops at 1pm, right in the middle of the nap time of your little one. Daycare is over 2000 euros a month, you don’t work, so you won’t put your little one there. A huge house to clean with these 2 kids almost all the time there. Oh, and your diplo husband is sometimes working 12 hours per day and during the week end. Idyllic isn’t it?

I tried, like for 3 months. Worst months ever. It was possible but I had no life. So, we started to look for the perfect nanny. It’s a real quest here. Just posting a job offer, we had hundreds of applicants. You have to know that, like in almost every country, it’s us, the employer, who sponsors her work visa. So, she can only come and stay in the UAE because of her employer. And a lot of Filipinos, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Sri-Lankan,Indians, … dream to live here, to make money and send it back to their country. I remember interviewingone young Filipino girl and asking her “Why do you want to work here in the UAE?” she said to me: “In Philippines, taxes on salary are super high, it’s almost not worth it to work there”. As an economist (sometimes) very worried about the numbers, I checked after that chat; Philippines have a progressive income tax from 5% to 32%. In the UAE income tax is 0%. Yes, you read correctly. In Belgium income tax go (very quickly) from 25% to 50%, so I guess we, Belgians, win… or not. 

Besides, after the very first interview, I cried. This 35-years-old mother applicant was just like me, except she was living 7000km away from her 3 little children. The little spoiled European that I am had NO idea of this reality. These millions of parents working far from their country and paying for the expenses of the whole family in their country. They see their kids once a year! It’s the grand parents who take care of the kids. They are in a way much more family oriented than us, but in the meantime, she would leave her kids behind to raise mine… isn’t it completely crazy? So, I cried and said that I didn’t want to be part of that “system” and stopped looking. But after speaking with some nannies you realize they all have kids and it’s often the only way for them to be able to pay for their education and health care. In a way, you can help them from where you are. Redistribute a little bit. In this awfully unequal world where your birthplace seems to determine your chances in life. Instead of paying a nursery or a cleaning company and making a rich Emirati even richer, you provide for a whole family, 7000km away from you. It’s not always easy but in exchange, you have a new family member who loves your kids almost like you do. I say almost because she is much kinder to them that I am sometimes. 

After a period of dealing with applicant nannies who could not speak English, who lied about their visa status or were looking only for money, we were a little bit fed up and stopped our search for a while. That’s when somebody told me about a British family leaving their Filipino nanny behind. We contacted her and it clicked. Therefore, she moved in just before Christmas.  

First thing, I thought it was going to be weird to have an outsider, a stranger living in my house. I thought I was not going to let her do my laundry or see me in pajama. It took Fred 2 days to walk in front of her in underwear, and I haven’t done a laundry since she moved in. I can tell you, we acclimated pretty quickly. She is very discreet, and she has her own little house in our house. UAE houses are often made with a maid’s room. I don’t see her that often. The best part is probably the morning after you had a big party. She wakes up with the kids and cleans the house while you are still sleeping. The ultimate luxury.

And the kids you will ask me? Agnes was 3, wasn’t speaking a word of English, so this Filipino speaking English was an obstacle. But it challenged her I think, and one month after the arrival of our nanny, Agnès was speaking English, or a form of English. She very quickly integrated the benefits of having a nanny… “Agnès, tidy up you room” “it’s fine mom, Lin will do it”. it’s a bit of a challenge to explain to her what she still has to do.  Jack immediately liked the Nanny. Of course, she complied with all of his requests, where I was trying (too hard) to raise him perfectly. Don’t want to eat broccoli? Fine, I’ll make some corn. Want to play outside? Fine, we will. She’s very much of an ideal Grandma, I think. Before that, he was going to a public nursery in Belgium, where a couple of nurses were fine but a majority of them were old and looking more for retirement than for kids. He wasn’t happy there. And me working from 6am to 6pm didn’t help. Agnes was doing extra hours at the school too. I did notice that having a nanny and mom at home made them happier. 

But I can hear your inner voice, something inside you rejects this system. It’s fine, I was like you too. But I’ll try to stop that bitterness and take you beyond the usual stereotypes;

  1. She is no Mary Poppins

Don’t over dream it! She had very little education and there is no Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. She writes the grocery list on the sticky side of a post-it. She thinks Portobello mushrooms are pineapple hearts. She also thinks Tintin is actually the first Belgian guy who went to the moon with his fancy red spaceship. I let her think, she probably couldn’t pronounce “Dirk Frimout” anyway. Don’t talk super food with her, she will say food is enough if you have some. And she is right, forget kale and goji berries, they almost killed my husband. She won’t invent crazy games for kids, she is struggling with some 5years+ puzzles. Her English is far from perfect. She doesn’t really know what and where is Belgium, she mixes Poland with Holland, and she thinks I’m Dutch speaking. But I TRUST her. And this is the most important thing. When I’m at a diplomatic eventI know my kids are put to bed with their favorite stuffed animal and with the right light on. I know Jack and Agnès won’t cry because they are with someone they know.When I’m at the gym and I see her walking my kids and playing with them, I’m happy. I’m a better mom after this hour alone at the gym. I took some time for me, so I can play with them and enjoy it better. Believe it or not, thanks to her I took my first shower alone in 4 years! My kids have no grandparents, no uncle, no aunt, no godparent here, they just have their Nanny, and I’m thankful for her. With her friends, also nannies, they organized a sort of nursery for the little ones. In the morning, Jack gets to play with 8 other babies and toddlers. She socializes him although he doesn’t go to nursery. They sing and do some little theatre play for the kids. OK, it’s in Filipino so it confuses Jack even more between his 4 languages, but whatever, it’s cool.

2. She is no slave

Yes, she sleeps in a smaller room than we do. Yes, she makes less money than we do. Yes, she eats a lot of rice and almost no burgers or sushi. Yes, she calls us “Madam and Sir” and not “Cécile and Fred”. But she chooses to be here. She is happy here. She tells me almost every day. I don’t hold her passport. I don’t force her to do anything. She doesn’t even have a list of tasks; she just knows how to deal with the house and the kids. She has paid leave, days off, health insurance, one flight back to the Philippines per year, WIFI, and even Netflix. She sees some nannies being really badly treated. She probably has been one of them before, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. It happens. Not only in Arab families, I can tell you some very European families can turn mad too and mistreat their helper. She has friends in the compound, LOTS of friends. Her 2 sisters live here too. She is super busy on her days off! She has her own network. She knows everything. She is proud because they made a diplo nannies club. I find it a bit weird but, if it makes her happy… “status” is the only thing we have in this job, why no sharing it. Consequently, she rules the nanny game in our compound. Not really a slave life, right?

But still, something is bugging you? It’s ok. That’s why people here don’t talk about their nanny in their home country, many of them lie and say they don’t have one. Agnès is very smart and she figured it out the first day the nanny worked. She asked me “What is Lin’s job?”. I said, “Taking care of you two and the house”. She straight away replied, “Isn’t it YOUR job mom, taking care of us?”. She pissed me off, she has some guts… but she expresses the thoughts of a lot of people in Europe. I quit my job, so I’m supposed to do it all right? What am I going to do otherwise??? I can’t be NOT working and NOT taking care of my house and my children. Is that what they think or is it just jealousy? To be honest I don’t know how I would do without her. Working or not working. She makes life easier. She makes motherhood easier. She helps. This is a concept that I had almost forgotten. And it’s sweet. We were feeling so alone in Europe. When you are working full time, commuting every day, being a mom of two is hard, you come home with no energy left for the kids and in case of an emergency problem, you can’t find anyone to help you. Here, thanks to those amazing workers, we have very precious help. So yes, I get to do nights out with my husband, I get to go to lunch with my friends and can leave the dirty dishes and play with the kids, this is what makes me a happy mom! So, long live Nanny Lin!!!

This is me, exploring Singapore with my friend the fantastic photographer Kelly Acs (google her, you will fall in love). I will tell you more about this trip another time. For now I can just say that I was without my kids and that was AWESOME. This was only possible thanks to my dear Nanny, Lin! Thank you Lin!

Sort it, pack it, load it, ship it, (break it), move it, open it, leave it.

If you have ever moved, you will agree with me that moving is the best way to get rid of non-useful things. In Belgium, I moved 3 times. This was before having kids, and I complained A LOT about the work that it was. If only I knew that I had NO idea what a hard move was!!! This was before I had a baby, I was John snow, I knew nothing. 

Last year I had to organize a move 5000 km away with 2 kids (one wasn’t even walking). In one way, that was easier than my previous moves because we had a moving company, but in the other way that was harder, because we had a moving company. You see 5 big guys coming in your house, going through your stuff, emptying your drawers. Some are more careful than others. I will forever remember this one guy, Patrick, he was in charge of packing our basement. A nice guy and all, but Patrick was a little bit… let’s say confused. In general, this must be Patrick’s main characteristic in life. You see, the first morning we met Patrick, he told us he messed up his heart medication with some laxatives, so he really really had to use our bathroom… a lot. Yes, he told us that on our first encounter and boy, did he use the bathroom a lot. Patrick also messed up the crystal champagne glasses from my grandma. He though they would be fine travelling for 6 weeks in a container on a boat in a simple box without wrapping. So did my husband’s race bike. Basically, pretty much everything in our Belgian Basement did not arrive the way it should. Big sorting, thank you Patrick. There is no basement in UAE houses anyway, so where would I have put all that?

We had a very European (means tiny) house in Belgium. But the movers kept telling me during the 4 days of packing “You have a lot of content”. I wasn’t believing them until I saw these 265 boxes in total and the humongous container that we filled with them. They did a listing of all the boxes and everything that was in those boxes, for insurance and organization purposes. And this is when the reality hit me. I knew I was no minimalist. I’ve always been more of a collector. But seeing written black on white how many things you have is impressive. Number of shoes, jeans, bags, glasses, toys, candles, I had no idea it was so bad. I thought I did a sorting before the move, but clearly, I didn’t. I have to admit I tried like a snail, to bring with me every single thing I own. Except one thing: my wedding dress. I was so afraid the container would fall in the sea, that I kept it safe in the Belgian country side. Yes, it looks stupid to prepare for the worst to happen, but I still remember the moving company manager laughing at me while telling “Yes, it happens M’dam, containers fall in the sea all the time! And sometimes it’s really stupid. Like last year, one container fell at the port, while we were loading it on the boat. It felt just between the boat and the dock. We couldn’t recuperate a thing. Stupid Hein?”. Lovely guy. 

But apart from my wedding gown, I took everything. Going in the desert I took all my winter clothes. We might end up in Russia or Scandinavia in 4 years. I took all my souvenirs, from the Christmas cards to the letters of my besties I used to write when we were 14. (The new generation won’t have this problem, they will have their laptop and icloud, but I’m old, I had no phone nor internet for 18 years). It was very comforting to take all those memories with me, I thought I was going to need them to feel at home. I was so wrong.

I can tell you that I deeply regretted it when all those 265 boxes finally got delivered in my home in the UAE. We had some diplomatic issues to get our shipment back (people think life is easier for us diplomats, BS) but when finally, the “container” arrived, I wasn’t there. And I think it was for the best. A picture worth a thousand words, right? 

All of our stuff, that were packed so well in Belgium (except from the basement), had travelled from the Jebel Ali port (1h drive in the burning desert) in 3 open trucks like this. So, some of the damage can be blamed on Patrick for sure, but others will be on some guys from here. Our clothes were full of sand. The candles had melted on the way and some of our electronics died. Nothing dramatic, just a little reminder that these are just THINGS, do not lose it over that. As my husband saw that, he told them to put up the beds (gotta sleep somewhere) and just put the boxes in the right room and not to unpack. We had to do the job ourselves to record and minimalize the damages. And even that, putting in the right room, hasn’t been an easy thing. It was written on each box where it came from, but many workers can’t read, so my husband used tons of colored posts-it and checked every box before entering the house. One against ten movers, that was bound to go perfect. How he managed to stay calm is a miracle (or maybe he was just happy our things finally arrived). 

I had two very young kids, a 415 squared meters house, 265 boxes to unpack and NOBODY to help me. My husband was working, after all that’s why we are here, and I knew no one in the country at the time. People in Belgium were jealous because of the pool in our garden, I wasn’t able to go in it for two months because I was too busy unpacking. Of course, at first, having your personal belongings feels so good. It’s like Christmas morning. You open those boxes and explode with joy as you’re rediscovering your own things. Without even mentioning the kids! If You could have seen their faces! They were so happy to have their toys, bed and parent-stuff-they-cannot-touch brought over here. It made a huge difference for them. But this was true for maybe half of those 265 boxes. The other half were non-useful things that I wonder why I moved.

So now I learned my lesson, I think, and I will try to move less stuff next time. The only problem is we are now in a HUGE house, UAE standards, that we had to fill! This first year, we spend all our money on furniture. So next move might be even worse! But I see every expat selling all their belonging just before they move on Facebook groups. That’s how I learned that my neighbors were leaving btw. I also have to admit it’s easy for me to say that from where we are. We are in a good posting with plenty of furniture shops. If we need something, we have plenty of choice. But if you are stuck for 4 years in a place where everything is hard to find, it’s another story. Then packing everything like a snail and buying extra is probably thought as a necessity to create a nice home. And if you forgot something… well, airfreight is only a couple of 100’s of USD per kilo… .

In the end, this is all about “What makes a house into a home?”. I’m sure I’ll talk about that notion in another post, but I can tell you, your couch, your bed, your favorite pajama and even my husband’s beloved Tempur memory foam pillow, isn’t what makes a house your home. At least not for me. Now that I realized that, with a little help of our dear Patrick, I try my best not to get attached to things and spend my money more on experiences than things. But I’m far from perfect and those crazy sales here are turning my head off. So, I kept on buying shoes!

Working the night shift.

I want to talk about a very important topic in this job: the diplomatic receptions. People often think this is our only job, because it’s what they can see of the job. But also, because it takes a lot of our time to be honest. I didn’t think it was going to be so busy. I know we are in a big posting where people love to throw a (lavish) party, so we have more than average, but still, it is a big part of our job. Here, for example, there are about 160 embassies (not even counting the consulates in Dubai). Each one of them organizes AT LEAST one party per year. To those 160 parties, you can add the parties and diners for the companies of your country, or the huge business fairs and international conferences. Then you have the “simple” diplomatic diners between colleagues or when you have a special guest visiting, like a Minister or a high-level citizen. Also, the diners with the military staff. And the activities organized by the host country for diplomats. Plus, the extra events, like we had this year the special Olympic world games, the visit of Pope Francis, and next year will be even greater (worst) with the Expo 2020 coming to Dubai. I would say all together, we are at 500 nights per year. Even if you can skip from time to time it’s still more than a small Embassy can handle. Knowing that these nights are on TOP of the working day of diplomats.  But, as I said before, I’m very lucky, my husband isn’t ambassador, so we don’t HAVE to attend them all. He has to go to some, and I CHOSE where I want to go. I do my best to accompany him most of the time. Like one to 3 nights a week. But to be honest, sometimes I pass, and I stay in pajama watching the Grinch with my kids. 

I remember my aunt visiting us a couple of months ago. As she saw me getting all dressed up for a diplo night, she told me “You are so lucky”. I get it. It looks like I get to wear a nice dress to play the princess for one night. Go to fancy hotels or a crazy party location and meet amazing people. It is fun but it is also work. I know there are worst jobs, obviously, when you have two young children, escaping for one night out is fun, but having to play the perfect image of the diplo wife 3 times a week isn’t always fun. 

To be really practical, I never wore heels before. I did, once, for my wedding. And I still remember this exceptionally satisfying feeling when I could throw them in the corner of the room and put on slippers. Almost the happiest part of the day. But here, in the One Thousand- and One-Nights country, glitters and heels are a cultural thing. Nearly no women in those parties have flat shoes. I won’t complain, I love glitters and high heels. But the problem is, in 80% of those parties, we stand up, talking, all the time. I’m no Kate Middleton, I can’t keep on smiling after 4 hours in those gorgeous torturous instruments. Every time, I end the night walking bare foot to the car and the morning after the party feels like I walked on burning coals. 

Moreover, it’s not always about meeting amazing people. You sometimes have to smile and listen to those self-absorbed, know-it-all people, for hours. Especially if you are a young woman. They feel like they honor you with their knowledge. Just smile and nod girl… It’s like a lottery, you never know who you are going to meet there. And I can tell you, I’ve never won the lottery. I have one certitude in life; if you are lucky in love, you will be unlucky in games. It’s the opposite of the French saying, “Lucky at cards, unlucky in love”. I’m happy in love so I don’t play any kind of game because I’m sure I won’t win. So, I can tell you I met a couple of really boring people at these parties. 

Furthermore, it puts you in front of your own lack of knowledge. You see, diplomats receive lots of info during their training about almost every field of our country. And now, I get why. Nothing is more embarrassing than a guy asking you about the exportations of your country when you know nothing about it. Good for me, I’m a good actress, and with the help of a few wines, I can lie and look pretty confident explaining BS. But don’t tell anyone ;-). There is one thing even more embarrassing. Usually diplomats wear their national flag pined to their suit. Easy, so you can decide from afar if you want/need to talk to this country’s representative. Easy, yeah… IF you know your flags! I remember talking for an hour with a guy about his country, and I had absolutely NO idea which country that was! During this hour I was talking with him and my brain kept looking for the remains of my geographical classes 20 years ago… “it’s a country in STAN, like Pakistan, or Kazakhstan… or is it Kyrgyzstan? Shit.” Obviously, because he had his pin I couldn’t ask “Where are you from?”. It’s only when, in the end of the discussion, we exchanged our business cards, that I realised which country he was from (I won’t tell but I wasn’t even close). From this night, I installed the Flags and Capitals game on my phone. I play, but I swear it counts as working time. 

Sometimes, I apply the advice an ambassador’s wife gave me before we started this life: “Be yourself”. I remember being seated for a lunch next to the ambassador of Mozambique. I just told him the truth “I’m sorry your Excellency, I know nothing about your country”. He laughed and then told me about the famous seafood and cuisine of Mozambique. He made me want to visit his country (I actually am in love with seafood). And in the end, isn’t that what their job is all about?

In fact, the worst are diners. Because if you are seated to someone painful, it’s for the whole night that you’ll be his victim. But sometimes you have nice surprises. Like this diner where I was seated next to an Emirati, very high in ranking. I was so impressed I didn’t know how I should address him. Turns out he was super friendly, knew a lot about Belgium. He was accustomed to send his horses through my home city airport for their competitions. Man, those horses travel in better conditions than I do! We talked non-stop all diner; it was super fun. Life is really like a box of chocolates, isn’t it? 

But now, after one year, the game has changed. I met some diplo wives and we became good friends. We decided to beat the odds and set our agendas to meet at those parties. So, while our husbands do the diplo talk, we get to catch up with free food and wine. That’s pretty good. Not very diplomatic though. Sometimes we still have to mingle. But after a while it’s like any kind of job, I guess. Some colleagues become your friends. And They make work look much more fun! 

Of course, you know this country! 😉