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 Nahyanwas 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.
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.
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!
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;
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!!!
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!
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!
All year long, the expats living here for more than a year kept telling me: “Don’t stay here during the summer, it’s too hard”. They talked to me about the temperatures, the humidity rate and the burning sun. To me, it was nothing I couldn’t handle. AC is everywhere, I have a pool in my garden and the sea is 50 meters from my house. My husband has to work almost all summer and I wouldn’t leave him alone here. Being the acting ambassador while this one is sipping cocktails in a 5 stars hotel somewhere in Europe looks cool, but in fact it’s a lot of work and I was determined to help him the best I could. Also, I have to add that having no family really waiting for me in my country helped a lot to take my decision to stay in this desert for the summer.
Now that we are in the middle of the summer, I can tell you, temperatures ok, humidity, hard but still ok, but nobody told me what the hardest part of the summer was: seeing your friends leave! You see, when you’re an expat, the friends you make in your new city become your new family. Very quickly you bond with them and spend a lot of time with them. You create a routine with them. Especially in this country where most of the wives don’t work. We have plenty of time to do things together. The breakfasts, the Pilates classes, the morning coffees, the lunches, the shopping at the mall, the afternoon playdates, the aperitives, the diners, the parties and the ladies nights! This has become my daily routine with these friends. People in Belgium often ask me if I’m bored… I answer that I don’t have time for that 🙂 . I never expected meeting such amazing souls around here. I came for the sun, the adventure, the change. But coming here, I met brilliant people. And I thought it was worth saying here.
In Belgium, I always felt a bit the odd one out between most friends. They didn’t quite get my urge to leave the country or travel so far. And I started to feel weird. Most of them wanted to build a house, in a specific village, close from their parents. There’s a saying in Belgium: “Belgian have a brick in their stomach”. I don’t. Why? People were saying we lived “so far” in Belgium, talking about 50 or 100 km. I didn’t understand. Why? I was so different. I always felt happier abroad. As If the air was lighter, the further I stood, the better I felt. The idea of staying in the same house my whole life terrifies me. For me it sounds like “You are going to die here, enjoy your life”. Yes, I’m pretty much tortured. Apart from my husband, none of my friends or family seemed to be thinking like me. And when I first started to meet expats, I noticed a lot of them had the same feeling. That was so nice for me to be finally like the others. To talk with people who understand that. People who do not know where they are going to be in 3 years and it’s ok. People who live to travel, explore and meet new faces. Also, people who don’t judge so easily, because they know life is different for each one and they don’t get into a competition. I’m not saying all expats are like that, I also met some serious jerks, don’t worry, but some of them are tremendous and they made me feel good around here.
Also, expats always have tons of funny stories. Because when you move your life from country to country, let’s face it, shit happens. But after a while you kind of laugh at those stories, and they become a part of you. Scars, figuratively… and actual physical ones, that you treasure. I love listening to all those stories that made me laugh so much. Like this posh lady who had to drink kava (a narcotic) and offer a whale tooth to a tribe chief in Fiji, in order to assure safety during her stay on the island. We also bonded around the fact that we were often facing the same problems; administration, housing, culture, …
This country has 90% of expats. Knowing that expats have a tendency to regroup, we met A LOT of people in 10 months. Before I came here, I wasn’t so sure about meeting new people. I had my friends in Belgium, they were great, why would I look for somebody else? And would I find someone who makes me laugh and thinks like me? It sounded very unlikely. I wasn’t sure my humor would be understood in another language. Also, where would I meet people? I had the impression that I haven’t met many new people in Belgium for years!
I don’t know if I got EXTREMELY lucky or if it’s the case for every expat, you’ll have to tell me, but I met those super funny/tolerant/caring people. OH, wait, did I met them or did Agnès recruited them? To be very honest, we both worked on it and “fished” some friends as well. On her side, she chose some friends at school (in the 4 classes of her level) and some friends at the compound. Then she introduced me to their parents. “Mom, I invited Allegra and her mom to our house, tomorrow, they’ll be there at 3” (yes, she did that… the super stressed mom that I was in the beginning of this year forced her to learn her new address by heart. She was 3, she remembered it very well). On my side, I met people at a diplomatic diner or in my daily activities and introduced Agnès and Jack to their kids. Each time the double match kids/parents were validated, we kept on going. Turns out, Agnès is the most sociable kid I’ve ever seen. If she had Facebook, she would have more friends than me. I should probably let her run my blog.
Anyway, now after 10 months, I’ve build some serious friendships… and like 80% of the people in the UAE, they left for the summer. And, like a baby, I cried to see them leave. I cried at the school, at the compound, everywhere I had to say goodbye. But I’m lucky this year, almost all of them come back in September. Because the summer is also the time of rotation for the expats. Some leave the country forever. And those goodbyes are even harder. Although I (almost) didn’t cried leaving Belgium, I feel like I’m going to cry my heart out when I will leave this country… because the people I met, will never be together in the same place of the world again. All of my Abu Dhabi friends are going to be shipped all around the world. But it helps thinking I will be able to travel and visit them in their new environment! So, to keep myself busy, I’m actually planning the biggest party ever when they will all be back in September. Do you have a party theme idea for me?
Ps: I’m writing to you with a gecko at my side. I thought those 7 cm geckos all around the house were cute and funny, but now I found the mom. A 30 cm Gecko living in my living room plant. At first, I screamed of course, but then I realized she might be, like me, lonely during the summer and my AC and company could be of some help to her. In return, she eats the ants and other weird desert insects trying to break into my house during the hot season. So, for now, she stays. At least until Agnès sees her…
I live in Abu Dhabi. I would say 75% of Europeans have NO idea where it is. It’s not entirely true, the look on their faces and their grimace, tell me they in fact locate this city in a very bad region in their mind: The middle east. This region is so complex, I won’t blame them. Myself, before going, knew so little about it. And I’m learning stuff every day. But I do think they stopped trying to understand it and they just kept this idea of the Middle East:
Bunch of countries where oil comes from. Super rich people. Some wars, past and present, I’m not sure, but each one makes my Gasoline more expensive. A lot of sand. Super religious. Don’t eat pork nor drink alcohol. Women cover up and they cannot drive. Nothing there to see, way too complex, not on my travel list
I’ve been told this over and over before I came here. And each expat living here tells me the exact same story! How before they came here, while they had researched about the way of living in Abu Dhabi and knew how it was, people kept telling them “No, no, you are wrong! As a woman, you won’t be able to drive, you won’t be able to go out without your husband and you will have to cover yourself entirely. I saw it on TV. You will see….” It personally made me really mad at the end. Those “TV travelers”, “bon voyage magazine” followers, trying to give me advices for this move I had prepared for 6 months… really??? but I smiled, tried my best to stay diplomatic – part of the job – and just said “We will see, but I really don’t think it’s like that”. (I can already tell you that one year, and a lot of Instagram pictures later, some changed their mind and suddenly want to visit us. Only fools never change their minds, right?)
It’s crazy but this gorgeous region is so full of bad clichés. I’m tired of those clichés. But I cannot really change them. I don’t know a lot about the other countries of the middle east, so I won’t talk about them. The only thing I can do is show you MY new country, the United Arab Emirates. Try to share with you what made me fall in love with it. Explain to you the face of Islam I discovered here. Maybe it will change some perceptions. Even If it changes just one mind, it would make me happy.
Meet my son, Jack. He will be two years old in September. But he’s already the face of the terrible twos. He looks cute, but don’t be fooled. Tantrums weren’t enough for him, he decided to knock his head on the floor every time life isn’t perfect to him. And this happens a lot of time… I might even consider getting him a helmet at this point.
“My mom refuses to give me cookies for diner”
“The nice bird flew away”
“I’m not allowed to drive mom’s car”
“They installed a pool fence”
“Mom yelled at me because I threw the soap in the toilet”
“Some kid took my pacifier”
“Dad is going to work”
“Nobody gets me”
“Mom won’t let me play with a dead cockroach”
“I can’t write an article on mom’s blog”
And so on. Everyday this little human learns frustration. And he shares every minute of it with me. I’m so blessed. My daughter didn’t have such a hard period. Although we though we knew what the terrible twos were, we truly discovered them with Jack.
They say that’s why we don’t recall anything before 3 years old. Because it would be too traumatic. But is there a trick like that for us parents??? A fast forward maybe? Life is so hard for him at this point. It’s hard to understand the world and even harder to make himself clear. Jack is raised in 4 languages every day. I speak French, his father speaks Dutch, his friends, Nanny and sister speaks English and he goes to a sort of Filipino day care. So now, I have NO idea which language he speaks. It’s a mess. It looks a lot like Russian. But it’s ok. I don’t really worry. His sister spoke very late, and now trust me, I’m so fed up with her talking. She never stops!
Jack is a miraculous baby. Meaning him and I, almost died during labor. Not really the best day of your life those pregnancy magazines told you about. Like all the BS people sell about motherhood. His first months were easy. Easy like a second baby. You already know the stuffs; you are less worried. But he always had trouble with limitations.
But Jack is also super sweet and loving. While his sister has always been an independent proud little girl, he’s a mama’s boy. And like a true college playboy, he plays hard to get… But the minute he takes a look on you, you completely fall for him. And he knows it. That’s also why he’s allowed to do all these tantrums. In our compound, Jack is super popular. He is super pale, very rare around here, he has dark green eyes and a chin cleft. So, when I’m not “the Belgian diplomat’s wife” I’m “Jack’s mom”. I hope someday I’ll get to be “Cécile” 🙂 He is so popular; he gets free stuffs on a daily basis. He even got a free toy from an employee last time he threw a tantrum at the mall! Talk about a reward… In this country, kids are kings. Whatever their behavior. Then it’s hard to keep up with the discipline.
So here we are, stuck for one year with this terrible two. Before he turns into a threenager. The difference is, our new life. More travels, more parties, meeting new faces.
What about you? Did your kids experiment different levels of terrible twos? Do you have any trick? Or did you start drinking wine before noon? (Just asking for a friend). And for those without kids, do you have more understanding for a parent of a 2 years old than the others? Do you realize the challenge?
Diplo wife isn’t a very modern concept. I should talk about diplo partner. Because first, these days people don’t get married so often anymore (it costs a fortune to poor drinks to the saw-you-once uncles and never-seen-before colleagues of your parents). Second, because sometimes the diplo wife is a man. The new generation of diplomats is different, and some women become diplomat, but I’ve been living in this world for almost a year now and I can tell you that we are nowhere near a parity in this job… and there’s also same sex couples, whose life isn’t easy in some postings.
But I’m not a very modern person. I like good old grandma traditions. So, I kept the title diplo wife. And also, because it comes with all those stereotypes!
The diplomat’s wife is elegant.
The diplomat’s wife knows how to cook.
The diplomat’s wife drinks champagne every night.
The diplomat’s wife smiles all the time.
The diplomat’s wife is a great housewife who raises perfect and polite kids.
I don’t think I have any of those but at least I kept the title.
This job is surrounded by stereotypes. Mainly because people don’t know what the job of a diplomat really is. They see the nights out and figure out it’s a non-stop champagne party life. Trust me, there’s more to it than meets the eye. You represent your country, but you also have to sell it, like a real product in a company. You have to do so from afar and with the local means, which is, depending on the posting, a little to a huge challenge. An embassy is often like a small company. They have to deal with so many areas; the economical, the political, the accounting, the communication, social media, HR, etc. Just like a company, an embassy has all those departments. Many countries have at least one diplomat in charge of each field, but Belgium is a small country and basically one man is responsible of all fields; in this country, this is my husband. In some postings, you have to deal with a deep political crisis or even war. You’re often a target and this diplomatic license plate does not play in your favor. At the same time, every single Belgian you will cross, will ask you about their passport renewal like it was all you have to do anyway.
But I’m not complaining, there is worst. There is being an ambassador. First, like many others, I thought it was super cool. The title, the house, the driver… life at its best. Then I realized this position comes with UNLIMITED dedication. I like my country (and even more from afar) but I don’t know if I’m ready yet for such a level of dedication for Belgium coming from my husband. I might get jealous. I’m a lonely child and I don’t share easily (never pick food in my plate without asking).
So, I have a profound admiration for our ambassadors. But as one of them said someday “Us diplomats, we are the body of the diplomacy. But wives, they are the heart and soul, and the body wouldn’t work a day without them”. People tend to forget it’s a team job. Of course, the diplomat does more in the public eye, but us, the partners, we have our backstage role. We organise life for them to be able to work. We meet people and create a network very useful for them. The help we provide might look useless. Cooking a meal for an unformal meeting at home, dealing with the moving company, taking care of the wife of a Minister… . Trust me, diplomats couldn’t function without it.
Also, my grandmother used to tell me “There is no such thing as love, only proof of love.” (I really thought it was from her, she didn’t mention anyone else at the time, I’m sorry Mister Cocteau). And she used to tell me that story about her bringing hot chocolate to her husband who was working outside, selling fruits and vegetables in the cold Belgian winter. She said this was the only way she knew how to show her love, by helping him. So, this idea has always been in my mind.
Talking about my grandma, I should also mention that she was PERSUADED that I was going to marry Prince William of England. We happen to have around the same age, and by reading all her magazines about the Royals, she had this crazy idea to groom me for the throne. Like tea practice, reverence training, waving exercises, how to properly enter and get out of a car, diner seating,… For the 8 years old little girl that I was, it was funny, and I kind of wanted to be a princess at some point, although William wasn’t my type and England looked way to rainy for me. I have to admit she was a little bit disappointed when I introduced her to my husband to be, but she finally said he was way funnier and had a lot of hair. The first official diner we went to, Frederic, my husband, was super stressed. I was pretty calm. He asked me how I was managing this so well. I just told him my grandma taught me well.
In the end, the diplo partners do what they can to help. Each in their very own style. What I’ll tell you in my blog is my vision of the job, but it will not be shared by every diplo partner. And we are busy guys, because we also have to reinvented ourselves. Do we resign our jobs or keep it? Do we look for a new one? If it’s possible in the country, some countries do not allow the diplo partner to work. Everything seems possible and being able to choose isn’t always easy. There is no pre written advices, and everyone deals with a different equation. Being sent to Africa with 2 young kids isn’t the same as going to Washington as a young couple without children or to Bangkok as a single diplomat. Anyway, this life is always an adventure!
When we arrived in Abu Dhabi, 9 months ago, the first thing I wrote about was the international schools. Maybe because we arrived a Thursday and the following Sunday, I was already in front of the French Lycée (we are in an Arab country, the week starts on Sunday) waiting for my 3-years-old daughter. Of course, I was waaaaay too early (plus way too nervous) and all there was for me to do was hide and observe what happens there.
The French school is in a neighborhood where you will only find private international schools: British, American, Japanese, German. You’ve got lots of choices here in Abu Dhabi! Diplomats, just like the professional expats (those who go from expat posting to expat posting), have to choose wisely. In this town, this school might be good but what about the next posting? Will the curriculum be followed?
Anyway, all those private schools shape the elite of the future. I mean the kids, because when you see the parents, you have a serious doubt about it. I was picturing very serious business men, diplomats in suits, pilots in uniform. It was nothing like that. Flipflops and Hawaiian skirts. Moms in yoga pants and baseball caps. I know, it’s already 38 degrees at 7 am, but still…
One thing that made me feel right at home is the MESS at drop off and pick up time in front of the school. Looks like this is universal in every country. Moms lose their minds (or else… but I’ll stay polite) and start cursing in front of their kids just to get 10 meters closer to the school entrance. Phew, I thought cursing was forbidden in this country, and day 4 I’m realizing it depends on the neighborhood. In this particular one, cursing in French is allowed so I felt immediately better. Because who doesn’t like cursing behind the wheel???
Then there is this timing thing. Pretty military compared to the Belgian school system. Drop off in between 7.50 an 8am and pick up between 12.50 and 1pm. Yes, those are insanely short school hours… they get through everything on the school program during these hours, but I assure you that I CANNOT do everything that’s on MY program during that period. Anyway, if you miss this 10 min opening window, entrance is closed, and you have to take the walk of shame of the late moms to another gated entrance and explain to the guard (nice guy named Jimmy, he likes cookies) what happened.
I have to say I don’t HAVE to be there. In this country, I have another option: paying for a school bus who will pick up my daughter at home in the morning and drop her off in the afternoon. Pretty basic for a lot of people in the world but not usually the go-to option most Europeans. But more experienced diplo wives advised me before I came here “go pick up your kid at school, that’s how you’ll meet people”. So that’s what I did. I went for pick up every single day. First day felt like a ride of “it’s a small world” attraction in Disneyland. I had no idea this country was so multicultural, and I had even less idea that my daughter was going to be one of the only French speaking kids in her class at the French school! I was anticipating all the jokes about “the Belgian” that the French people can make… our accent, our strange way to say goodbye, etc. But in the end, the teacher needed my daughter to help teach French to the class!
At first, I didn’t understand. The American school is literally on the other side of the street (we often fight over parking spots), why do so many English-speaking people come to the French lycée?? These kids haven’t heard a word of French in their lives. And then I realized, in the world of private international schools, the French Lycée is the cheapest. You get a great deal. Great discipline for an amazing price. Security is excellent, the program is very good and stays the same in every country of the world. Good, here we are stuck with the rich poor and the rich tightfisted. If you want to know where I stand, I’ll just tell you that I don’t pay for school.
So, at pick up, you will find a mixture of nannies, drivers and parents. More often the moms in this country. Dads work. Somebody has to pay for the school. Among the moms, I could clearly identify different categories:
the wife of business man: very “BCBG” (“bon chic, bon genre” it’s a French expression, kind of impossible to translate, it’s like classic-bourgeoisie. Oh, again some French, can’t help it, sorry) but will make it to school totally casual in her Pilate class outfit 90% of the time. She will be delighted to speak French with you because she thinks it’s such a lovely language. But she will make lots of mistakes. You won’t say a thing. You want to be her friend. Good thing she LOVES diplomats, and she notices your diplomatic license plate, so you’re busted.
The wife of the footballer or other sports guy: very well shaped, like you don’t want to stay too close of her to avoid any body comparison. She’ll talk Italian, Spanish, or English from Russia. You kind of want to be her friend too. But you’re going to have to work on this one. Enter a gym or meet with a surgeon.
The Arab moms: they come from all the Arab countries, from Lebanon to Morocco. They speak French and Arabic. They look like they already know each other. They park together and Chit Chat in their car before pickup. You will feel like this is going to be a hard group to enter. They will even scare you a little. They are the best contenders in the parking fight.
The cool loner moms: you’ll put yourself in this category, although you are totally biased. But some other moms will be there too. Looking like they don’ know what they are doing either. Some Americans, other diplo wives, some cool Frenchie’s. You will first aim for these women. They might even become your besties.
You have less than 10 min a day to befriended them. Good luck. It took me a couple of months, but I made it. With ALL the categories.
But in the end, what’s really important about this school is that my daughter is happy there. The first week, she told me she never wanted to go back to the school in Belgium. She’s BFF with a Hungarian/American girl and a Canadian/British girl, so she learned English, like in a month (my little pony videos obviously helped a lot). She, who was the “strange kid” in Belgium because she was raised in two languages at home (Dutch and French) finally felt at home in this cultural mess. And I tend to think the same of myself… but that’s a story for another post!