REVIEW: Posting a Diplomatic Bag by Jane Burner
This is the personal story of a diplomat’s wife which spans a thirty-five year period from the start of her husband’s career as the most junior member of an embassy’s staff ending many years later as an Ambassador.
This is told from the wife’s point of view, writing with insight and humour about the funny and not so funny situations that occurred during their postings from deeply, chillingly, communist Bulgaria to dangerous, unpredictable, West Africa and places in-between. This book should make you laugh but also dispel some of the myths that a diplomat’s life is one long round of glamour and privilege. This wife learnt along the way how to survive moving every two to five years, disbanding one home only to set up another in a new country, how to raise a family, manage servants , cultures and climates and to survive the ultimate horror of the All French Dinner Party….
Since I know almost nothing about diplomatic life in an embassy or consulate, I read the blurb for this book and thought I’d learn a thing or two. Since Jane Burner’s entry into this world started in 1969, some things have changed but I’ll bet the basics have remained the same. Oh, and I like how the national flags of the countries she and Alan were posted to are on the cover.
Luckily Jane doesn’t follow her parents’ example of not being nice to foreigners and preferring the people they like to be white, public school and above all British. Instead Jane and her beloved husband Alan are posted to Bulgaria and soon become acquainted with ZUM – a department store where one doesn’t buy anything, bugs – the listening devices and not the insects, queues – one joins them without knowing what is being sold and that the Queen’s Messenger brought precious letters from home in the diplomatic pouch. It is during their second time there that, after Chernobyl, they are asked to surreptitiously obtain some turf to be sent back to the UK for radioactive testing.
Things were slightly easier in their posting at Bonn, although the wives were assessed by the foreign office as were their husbands, and relaxed and easier during their years in Barbados. Sun, fun and lots of friends showing up for holiday vacations during the drear winter months in England. It is there that their youngest son Andrew is born with Alan shooed out of the hospital room while the cleaning lady leaning against the doorframe to her room could and did offer laboring Jane advice and cheering words.
A different world awaited in Lagos, Nigeria, a country that is almost overwhelming but where Jane and her husband were met with extraordinary hospitality and kindness, which was followed by five years posting in Munich where Jane again sees that no one does window boxes of flowers quite like the Germans. Alan’s final appointment, as ambassador to Senegal, is the culmination of years of service to Queen and country.
Jane is an amusing guide into a life that is at once fascinating as well as lonely, challenging while at the same time rewarding and filled with opportunities to meet and view new people and places. One definitely needs both the famous British Stiff Upper Lip as well as an easy going personality and to be able to roll with whatever life slings at one. Me, I think I’ll just enjoy reading about it. B