Expat Wives: Meetings at the River’s Fork

by monagrrl, on Flickr

pic by monagrrl, on Flickr

I’ve been looking for jobs in D.C. for the past couple weeks, and I think my aunt is starting to get a little impatient with me. “What are you doing today?” she asks every day.

“The same thing I do every day, Aunty – Try to take over the world!”I announce proudly.

Well, I think about it but I don’t say that. I know I’d get a strange look (she’s just not the right Pinky for my Brain). So instead, I slouch and fiddle with my briefcase. “Going to Starbucks. To look for work on the internet. I’llbebacksoonseeyoulater!!!”

So the looking for work hasn’t been going too well, but my aunt is still trying to be kind. So a few weeks ago, she invited me to sit in on morning tea with the Foreign Service Wives, women whose husbands work in diplomacy positions around the world. This sounds swanky. The first thing I thought of was an old-school e.e. cummings poem:

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church’s protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things-
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps.   While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
….the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

But it turned out not quite like that, because there weren’t nearly as many Mrs.-N-and-Ambassador-D rumors as I was hoping to hear. What there was, though, was an enormous spread of food. When I stumbled downstairs in the morning, bleary-eyed, I saw bowls of chocolate-covered almonds, five types of cheese, bananas and plums in neat color-coordinated baskets, crackers and spinach artichoke dip, various tasty deserts, and five types of tea in mis-matched boxes.

It also turned out not quite like mr. cummings’ poem, because these women are not unbeautiful, nor are their minds entirely settled. An Israeli in a sweaterdress sauntered in and grabbed a cup of coffee, chatting about the challenges of acclimating to the American suburbs. A pretty blond timidly knocked at the door, slim but heavily wrapped in layer after concealing layer of designer clothes.

“Come in,” my aunt smiles, and Delicate Blond she slips into the kitchen for coffee, then hands a delicate cup to another set of delicate fingers belonging to the woman beside her. They talk about the best gyms in town, and are generally fit and well-dressed. They talk about their children, and it’s clear this is a major concern – how to move children from one continent to another to another in the midst of all the privileges of affluence and travails of bureaucracy, and still have them turn out the smartest and kindest and most normal and most successful adults possible.

The women sit at the table and a few pull out knitting and sewing, or paste handmade Italian paper together for some inspiring notes to a friend dying of cancer. I perch at the end of the table and watch them, and they look back at my little out-of-place self. I pop a chocolate almond in my mouth, and then another. The room periodically changes atmosphere as another foreign service wife wanders in – the substitute teacher, the mother of four. One woman sweeps in quite late, with carefully straight dark hair and enormous sparkling cat’s eye glasses on her face, the frames half as wide again as the lenses, and shining in the ambient sunlight. Cat’s Eye sits down at the center of the table, and knows all the right ecoles for your children when you get posted to Paris, and can list the pros and cons of the American school vs. the strict French schoolmarms, but she’s very, very worried about her son. “He’s VG,” she stage-whispers.

Everyone looks at her curiously – Shy Designer-Clothes Woman and Culture-Shocked Foreign Wife and My Child is Trying to Flunk School because He Doesn’t Want to Move Again Mother. None of us have a clue what she’s saying.

“What’s VG?” Open faced Kansas-type Woman asks. My first thought is that it’s a venereal disease, but I don’t say anything.

“Oh,” Cat’s Eye suddenly gets bashful. “It’s nothing.”

“No, what is it?” Everyone asks, pausing their hand-crafted notes and stichery and teacups to look at her.

“He’s just…” she sighs, “Very Gifted.”

“Ohh,” the women smile, adjusting their colorful designer purses. They understand. It’s hard having children in the Foreign Service.

“Do you think I can get an allowance for my child to attend math camp?” Cat’s Eye worriedly asks, and starts explaining his need for a two week $3000 advanced geometry camp in the Rockies.

Kansas Lady shakes her head. “No, you might be justified but they’ll never approve it.”

“Go ask the administrator at your post,” Blond Bob-Cut advises.

“Thank you!” Cat’s Eye says, and they all sip at their tea. Another woman talks about her children, and then another, and people hardly eat at all, except for me and one plump woman. I learn about the wonderful cooking classes you can take if you’re a diplomat’s wife posted in Paris, versus the dangesr of poisonous snakes and e.coli in those “hardship posts” in Africa. The quilting woman to my left tells me all about the best places in Vienna and how hard it is to find a good house, and how you can’t expect those Viennesse landlords to be friendly – they’re quite cross – and she would know.

“But how can I find work in Paris?” Bob-Cut worriedly asks. This is a big concern for some of the diplomats’ wives, who have to change countries every couple of years. They can’t build careers of their own, especially when half of their job is helping their children to move and change schools so frequently.

“I wouldn’t work,” Delicate Blond says, “It simply isn’t worth it when posted in Europe. There’s so much else to do.”

A big debate ensues over whether one ought to work, but it’s clear that these women have a lot in common. “It’s so good to see you,” they say to each other again and again, those little affirming gestures that one human gives to another. Like nomadic herders who meet at the river’s fork in late Spring, they enjoy the time to see familiar friends for a brief movement, before scattering again to the corners of the known world.

As Aunty lets the women out the door to return to their pretty red and blue sedans, our three-legged dog howls plaintively by her feet. I now know all about the best places to eat and hobnob in Paris, so perhaps tomorrow is the day I shall take over the world.

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