Claire, what do you consider as your role, non-institutional, as the wife of an Italian diplomat living abroad?
Head of the administration in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The role of an Italian diplomat’s wife is quite different according to the post, the position and the office of her husband. For example, when it is a multilateral post, that is to say an embassy to an international organization like the Italian Permanent Representation to the UE in Brussels, where my husband is working at the moment, her role is less important and visible than when it is a bilateral post (an embassy to another State or a consulate), because there are fewer social events, it is mainly office work.
In fact, a diplomat’s wife plays an important part in what we call the “representation” side of the work of her husband, which consists in attending cocktails, diners, and all sorts of events and also organizing them at home. Moreover, if her husband is the chief of the diplomatic representation, her work is even more fundamental.
But beyond these differences, I consider my role as very important for my husband, even if it is not formalized, but results from tradition. In fact, in my husband’s salary, there is an amount allocated for a spouse, but it is not linked with representation, since all the spouses (men and women) of Italian civil servants working abroad receive the same percentage, even if they do not have to carry on this activity. I think that like the other diplomat’s wives, I am very helpful to my husband, because since he works a lot, it would be very difficult for him to organize this side of his work. Besides, when we arrive in a new country, there are a lot things we have to deal with like looking for a house to rent and moving into it, taking care of a lot administrative formalities, etc. (in the Italian system you do not receive any support by the Administration for this kind of efforts. It takes time and energy which my husband does not have, because his time is taken by his work which is completely different every time he changes post. It really is a team effort.
In your experience, since you have met women from different cultures from all over the world who have followed their husbands abroad, can you see any differences or similarities between their experiences and yours?
Like a lot of women I have met since my husband became a diplomat 15 years ago I gave up the idea of a career, which I could have had in the French civil service, so that I could follow my husband. In fact, I have noticed that in almost all the cases of couples we have known with international careers (in very different fields like diplomacy, teaching, banking sector, international organizations, etc.) it is more often the woman who gives up her job, which is often as good as her husband’s, to follow him and raise the children.
Most of the women I have met are very skilled and had a very good job before marrying, but did not succeed in keeping it when they decided to start a family with a man with an international career. Besides very few managed to find a new job after spending a few years looking after their children, or if they did, the job was not equal to their skills and university degree. As far as I am concerned, I have found a good solution. After four years without working I passed an exam to work as an administrator in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so now I am an Italian civil servant, which enables me to be on leave when my husband is posting abroad and to work in the ministry when he comes back to Rome. Moreover I can apply for the vacant positions in the diplomatic representations abroad. So even if I do not work when we are abroad, unless I succeed in taking a vacant position, I have a job and I keep it. So at a psychological level it is really better than before. Of course I am sure that I would have got a better job and salary if I had stayed in France, but I am happy with my situation and quite fortunate in comparison with most of my female friends, who gave up their job and do not work at the moment. Needless to say, it was my husband who encouraged me to follow this path since I had not considered participating in the competition which was organized, a few years ago, for the appointment I currently hold.
Claire, how do you feel every time you move to a new country, leaving behind your family and friends dear to you?
In my opinion it is the most difficult part of my life. Of course, there are a lot of “material” problems related to the moving, but as far as I am concerned I am used to dealing with them. On the other hand, the human aspect is far more difficult to cope with and the loneliness is quite present in our life. When my husband and I arrive in a new place, we do not know anybody; our family is far away, so we need to create a “family” of friends and acquaintances. For me it is a matter of mental survival. The problem is that we have to do it quickly because we never stay more than four years in a place knowing that in a short time we will have to leave all the people to whom we have become attached. As you can imagine it is not easy at all, and it is even more difficult if you have children, because they do not understand it. As a matter of fact it is always when we really feel integrated in a place and we have reached a good balance, that we have to leave. This is a really bad moment, because we are overwhelmed by a feeling of loss, especially if the country we leave is far away and we know it will not be so easy to keep in touch with our friends.
A positive aspect of our life in Brussels is that we have met again a lot of friends/acquaintances we had not seen for a long time, since it is a city where a lot of people want to work because of the presence of the European institutions. But this possibility is quite exceptional. To sum up, I would say it is like I have the impression I have lived very different lives with very few things in common: my husband and my furniture. It is a very strange feeling: sometimes I wonder if I really lived in such-and-such a country.
What do you consider as being your most wonderful mission abroad in the role of a diplomatic wife?
As a first posting, my husband was appointed as Italian Consul in Perth (Western Australia) from 2000 until 2003. In the spring of 2003 (the autumn in the south hemisphere) we received the visit of the most beautiful ship in the world, the 1930s Italian training vessel “Amerigo Vespucci”, which is the pride of the Italian Navy and an ambassador for our country. It was doing its first and last tour all over the world with a two-week stop in Perth. These two weeks have been the most wonderful and incredible experience so far in my role of diplomat’s spouse abroad. In Perth, there are a lot of sailing clubs and people owning their own boat. So to celebrate the arrival of the Amerigo Vespucci (it was coming from the Australian south-eastern coast, a very harsh trip below Australia for an old vessel because of the conditions at sea), my husband mobilized the whole Italian community of Perth and also many Australian people.
As a consequence, there were almost hundred boats welcoming the Amerigo Vespucci (my husband and I were on one of them) and I can assure you that the sight of all these boats on the sea was magnificent.
The 1930s Italian training vessel “Amerigo Vespucci reaches Perth, Australia
The crew of the Amerigo Vespucci really appreciated it and told us that it had been the best welcome they had received during their tour.
The two weeks of its stay in the harbor of Fremantle (Perth) were incredible. As the highest representatives of the Italian Government in Perth, my husband and I got a lot of honors from the captain and the crew. Every time we got on board on the ship, we were saluted by the sailors and it was very impressive because we were rather young. We were lucky, because we got the privilege to be invited to he private headquarters
of the captain, where we had dinner and danced and we attended several receptions on the boat. The cuisine was fantastic. I remember that in Australia it was impossible to find Italian cheese, ham, etc. because it was, and still is, forbidden to import them. But the Amerigo Vespucci had real Parma harm on board and they were allowed to serve it on board: what a treat!
To help the young sailors recover, the captain decided to host a disco party on board. Through my husband we contacted a few Italian people, who worked in the fashion world and knew a lot of Italian and Australian girls. They danced all night on the ship and we assisted the beginning of several romances. When the ship cast off the moorings and left Perth, there were a few crying girls on the quay of Fremantle’s harbor.
What are your views on this lifestyle and what are the pros and cons of your role?
It is a lifestyle that a lot of people do not really know, and as a consequence tend to idealize. But from my point of view, it is not easy. As I explained before, every two to four years, we have to change country which implies a big change in our life. We have to get used to a new culture, a new language, new working conditions and we need to live amongst new people. We have to start a lot of things from the beginning. We feel that we do not belong anywhere and we are disconnected from our native countries, a bit like stateless people. I already talked about the human aspects, which are the most difficult part of the “job”, especially if there are children involved.
But beyond the human side, there are also a lot of “material” aspects, which can jeopardize the solidity of the couple’s relationship. I read that moving is one of the biggest cause of friction and quarreling in a couple, so if you think we have to move every two-four years to places where we usually have never been and that can be very complicated because there are a lot of problems to solve, you can imagine the pressure that is put on the relation of the couple, which needs to be very strong to resist that pressure. If you add the eventual frustrations of the woman who had to give up her career, and in some cases has to raise her children alone, because her husband works a lot, you can understand why there are so many separated couples in this career.
Furthermore the representative role of a diplomat can be overwhelming. In fact, the border between his private life and his professional life is tiny, especially if he is the head of the diplomatic mission (ambassador or consul), because he has to attend many events or to organize them. Contrary to what a lot of people think, this is not fun, but work and can become a burden. For all these reasons, it is really important to find a good balance inside the relationship of the couple, because at the end it is team work.
Of course, there are also a lot of pros in this life. The fact that we change country and work very often can be a positive aspect, if we did not like the life we were leading. There are a lot of people, who are stuck in a life and a job they do not like and do not have any possibility of changing it. In our case, we know that if we do not feel well in a place, it won’t be the rest of our lives Of course the other side of the coin is that when we adapt really well to a place, we know we do not have the possibility to stay. Moreover we can learn foreign languages, discover a lot of different cultures and people in a deeper way than being a tourist,, even if it is never possible to do it thoroughly. This lifestyle opens our mind and changes our way of thinking and seeing life and the world.
Claire Villaume was born in 1976 in a small village in Lorraine, in the north east of France, close to Luxembourg and Belgium. She studied at Sciences Po in Strasbourg, where in 1995 she met her future husband who was an Erasmus student. In 1996-1997 she studied one year at the University LUISS in Rome as an Erasmus student.
At the end of 1997, her future husband became a diplomat, so after taking her high degree in 1998 she decided to live in Rome with him.
From 1998 to 2000 she worked in a small publishing house in Rome. 2000-2003: first posting abroad: the Italian Consulate in Perth (Western Australia). 2003-2006: second posting: deputy Head of Mission in Luxembourg. End of 2005: she passed an exam to become an administrative accountant in the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. 2006-2010: she worked in the Ministry in Rome. On leave since September of 2010: third posting in Brussels.
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.