Travel the world
IN Diplomatic Baggage (2005), author Brigid Keenan recounted her life as a “trailing spouse”, following her diplomat husband to countries as varied as Nepal, Trinidad, Kazakhstan and Belgium, with trips back to Britain sandwiched in between these overseas postings.
Though she used the term numerous times in her previous book, it is not until Packing Up does Keenan define what trailing spouse means to her: “Someone saintly who sacrifices their own career in order to accompany someone else round the world while they do theirs.”
In Packing Up, Keenan continues where Diplomatic Baggage left off.
The last that we read about Keenan, she and husband AW were in Almaaty, about to leave the Kazakhstan capital for a new posting. As Packing Up opens, Keenan and AW find themselves back in Europe, with AW being offered a position in the European Commission office in Brussels.
With this new posting, Keenan divides her time among her homes in London and Somerset and Brussels. Not surprisingly, Keenan is left to sort out the living conditions in all three places, plan a wedding for youngest daughter Claudia, and provide emotional support to eldest daughter Hester who was due to give birth in the early part of the book.
It was while Keenan was navigating these familial tasks that she discovered she had breast cancer and had to undergo treatment. Despite her condition, Keenan never wallows, instead injecting humour into events like her weekly meetings with her doctor: “I asked if I should give up smoking and he said, ‘Certainly not.’ On the other hand he is stopping my HRT and giving me anti-oestrogen tablets so I will end up looking like a withered old man, I expect.”
From the hospital, Packing Up traces the (mis)adventures of Keenan organising Claudia’s wedding – complete with a Welsh choir and a missing wedding licence – and preparing for Hester’s delivery date. These are all told with Keenan’s usual sense of humour and wry observations.
Then the family receives news that AW may be posted to sunny and warm Malaysia – and it may well be his last posting before retirement. However, the two-year stint in Malaysia does not come to pass; instead AW is sent to Azerbaijan, where he has to set up an EU office in Baku.
Like Kazakhstan, Keenan is not so keen on Azerbaijan – not because of its geographical location but because she is suspicious of all the beautiful girls working in AW’s office. (“All girls in ex-Soviet countries are beautiful,” she writes.)
But this doesn’t stop Keenan from sharing the history of Azerbaijan, all told in careful detail, peppered with her observations and anecdotes of meeting influential and important Azerbaijanis.
It is also during their time in Azerbaijan that Keenan travels to Israel and Palestine to take part in literary festivals where she shares stories with writers such as Michael Palin and Roddy Doyle – and have several brushes with the Israeli military.
Towards the end of Packing Up, Keenan delves into AW facing the reality of retirement and the fear and challenges it brings. What will AW do to pass the time? More importantly, how can Keenan get through the day without AW getting under her feet?
While Diplomatic Baggage focused on Keenan’s adventures as a trailing spouse in 11 countries spread over 30 years, Packing Up sees Keenan contemplate her biggest challenges: resettling back home in Britain, having a retired husband, being a grandmother (by the end of the book, Keenan has four grandchildren), battling illnesses, and facing old age.
Like its predecessor, Packing Up is filled with laugh-out-loud moments, but unlike Diplomatic Baggage, Packing Up has a poignant undertone. If comparisons were to be made, Diplomatic Baggage showcased a young woman embarking on an adventure (career, romance, marriage, motherhood) that took her all over the world, while Packing Up shows a mature woman coming to terms with age and all the pains, aches and responsibilities that come with it.
Though Packing Up is a sequel, it can be read as a stand-alone book. Keenan’s simple writing style is readable and what few references there are to the past (especially to Kazakhstan) are mentioned in detail.
A recommended read, if only to allow your mind to wander to places in the world you know little about.