What it is like to go from one place to another as a diplomat’s wife
People are often discouraged to meet their heroes. More often than not, people you admire from afar will disappoint you once you see them up close. That’s not the case for me and Brigid Keenan, author of Diplomatic Baggage. I first read her book after getting married to a young foreign service officer, when it started sinking in that I was leaving everything behind, including friends, family, and the career I loved so much. During that rather emotionally tumultuous time, it was Ms. Keenan—Brigid—who gave me comfort. Her memoir about her life as a diplomat’s wife was authentic, utterly hilarious, and poignant at times. It was always ever so relatable. And yes, the book did inspire Almost Diplomatic along with many other spouses who now write about this life.
A fashion journalist and editor in the ’60s, she has worked for Nova, The Observer, and The Sunday Times, being whisked away to couture shows in Paris and salon openings by Vidal Sassoon in New York. The life of a diplomatic spouse was practically thrust upon her in the middle of it all. It’s not always as glamorous as one might think as her story involves chicken sheds in Nepal and dining on baby food at one point. But from it all came the book that every diplomatic spouse should read at least once.
“I feel I’ve had an incredibly lucky life,” Brigid told me during a video call. She sat by the fire in her home in the UK, just a week after her 82nd birthday, an age that’s rather hard to believe she’s on, considering her energy and sharp wit.
I often wondered when she got used to the adventure of constantly packing up and moving, as someone who never dreamed of living abroad. “When he retired,” she said with a laugh, “he” being her husband who’s known as AW in the book. His identity, as with all the best secrets, was later on revealed to be former EU Ambassador Alan Waddams. By the end of his career, they’ve lived in Ethiopia, Brussels, Trinidad, Barbados, West Africa, Syria, and Central Asia.
‘I spent the first year of every post crying [because of homesickness] and then the last year of every posting crying because I was leaving.’
“I spent the first year of every post crying [because of homesickness] and then the last year of every posting crying because I was leaving,” she said. No, it didn’t get any easier. She wasn’t there when her mother died and she was perpetually homesick. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Looking back at it all, it was just fantastic, really,” she mused.
Brigid sees the internet as both a boon and a bane of expat life. While it did make communication better and could somehow relieve homesickness, the problems expat wives face remain the same. It doesn’t really cure loneliness, isolation, and the feeling of losing one’s footing as you rebuild your home and your life from one place to another.
During her time, she would go up the attic and write while her husband’s at work. “You’re extremely isolated and you’re at home with the helpers who probably don’t like you very much like the previous ambassador’s wife,” she joked.
If she had the internet, Brigid admits there might be no Diplomatic Baggage or its sequel, Packing Up. She would have been stuck in the comforts of the expat bubble, spending most of her time talking to British friends. She wouldn’t have pushed herself to go out and really get to know the country they were in. “I would probably have been less homesick but I might have just stayed at home all the time, looking at my phone like my grandson.”
It’s always up to diplomatic spouses themselves to sort out their life. Nobody else can fully do it for them. Her best advice would be to put the phone down. Go to the market. Meet the local community. “I think if you stay in an expat bubble, you’re just kind of refusing life,” she said. “If I did, I wouldn’t have been able to write Diplomatic Baggage. It would have been a boring book.”
Retired, not tired
As a journalist, there were times she couldn’t write certain stories. They were either too political or controversial and it left her rather cross, a feeling that’s all too familiar. Thankfully, some of those stories ended up in her books instead. AW’s retirement brought freedom and even another set of stories.
Age and even a stroke five years ago that made her lose her speech temporarily (“My husband was so relieved.”) won’t slow her down. She’s planning a podcast on ’60s fashion as one of its last witnesses. Diplomatic Baggage is getting republished in 2022 by Bloomsbury and she’s currently working on a new introduction. “I’m also trying to write a funny book about getting old but there’s not a lot of funny things about it,” she quipped.
Diplomatic Baggage is a book I often go back to whenever I’m questioning my life as a diplomatic spouse. It’s a feeling that tends to ebb and flow when things get tough, usually in the middle of packing up a home, hauling my numerous possessions, and hugging people goodbye. It’s a book I’ve recommended to one too many diplomatic spouse friends and I’m glad it’s getting another go at the printers’. It’s a reminder of how this life we choose can be tough and we may never get much sympathy for it but it will always be worth it. Learning to laugh at yourself the way Brigid does always helps.
“I think I’ve had the most amazing, wonderful, thrilling life. I’m really glad I had mine,” Brigid said with a sincere, reassuring smile. There was nothing disappointing about meeting her at all.