Sunday, June 16, 2024

The women in our lives

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Diplomat Magazine
Diplomat Magazine
DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE “For diplomats, by diplomats” Reaching out the world from the European Union First diplomatic publication based in The Netherlands. Founded by members of the diplomatic corps on June 19th, 2013. "Diplomat Magazine is inspiring diplomats, civil servants and academics to contribute to a free flow of ideas through an extremely rich diplomatic life, full of exclusive events and cultural exchanges, as well as by exposing profound ideas and political debates in our printed and online editions." Dr. Mayelinne De Lara, Publisher

By Alexandra Paucescu

Ever since I started this ‘Interview series’ I was constantly captivated by all the life stories that I discoved behind the ‘diplomatic spouse’ generic title that we bare.

Manuela Caramujo is my latest ‘discovery’ and she is certainly a woman that we all have a lot to learn from.

Born in a small village in Portugal, she says she has moved all her life. First for high school and college, later for her career and ultimately, for love. She is an International Relations graduate and also has a Master’s in International Politics. She worked for 5 years at the European Parliament in Brussels and had several other jobs along her life.

‘I think the job I liked the most was as a journalist, although I also love organizing events, especially international conferences, that’s what I have been doing these last years. But I have done quite a few different things in my life.’

After she met her husband in college, they got married and started moving abroad, as he is a Portuguese diplomat. For a few years at a time, they called Kinshasa, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and then Brussels ‘HOME’ and are now preparing for another adventure, to Hamburg in Germany.

‘I always tried to make the most out of all the countries we lived in. Even though Kinshasa was a difficult city (the country was in the middle of an armed conflict, food shortages were common, and the health care services were poor), we met wonderful people that we will always cherish.  I think the fact of being, for the first time in my adult life, without a job and the feeling of dependence (financial and emotional) were quite difficult to accept at the beginning. Fortunately our first baby arrived and I started having other concerns. However, it was a time when I matured a lot as a person, I learned a lot about myself and I became aware of what life was giving me.

Mexico City was great! I worked pro-bono as Cultural and Press attaché at the Embassy, until my daughter was born. I was very proud of showing Portuguese culture to Mexican people. Everywhere I go I am always proud of being Portuguese, of our culture, the way we opened to other cultures and brought them to Europe.

Returning to Lisbon in 2006 was quite difficult. Our friends had changed, the country, the city had changed and, most importantly, I was a different person from the one who had left 6 years ago. Trying to fit in a place that was supposed to be my home was complicated. It was during that time that I joined the Portuguese Diplomatic Families Association, and eventually served as their president (2009-2010 and from 2022 on). I will always be grateful to the colleagues I met there, from different generations, and sometimes with different mother tongues.

In 2010 we moved to Buenos Aires and yes, we learned how to dance the Tango! How I enjoyed our Friday night classes! We loved Argentina! In fact, I think we love Latin America, because of the warmth of the people, the food, the natural beauties of the countries and also ancient history. From Argentina we moved to Brussels, a quite well-known city to me, so I felt quickly at home. Even my kids would say that, from all the cities they have lived in, Brussels is the one where they see themselves living again one day. But, from all the places I have lived so far, HOME is truely the small village where I was born and where I have my roots.

When in Buenos Aires, I enrolled in a Gastronomic School and I created a small events company, organizing kids’ parties and catering for cocktails and small corporate events. But what I enjoyed the most was giving cooking classes. I had three groups of “students”: the “mini-chefs”, the “ado-chefs” and the “cuisine pour épater”, mostly for expats. I always ended up giving classes in at least four different languages. These classes were culturally very rich and, in a world such as the diplomatic world, where loneliness and mental health can be a problem, people were excited to come to my house, to meet and talk and make new friends (not always so anxious to cook, though).

Manuela and family

Everywhere I lived, I always tried to do some ‘social work’, I always enrolled in the diplomatic associations, parents associations, etc. Bringing people together is one of my passions and something that I know I do well, despite of the educational or cultural differences. People do not like to talk about it but there is a lot of depression and mental health issues among diplomatic spouses. Putting people of different origins together and working for a common goal, raising funds for local NGOs , may seem superficial to some, but it is very important not only for the associations, but also for us, as we feel useful and valued.’

Manuela mentions that she believes that there is no other career that has such an impact in a spouse´s life and professional career. ‘Our constant changes make it almost impossible to maintain a stable professional career. And when we return to the country of origin we are so far behind that we can hardly find a job, although we all have very highly-educated profiles and life experiences that could enrich and benefit any company. That’s why so many spouses, nowadays, choose not to accompany their partners abroad, splitting the families, sometimes with dramatic consequences. On the other hand, we do a lot of work representing our countries, side by side with the diplomats whom we share our lives with, but almost nobody recognizes it, especially our countries authorities. A friend of mine uses this expression: ‘the Ministry gets 2 for the price of 1.’ I am grateful for my husband that always made me feel part of his role of representation of Portugal. He always acknowledged all the work I have done to support him and his diplomatic work.’

Manuela continues: ‘I think there’s a lot of depression among diplomatic spouses. People leave their job, lose their financial independence, leave their loved ones, their sometimes large families behind, and rely in only one person. It can be overwhelming. It requires a great amount of maturity, self-confidence, love and understanding from both partners to overcome these situations. Meanwhile, when it comes to our children, we all tend to see only the best part, that our kids are multilingual, open-minded to different cultures and people, but such changes, moving often, especially when there are very young, can be very stressful. Families must be aware of these situations; children need all the support possible.’

Divorce is also uniquely challenging for diplomatic spouses and often, a taboo. ‘If things go wrong and a divorce occurs, spouses are completely dependent on the diplomat’s good-will. And we all know very well that in a divorce, good-will, unfortunately, not always prevails. In the majority of countries, a diplomatic spouse doesn’t have a bank account, a house, a car, in hers/his name. If the divorce occurs while abroad, the situation is even more complicated as the Foreign Ministry does not repatriate spouses or their belongings. When minor children are involved and the spouse has a different nationality, I have seen situations where the parent who has to leave is prevented from seeing the children. Unfortunately people do not talk about it, nor about domestic violence for which, when it occurs on foreign postings, police cannot intervene, and situations can become dramatic.’

She is a strong minded woman who is determined to militate for the well-being and support of other fellow spouses, to know their stories and to improve their status according to 21st century needs and realities.

‘In EUFASA, the European Union Foreign Affairs Spouses/Families Association, we have worked a lot about these subjects. Our Research Department (ERD) recently published a study called “Dependency and divorce/separation in the Foreign Service: experiences, consequences, and recommendations”. This study highlights how partners’ and spouses’ limited work opportunities and legal status and the resulting dependence on the diplomat make it difficult to afford legal counsel, get a fair settlement, find help in cases of abuse, gain custody of minor children when abroad, and to support themselves after divorce/separation.’

‘At my first EUFASA annual conference in Madrid, in 2009, we also presented a study about the challenges of coming back home, with a practical guide for spouses and kids to prepare the return to the home country. In Lisbon, me and my colleague Veronika Arsénio (who is still today my Eufasa partner) transformed that study into a booklet that we called “Partir para regressar” (Go away to come back), with practical information and tips to our Portuguese families. I am very proud of that work. In 2018, the Conference took place in Tallinn. That year, “work and employment” of spouses was the big topic of discussion, but “mental health” issues were also gaining visibility. For the last 3 years, as Portugal’s representative, I have been co-chairing the working group “Children”. We produced a booklet about “Tips for the international transfer process for Foreign Service families with children with disabilities and different needs”, prepared a study about “diplomatic children mental health” and gave voice to our kids by presenting testimonials about “multilingualism/identity”. Already in 2020, Eufasa had produced a “Third Cultural Kids – Handbook” with tips for our nomadic families.’

Manuela is a woman of action. She makes things happen and is eagerly learning new things each day. She loves reading and travelling but her great passions are people and cultural diversity. She tells me she loves meeting new people and learning something from everyone. Each woman she meets throughout her diplomatic journey has a unique story to tell.

‘One of my future projects is to write a book: ‘The women of my life’, as I had the chance to meet so many fascinating women along the way… and I am still in the first part of my journey.’

Indeed, the adventure is just at the beginning. Cheers to new exciting times and captivating stories of the women around us!

About the author:

Alexandra Paucescu

Alexandra Paucescu- Author of “Just a Diplomatic Spouse” Romanian, management graduate with a Master in business, cultural diplomacy and international relations studies.

She speaks Romanian, English, French, German and Italian,  gives lectures on intercultural communication and is an active NGO volunteer.

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