Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Tips for Trailing Spouses

Excess baggage: 4.7 kilos; time spent in official line at immigration: 22 seconds; Duty Free; fags: 400 Benson and Hedges; booze: malt whiskey (three litres); cosmetics: X2 Clarins Super Moisture Gel ($22 each!) Run to gate (late again!) turn left in aircraft (business class), fasten seat belt, pop Xanax, read latest edition of The Economist and try to look intellectual on the flight back to London.  

A trailing spouse must trail, trek and travel. Globetrotting is good for the image. It makes you exotic and your friends jealous. But flying is expensive, right? Not necessarily.

When posted to the Kingdom of Thailand with the Department for International Development in 2003, we were given two British Airways business class tickets. You trade in the BA tickets for a cheaper business class flight (in our case Quantas). The remaining funds are put into an account, which you can draw from to pay for future travel in the region. When you are issued tickets for annual home leave, you repeat procedure and top up the account. If you are canny you can build up a travel pot worthy of Alan Whicker

Unlike many UK diplomats and their spouses -who developed an addiction to flying business for leisure- we always flew economy to benefit as much as we could from this welcome perk. With our fund we managed to jet around the region with trips to Hong Kong (merchant bankers galore!) Cambodia (trop French neo-colonials pour moi) Vietnam (“you call it the American War?”) and the USA (just in time to see Senator John Kerry reporting for duty). 

With official status you didn’t have to worry about immigration lines. And it was great getting bad looks from business travellers gridlocked in the non-official queue. But the worm was soon to turn. When my wife moved to the non-profit sector, we lost our official status and home leave came with economy tickets. We would often see embassy spouses on the same plane to London. I once caught the eye of the wife of a senior DFID official. She looked at me with pity as we turned right and filed to the back of the aircraft with the bucket and spade brigade.

Economy or business, a plane’s a plane, and it’s best to be up in the wild blue yonder where the air is less austere. Champagne makes the turbulence less bumpy when you are in business but I do not mind economy. Not even when my legs go to sleep and I have to do yoga in the aisle.

Going to and from the homeland you often see your old counterparts. The last time I spotted a diplomatic spouse in the wild was at the HMV shop in Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport. As I queued up to buy the DVD box set of 1970s BBC war serial Colditz, there she was, the female of the trailing species, travelling in peach, like a character from the 1980s BBC soap opera Howards’ Way

She was an FCO spouse, returning from home leave. And going to a lot of childish effort to get herself noticed, rattling her official passport at the lad behind the counter.  

“I’m in a hurry,” she said. “I am not a member of the public, I’m a diplomat. I’ve got a plane to catch.”

“I only need to see your boarding card, missus,” said the lad with a belligerent wink, “you don’t need to show me your passport.”

Identifying yourself in public is bad form. It makes you a target. And your status -out and about or in transit- should always be need-to-know. The wife of an FCO staffer is a soft target for a politically motivated honey trap.  But being a diplomat is part of her social identity. And an airport is one of the few places in the world where she can show off her official status and get away with it.

Male, female, diplomatic or civilian, a trailing spouse is a migratory bird. We can be seen at airports, stocking up in Duty Free on booze, fags, cosmetics, shortbread and all the other needful things we can’t do without in a foreign land.

But that’s just the carry on, sweeties. The bag in the hold, loaded with contraband, is the one that counts when returning to post. The trailing spouse, if he or she has any sense, usually has it stocked up with essentials from the homeland. In my case Marmite, Lemsip, Earl Grey tea and…cheese.

Smuggling cheese from the UK to Thailand requires some explanation.
When I say “cheese,” this is not code for a snap bag of skunk. I am referring to the holy trinity of fromage anglais: Wensleydale, Cheshire and Lancashire.

You pack your cheese in the hold. As that part of the aircraft is not heated it arrives half frozen at destination (this brilliant method of trafficking came from a cheddar addict in the Defence Section).  

Padding the cheese in the hold is your new wardrobe. Home leave is a good opportunity to upgrade your look. Apart from an honest to God cup of tea, London is the best for fashion. So I always leave plenty of space in the kitbag for the latest garms.  And lest we forget entertainment: beaucoup DVDs of ye olde English shows (Jason King, Porridge, The Sandbaggers and The Children of the Stones) coz foreign telly is muck.  

The last great thing about frequent travel is the opportunity to stock up your booze cabinet. Because imported wine in Bangkok, by and large, was rancid rubbish, I often bought champers and plonk on the red-eye from Heathrow. Going over the limit with your Duty Free on fags and booze is OK when you go through the official line and have a diplomatic passport or UN Laissez-Passer. You wave that on the green line and Thai customs men won’t bother you. But the rule of thumb is double the non-official allowance (not counting the booze and fags and cheese you got stashed in the hold).   

Our flat in Bangkok was never dry of good whiskey.  An HMG mandarin was much impressed by the Chinese drinks cabinet when he visited HQ in November 2006.

“Hey, you got Johnny Walker Blue Label whiskey, that’s $200 a bottle!”

Liquor loosens lips. After a few drams he slouched back on the rattan
armchair and opened up about the pros and cons of funding a
European Union plan to buy up illegally sourced timber in the region and flog it on the market.

“Don’t tell him,” shouted his wife, “he’s a journalist!”

She went on to complain about the green curtains in my flat and wanted to leave.

“Hey,” he said, shaking the tumbler of whiskey, “this-is-Johnny-Walker-Blue-Label-$200-a-bottle.”

In any case he was on a roll. And moaned at length about the journalist George Monbiot.

“That guy’s the enemy. Every time he writes about us in The
Guardian he makes trouble. And he’s clever. Too bloody clever by half.”

The man from HMG had little Latin and less Greek. I was moved to ask.

“Clever, you say? How so?”

“Yeah, he quotes poetry at you. That clever.”        
Diplomats. Never as smart as you think they should be.