Oh… in the Middle East…

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.

This is me. In Dubai. Yes, Dubai is in the same country as Abu Dhabi and no Dubai is not an island nor a capital. Abu Dhabi (the city) is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E), which counts 7 Emirates. One of them is Dubai. It’s an hour drive from my home. As a trendy city trip destination for Europeans, Dubai is more popular than Abu Dhabi, and for some weird reason it has a much better image. Although, the biased woman that I am prefers Abu Dhabi.
As you can see, I have to cover a lot of my body. In fact, compared to Belgium, I think I have NEVER shown more of my body all year round! Although respectful clothing is asked in public places, there is no religious police here in the UAE, so basically, it’s up to you to chose how you dress. 365 days of sun per year. Only two seasons: hot and hotter. But don’t worry, there’s AC everywhere. Sometimes a bit much, you will need a jacket. Almost never one cloud. A couple of sand storms and a dust pollution problem. The roads, shops and restaurants will make you think you’re in the USA. But the level of safety and service will remind you that you’re not. The UAE is one of the safest countries in the world. 
This picture was taken at the Dubai mall, one of the biggest malls in the world. It shows the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. If you are a fan of architecture, the UAE is for you. And if you are (like me) a fan of shopping, STAY AWAY. Shopping here is far too good; your savings don’t stand a chance.

Sweet Child of mine, Jack

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? 

It’s a team job.

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!

  1. The diplomat’s wife is elegant. 
  2. The diplomat’s wife knows how to cook. 
  3. The diplomat’s wife drinks champagne every night. 
  4. The diplomat’s wife smiles all the time. 
  5. 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!

Meet my husband, Frederic. We’ve been together for 9 years now. We met when I left Liège (a French speaking city in Belgium) and started to work in Brussels. He was the first young Dutch speaking guy that I met. He wanted to improve his French, and he did. 

The basics of international schools

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!

Meet my daughter, Agnès. She is 4. She is sweet and very opinionated at the same time. She likes purple like Twilight Sparkles (for those without a little girl, it’s a little pony) . She is scared of geckos because she thinks they are baby dinosaurs. She speaks French, Dutch, English, some Arabic and Filipino. She is cleverer than me but luckily she is an amazing teacher.

Every end has a start.

Oh gosh, starting this is the worst… ok, let’s do this.

“Hello, my name is Cécile and I’m from Belgium”. I probably said this sentence more during the last 9 months than during the last 30 years. I’ve moved abroad with my family. I’m 35 (although I look 22) and I have 2 little kids (although they look twice as numbered sometimes…). My wonderful and exhausting husband is always full of projects. He recently changed his career path and became a Belgian Diplomat. And this is how I went from being a (bored) economist to a (happy) diplo wife. What is a diplo wife you asked? Good question, very, very good question. It’s a crazy adventure! So crazy that I thought it was worth sharing. And so was my intention 9 months ago when we moved to our first posting abroad: Abu Dhabi (for those who failed geography it’s in the United Arab Emirates… in the middle east… close to Dubai… ok?). But then … life happened. I got caught in the twister of meeting new people, organizing a new home away from home, learning this new job of mine and I put writing aside.

Nine months later, a lovely friend of mine (a very direct and honest Dutch spirit) told me it was time to move my ass and start writing for good. So here I am. Thank you, Sophie.

If sarcasm and second degree humour isn’t your thing, I recommend you get out of here. I don’t take life very seriously. I try not to. Xanax isn’t allowed here, so I stick to humour. I try to laugh as often as I can, and I hope we will share some laughs together!

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