Old guards and newbies overseas

After reading the essay about my friend April [ April – one of the old guard gone ], someone said to me, “Well, you are part of the old guard now.” I instinctively said, “No,” then it took me some time to figure out why that was true. The answer is not so much an aspect of my behavior, but of the personality of expat women coming to the Middle East now. (It is of no use trying to explain to expat men how to behave. In over 25 years I have only met two expat men who could listen to and follow advice; it goes without saying that of course both have had long and illustrious careers.)

To explain this properly, I must speak of a woman I shall call May, who I met only a few times but she had an enormous effect on my life overseas. She was a ‘wife of’ at the first company I worked for. I met her by chance at company gathering when I had only been in country a few weeks. I didn’t know anyone and was standing alone examining the flowers in a large bouquet. She came and stood near me, so I smiled and said, “Such lovely Ranunculus.”

“Peonies,” she snapped.

“Ranunculus Asiaticus.”

She turned to me and asked, “Are you contradicting the wife of the CFO?”

I was so taken aback I could only say, “but a Ranunculus is a Ranunculus.”

“You are right, but it’s no good flaunting it. And don’t stand there looking at flowers, stand by the juice table and make small talk. GO!” This was said with such ferocity that I immediately walked over to the juice table and began inane conversations.

About a month later, she suddenly appeared at my desk. “The gardener! There’s a party this weekend private showing of a private garden. You must come. My chauffer will pick you up on Thursday in front of the apartment building at 10am. Don’t wear anything with flowers on it.” After she walked away, several colleagues came to ask what the venerable “wife of” had been doing at my office. When I told them, there was a hushed moment of respect.

I followed instructions and wore a beige skirt with a long pink tunic and low heels and was standing outside my apartment building at 9:45. Her chauffeur, Jackson, was already there and off we whisked to a huge villa on the outskirts of town. I wanted to look at the plants, planted in long regimental rows and trimmed into sad submission but forced myself to chit-chat with other guests.

Suddenly May loomed up next to me, “What do you think?”

“It’s hideous – so barren.”

“Exactly, we are leaving. Tell the hostess, there in the green dress, that it’s lovely and come to the front door.”

I followed her instructions, wondering at the amazing ability of people from the UK to get others to do exactly as they are told. Once her car pulled up (as I write this I realize I don’t remember what her husband looked like or if he was even there) and the chauffeur opened the rear passenger door, she said, “I am going with friends. Jackson will take you to a good cafe, then shopping, then to the plant souq, and then for a late lunch, then home. Don’t tip him.” Turning to him she said, “get her three packs of the special juice.” And that was that – he drove me where May had told him to go; I spent money and was deliriously happy to see nice, new places and have help hauling everything into the elevator.

A few weeks later, our team secretary asked me to her sister’s wedding and since I couldn’t think of anything to say at the moment, I agreed even though I didn’t like the secretary, nothing definite, she just seemed far too smiley.

I went back to my office and realized that I had no idea what to do, what to wear, how to behave, when to show up and when to leave and, worst of all, the party was at a hotel more than 1/2 hour’s drive away. I didn’t have a car, wasn’t sure of the directions and taking taxis alone was a little fraught. “Ask May,” I thought and being particularly brainless, I called up her husband’s secretary and asked if I could speak to May.

I was told that she often had coffee at 10am on Mondays in the office canteen, so at the appointed time, I trotted off and told her of my predicament.

“I will arrange it,” she said, “but you must have higher heels, and buy more gold and wear it.” This was said with that particular upper-class UK hiss. She spoke of gold not as ornament or talisman but as weapon. I went out with a couple of women that evening and bought two pairs of heels, two more gold bangles, a heavy gold link necklace and gold knot earrings.

A few days later I was summoned to husband’s office. May was sitting next to the secretary when I walked in wearing my new dark blue heels, long dark blue linen skirt with a faint purple and teal plaid, purple cashmere twin-set, pearls, new gold earrings and enough duty-free make-up and perfume to stop Hannibal’s elephants.

There was an envelope on the edge of the desk and as I walked in, it seemed the secretary reached for it and then stopped as they both examined me.

May said, “Good for office morale to support the secretaries. Jackson will pick you up at 5pm, take you to hotel, company will pay for the room and the assistants, who will come at 7pm. Make sure your face is clean but don’t wash your hair that day or the day before. Do not drink, do not dance. Jackson will tell you when he will pick you up and he will bring you home in the morning.” Then she got up and walked into her husband’s office.

The secretary waited until the door was closed, then said, “It’s not her sister, it’s her neighbor’s sister. Do not eat or drink anything at the party. Not even water. Bring a complete set of work clothes with you, even jewelry and perfume.”

I walked out and, leaning against the wall in the corridor, wrote all of that down and followed it to a T, which is a story for another day but for now I will simply say, Darling, that the people who come overseas now would never stand for such nonsense.

Newbies have their little phones and think they can ‘look up’ what they need to know – or since they have traveled to 24 countries, they are au fait. Or they have a local friend or they saw a movie or read an article. Sigh. They know, oh, all the things they know. They would never think to ask, much less follow the advice of someone who has lived in the place for 10 years. Newbies live in their little bubbles of yoga and that one café where you can meet locals, no guidance needed.

I tried to mentor one junior colleague years ago. She was quite clear she didn’t want to hear anything from me. After a year, she showed in my office asking for help and sent many e-mails trying to figure out what to do, but by then it was too late. To my dismay, she was gone within a few more months having made too many people angry with her insistence on acting in the way that she knew, she just knew, was right.

I gave one junior colleague a warning about her clothes and got told off in no uncertain terms. Then I watched as, a month later, she changed her entire wardrobe over within a week. When I warned a second one, she informed me that she came from a country known for its beautiful women so everyone expected her to dress well. Besides, she had bought the clothes in this country, so of course they were appropriate. I tried to explain that, yes, women wore such clothes in-country, but not in managerial positions of large international companies run by local men. She was snippy and condescending and within a month was wearing more conservative clothing than I do.

And Darling, in case you wonder how I remember such details, I have two words for you: Smythson Agenda. Since I was the mere tottest of tots, I have always had two – desk agenda and purse agenda. Once I started working, of course I had a second desk agenda at work. So when I decided to write this, I merely strolled to my bookcase and selected my agendas from that year, et voila. Please to note that I recommend recording all the details of one’s life with a Montblanc with lilac satin, dark lilac, bleu myosotis or murasaki-shikibu ink.

And as for “special juice,” people over a certain age who live in certain countries remember how certain cafés sold special juices in sealed to-go containers with the name of a fruit misspelled printed on the small, opaque containers: straVberry, oRange, waTermelon, manGo, Wwtermelon, Rwspberry, The cans held a triple-shot of vodka, rum, tequila and gin, and a not bad white wine and not hideous red wine. Very expensive and very worth it.