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
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