After 15 years of overseas postings for the FCO, Alistair Harrison returned home last autumn. He is now permanently based in the UK as Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps. His wife, Sarah, looks back at a migratory life overseas.
It takes special skill to be a diplomat. Understanding the complex historical, political and economic issues that underpin any bilateral or multilateral relationship is crucial. Influencing contacts to get to the heart of the matter takes years to hone to perfection. But the real skill is in the leaving – regularly ending one life to begin a new one elsewhere. I’m not a diplomat, but have been married to one for 18 years, and it also takes special skill to be a diplomat’s spouse. I’ve left five postings and undergone ten country moves – no matter how many times you do it, it doesn’t get any easier.
We returned to the UK last summer. After seven years of tropical living in Africa and the Caribbean, together with periods in New York, Poland and Brussels, it was always going to be a shock to return to the UK, a country we didn’t see as home after 15 years abroad. As winter’s grip tightened, the days shortened and I struggled with a recalcitrant boiler in a draughty house, I tried not to think of friends on the Caribbean island we’d just left, sitting on a white sand beach drinking rum punches. And so began the process of folding wings, of settling back home.
It usually takes me about eight months from arrival in a new post to feeling settled, to stop looking back at the life I left behind. The brain takes a while to adjust and those visual prompts linger. When we returned to England after our posting to Zambia, I couldn’t pass a lake or river without automatically scanning the surface, trying to spot emerging hippo heads. And recently, before I could stop myself, my hand raised itself in a wave to the driver of a turquoise jeep. I thought it was a friend’s car on the Caribbean island I’d left two months before.
Humans are creatures of habit, and moving house, let alone country, presents stress and disruptions on a number of levels. Stress can, of course, cause premature ageing, and even symptoms including hair and short-term memory loss.
I’ve lost a few hairs on all of our moves. Our journey to our Caribbean posting was fraught with delays. Finally touching down at 3am our body time, cross-eyed with exhaustion, we were greeted by a posse of journalists and government Ministers. My husband then had to deliver his first press conference. Someone asked: “What is your first impression of our island?” to which he replied, “the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people.” Our nine-year-old daughter then rejoined, “But Daddy, that’s what you said about Africa!”
Starting a new life meant that we didn’t travel light. This had been relayed to the officials meeting us. They took the only course of action open to them and laid on the island’s sole fire engine to transport our 11 suitcases to the house. We were thankful there wasn’t a fire that evening.
But as stressful as moving is, life overseas has been wonderful, a bipolar existence of the highs of new friends, places and experiences to counter the lows of packing up and moving on.
Sometimes diplomacy gets in the way of family life. We hosted many official visitors over the years. On one occasion, our son became seriously ill just before a two day visit from a senior Minister from the Foreign Office. On the day of the Minister’s arrival, our son was hospitalised. We had given the Minister our bedroom as it was more comfortable than the guest bedroom. After several broken nights with my son, together with the stress of having a government Minister to stay, I was quite tired. After we’d hosted a dinner for 50, the Minister retired for the night and I swiftly followed. I mounted the stairs on autopilot to our bedroom, remembering just in time that for this night it was not my bedroom, but the Minister’s. Headlines in the press loomed large.
Official duties presented an insight into local life. But sometimes official systems backfire and there are consequences. One Saturday, some friends took the children off our hands, and a relaxed morning beckoned. I dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and we drove off to visit our favourite gallery, passing on the way a plantation house, which hosted various events. A sign outside announced that the annual flower and garden show was being held. Puzzled, I asked my husband “Weren’t you opening the flower show this morning?” A screeching of brakes followed. After a swift U-turn, we hurtled into the car park, attempting a nonchalant stroll into the marquee, as if the Governor had always meant to be ten minutes late. Feeling conspicuous in my inappropriate outfit, I took my seat in the front row, next to the great and good of the island – Speaker of the House in an elegant white linen trouser suit, government ministers in jackets and ties and church leaders soberly attired.
After prayers, speeches and award presentations, the crowd were invited to view the displays on show. As we mingled, we heard an announcement over the public address system: “would the driver of the car with the licence plate ‘governor’ please move it, as you’re blocking the car park.” Which just goes to show, you’re never too important for a public reprimand.
A VIP visit is always an exciting event in life overseas. Whilst in Zambia, a high-ranking visitor came to stay for a packed programme culminating in the Queen’s Birthday Party celebration, which saw 200 important guests mingling on the lawn at the front of the Residence. Whilst checking that all was going well, to my horror I noticed sparks and small flames creeping up the wall outside the lounge, above which was a thatched roof. Thanks to swift emergency electrical work, no harm was done. It could easily have been a different story.
What do I have after 15 years overseas? I have a collection of amazing friends scattered around the globe, who have been a crucial support when far from home. I have a collection of recipes that transport me to a beachside bar or a safari lodge, remembering where I first tasted them. I have a collection of exotic photos on my hard drive. I have children that, after three years in Africa, think nothing of carrying a heavy burden on their head. Children who can also switch, mid-sentence, between a South African patois to a Caribbean lilt, before reverting back to standard English. I also have an inbuilt alarm clock that tells me, every three years, that it’s time to move on. Except now it isn’t. It’s time to stay put.
Life overseas, as I’d been advised some years earlier, would be interesting and challenging. The key to survival was to expect the unexpected and to maintain a sense of humour. While senses of humour were occasionally stretched to breaking point, and the unexpected was a frequent guest in our lives, we considered ourselves extremely lucky to be given the chance to sample a different world abroad, to meet people from all walks of life, whose paths we would not ordinarily have crossed.
While gardening with my son recently, we repotted seedlings that we’d planted earlier. Some came out easily. Others, despite only having two leaves, clung on desperately – their roots had taken strong hold around the base. We winkled them out, breaking some roots in the process, transferring them all to bigger pots to give them room to flourish. Sometimes my roots have had to be snapped painfully in order to transplant me somewhere new. Given time, I’ve flourished, and I’m hoping I can again now, in my new, permanent, English pot.