By Alexandra Paucescu
I never met Brigid personally but I navigated along with her on the sometimes turbulent seas of her diplomatic life while I eagerly read her books (which unfortunately I only discovered two years ago). Sometimes I laughed at her funny stories or cried and thought about my own diplomatic existence and whether it was all worth it.
I imagined she was a woman full of life but also full of the wisdom that life offers you when you get to live in so many places and with such diverse experiences. It all proved right when I finally got to interview her. She is indeed a marvelous woman; with a great sense of humor and an innate talent for storytelling… it’s no wonder that her books have become best-sellers (Diplomatic baggage is even going to be republished this month, 17 years after its initial release).
Brigid Keenan was born in India from Irish parents. Her father was an officer in the British Army, so she spent her first 9 years of life among the spices and strong colors of India. ‘We left India in 1948, the year after Indian Independence and went back to England where I went to a convent. At 16 I spent 6 months at a Finishing School in Paris trying to learn French. I loved it because there was such an international group of girls…In my days… the 50s, girls didn’t often go to university’.
I read her lines and try to imagine the life back then, with the debutantes being presented to the Queen (a long time tradition), with women barely starting to gain their independence. Brigid was a strong minded and independent girl, so she already got her first secretarial job at 17. Only a year later, she got hired by Daily Express (a very successful paper at that time), as a fashion assistant. She recalls: ‘next, I went to the Sunday Times where I worked for the woman who did the young fashion section. She had to go home abruptly as she had a problem with her pregnancy and the editor asked me to fill in for her… After a few weeks I was given her job. It was WONDERFUL… IT WAS 1961, I WAS 21. All the new fashion was for my age group, I worked with photographers and models that later became famous: David Bailey, Terence Donovan, models like Jean Shrimpton and Celia Hammond… I was at the heart of the Swinging Sixties in London’.
But, as it happens with most of us, diplomatic spouses, she had to make the hardest choice of her life: to follow her career or her heart.
She confesses to me: ‘it was VERY hard to leave my career behind. I fell in love and failed to notice that my future husband was always working abroad. He was posted to Ethiopia only a month or so after we married. I found it very, very hard… I had ALWAYS worked and so I didn’t really know what to do with myself. Of course, I had writing skills but it is one thing being in a busy office and another being alone in a foreign country. Sometimes you could find a good story but not be allowed to write it…. I cried a lot’.
I saw myself into her words. So many times I felt lonely, sad and isolated. After reading ‘Diplomatic baggage’ a phrase stuck to my mind forever. Brigid wrote that every diplomatic spouse is afraid of ‘the first Monday’… So true… you move with hopes and fears, you drown yourself into unpacking and arranging the house and then, the first Monday comes… when the husband is at work , the children at school, the home is ready and an oppressive silence falls over the house. And then you start asking yourself: what do I do now? Is it all worth it? …
In fact, Brigid tells me, this is the question that triggered the idea of writing the book in the first place. A young diplomatic spouse, Cecilia (what a coincidence, Romanian like myself!) asked her that question and then Brigid ‘sat down to try and answer her question and ended up two years later having written a whole book about it’.
The book became a best-seller and had also a sequel, Packing Up, which I also very much enjoyed.
Brigid wrote Full Marks for Trying, a memoir of her time as a fashion editor in the 60’s, held a column about what people wear (‘Getting Dressed’) in The Oldie, a British magazine and is currently working on a new book, about aging. I admire her attitude towards life and her active nature. She seems that, despite all the troubles, she has found peace of mind. Living between UK and her summer house in the south of France, she is now looking back to her diplomatic years.
‘Having a family helped a lot, with children you don’t have time to worry about yourself. I think my daughters benefited from travelling the world, knowing how people live in other countries. It has made them open-minded and understanding, resourceful and unafraid. In those days, we didn’t have all the internet possibilities there are now. I missed my parents. My mother died while I was abroad. There were wonderful times as well….my happiness graph would be full of ups and downs. India was endlessly fascinating (and frustrating), Central Asia was beautiful and empty. I loved Syria best, it was so full of history and the people were so kind and nice. I ended up buying a little house in Damascus in order to restore it and show people what they could do, to help rescue the Old City which was crumbling. This was my own mission. I think the biggest plus of diplomatic life is the wonderful people you meet en route, local people as well as others of all nationalities, skills and interests. And I also loved living in places NOT as a tourist’. Interesting, that’s what I like most about it, too!
I couldn’t help but ask Brigid how she sees the diplomatic world today, compared to what she experienced.
‘I think the diplomatic community now is a completely different thing to how it was 30 years ago, all because of the improvement in communications. We had to think hard about making phone calls at the beginning of our life abroad. Now there are no such problems. I think I would have been much happier if it had been as easy in my day. I was always scared of flying which made all the moving around a bit scary. I am told that the British Foreign Office says these days that nothing is really expected of the spouses, but in my view supporting your partner as he does his job means you must take on entertaining and meeting people and getting out and about. I also think it is important to move outside the diplomatic bubble and meet the locals’.
And I think she met a lot of locals… as she lived in Ethiopia, Brussels, Trinidad, Barbados, India, Gambia, Syria, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan….
It is clear to me now that she was in fact the perfect woman ‘for the job’. Despite the bad days, she wrote at the end of her book: ‘When AW asked me to marry him he said “I can’t promise you will be rich, but I do promise you will never be bored”. Well, he certainly kept his promise. How can I possibly complain?’ (Diplomatic Baggage*)
*Diplomatic Baggage, Packing Up and Full Marks for Trying are all published by Bloomsbury and available on Amazon.
About the author:
She speaks Romanian, English, French, German and Italian, gives lectures on intercultural communication and is an active NGO volunteer.