Cherry Denman: the Not so Outrageous Confessions of a Diplomat’s Wife

For many years, Cherry Denman has followed her British diplomat husband to his assignments in Libya, Cyprus, Hong Kong and China. Now she has written a pretty funny book about that experience. Diplomatic Incidents: The Memoirs Of An (Un) Diplomatic Wife, by Cherry Denman, is published by John Murray. Not yet available at but you may pre-order or visit Here is the book blurb from “The hilarious memoirs of an undiplomatic wife. This is Cherry Denman’s witty take on her life trailing husband Charlie round some of the most godforsaken outposts of the world. Illustrated by brilliantly funny cartoons of diplomatic life, this is a collection of clever and very funny tales of global misunderstanding.

Ms. Denman is fantastic storyteller and wrote a piece in the Daily Mail recently. Some excerpts below:

About that posting in China:

Once, during the deafening Chinese New Year celebrations, a stray firework smashed through the window of an absent colleague, and set the flat on fire. A fire engine arrived but the guards refused to allow it entry into the compound because the crew didn’t have a written invitation (‘The First Secretary of the British Embassy and his wife, Nigel and Amaryllis Boggis Rolfe, invite you to the burning of their flat at 21.30. Dress formal. RSVP’).

On another occasion, I came back to our flat to find two men sitting on the sofa. Above their heads the wall lights had been disconnected and wires poked out from two holes in the wall. When I asked what they were doing, they told me they were fixing the TV aerial. We did not have a TV but who was I to argue? If ever there was a fault in the flat, I complained to the wall and someone came to fix it.

A smelly problem is not always a persuasive excuse for the State Department’s Embassy Housing Board but perhaps that’s because you’ve never tried entertaining goats:

We finally persuaded the Embassy to move us upwind on the grounds that we could entertain goats or contacts, but not both.

Below are a few more zingers or words of wisdom however you like to take yours:

“Many years ago, in a moment of absentminded self-indulgence, I married a diplomat called Charlie. I still haven’t made up my mind whether this was a good move or not. I turned from a happy, stay-at-home children’s book illustrator into a chaotic nomad.”

“My brain seems to be permanently locked in a suitcase, my children are lost somewhere in transit and my husband might as well have ‘Heavy Baggage’ tattooed somewhere on his person.”

“Living abroad changes you – it marks you out. We don’t look right or sound the same.”

“When I fly back, it takes days for me to get back up to speed with my friends, who never know what I am talking about. I sometimes do not know what they are on about either.”

“It is altogether different making a home in a strange place, knowing that your happiness depends on you making it work. It is hard. It is exhilarating and I am gloriously bad at it.”

“What keeps me going are the crowds of homesick, wonderful women I have found wherever I have ended up. Each one is creating her own small version of her homeland around her and wearing it like a protective snail-shell, trying to make the puzzles of everyday a little easier to cope with.”

“The simple cry of ‘Does anyone know where to buy loo paper?’ can bond a group of women in seconds.”

“There is nothing more nauseating than someone who thinks it is all wonderful – especially on a morning when the sewers have backed up, the electricity has gone off and there is a guinea-pig-sized cockroach in your sink.”

“So pitch it right: miserable, but not too miserable; cheerful, but not too cheerful. In front of your husband, or Officially Recognised Partner (as the Foreign Office titles those not bound in holy matrimony), you must be as miserable as you possibly can because he is the one who brought you to this godforsaken hole.”

“Living abroad is very humbling. Being in someone else’s country is a great leveller, especially if you do not speak their language. While abroad I am, in effect, dumb and illiterate.”

“When you arrive in a new place, working out which things at the local market are fit for human consumption is a challenge. I always try things out on Charlie first – if it makes him nauseous or dizzy, I save it for dinner with the French.”

“So after 25 years as a Trailing Spouse, what, if anything, have I learnt? Firstly, that the world is smaller than I ever imagined. That every country has something they do uniquely well, but that nowhere has found all the answers. Take something from every place and allow it to change your life a little. Above all, expect the unexpected.”

You can read more here.  Over at the Daily Mail’s comment section you can see the lack of sympathy for diplomatic wives.  As if somehow, diplomatic spouses are nothing but free loaders. She was a children’s book illustrator before she went on this adventure.  I have yet to read the book, so I don’t know if she talked about career prospecting overseas.  Books like these are fun to read, of course.  Folks who went through similar experiences can laugh out loud at these.  Folks who never went through similar experience (a majority of one’s compariots) often do not get it. And often do not understand what life is like for spouses. Take the following comments:

“This allows your class to pretend that your hobbies – partying with top people, international travel, flitting around and being important and not working too hard – are paid for by the taxpayer.”

Ugh! Get that one to wear heels in a 4-hour reception you were arm-twisted to go, would you, please?

“Just be grateful you didn’t have to get a real job.”

You can get a haircut but can’t get a real job.  There are no real jobs out there, dude!

“How very British…get given opportunities to explore the world, new cultures, new perspectives…see how over 90% of the population live & learn…but still moan and groan about something ! Wasted opportunity on someone who is stuck in her ways.”

Psst! Not wasted opportunity.  She got a book out of it.  Wit and humor decidedly if written by an accompanying spouse gets known in Main Street as moaning and groaning. Nonetheless, I’m sure expat and diplomatic spouses would agree that the moaning and groaning and the ability to laugh is what saves your sanity overseas.  You don’t have to like everything about your international “adventures” but you certainly can laugh about it. The alternative is counting trees in  padded white wall rooms. 

The book is Diplomatic Incidents: The Memoirs Of An (Un) Diplomatic Wife. The author is Cherry Denman. Published by John Murray. Visit or order through Amazon.

US Mission Saudi Arabia: Consequences of One-Year Tours/Staffing Gaps

Third Saudi State (present day) (Saudi Arabia)Image via Wikipedia

State/OIG has released its inspection report of US Mission Saudi Arabia conducted last fall.  I should note that the inspection occurred between September to October 2009.  The new Ambassador James B. Smith assumed his assignment in Riyadh in August 2009 while his new DCM Susan L. Ziadeh assumed post in September.   Ambassador Smith succeeded Ford M. Fraker, a Bush political appointee who was posted as US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2007-2009. The “Executive Direction” section of this report is quite forward looking; and only talks about the current occupants of the Front Office. A quick review of the OIG website with documents going back to 2005 did not show any inspection report for US Mission Saudi Arabia in the last five years. It doesn’t mean, none was conducted, of course; only that no other report seems to be available to the public besides this one.

First off — here’s something interesting. In the five month gap when there was no ambassador in Riyadh, the chargé d’affaires position changed six times. Six times! The DCM normally would be chargé d’affaires, unless he/she also rotated out following the ambassador’s departure. I remember at one post, when the Ambassador and DCM were both gone, the chargé d’affaires position was “spread” around the section chiefs. So one week you have the Pol Counselor as top boss, the next couple weeks you have the Econ Counselor, another week you have the USAID director. And on and on it went. Supposedly to give those folks executive experience.  Or perhaps so they could put this in their EERs? Can you imagine the disruption of having a different boss every couple of weeks?

Mission Saudi Arabia struggled through a five-month transition between the departure of the previous Ambassador in April 2009 and the arrival of the current Ambassador in September. During that period, the chargé d’affaires position changed six times, rotating among the DCM, management counselor, and a when-actually-employed (WAE) retired ambassador. A number of employees commented in their OIG questionnaires that they felt a lack of front office direction and sometimes did not know who was in charge during that period.

Other issues prominently discussed in this report are the one-year tours and staffing gaps and its impact on the Mission. Excerpt below:

“Limiting tours of duty to one year has undermined the effectiveness of Mission Saudi Arabia and hampered its outreach.
[T]he OIG team found morale throughout the mission to be relatively good, with a few individual exceptions. Part of this may be owing to the fact that, given the policy until now of one-year tours, the large majority of staff members had recently arrived at the time of the inspection, and most had bonded well with each other. ELOs in particular were eager and enthusiastic about their jobs and the adventure of coming to Saudi Arabia to work.
Inexperienced ELOs serving in mid-level grade positions and extended vacancies characterize mission-wide staffing, hampering policy advocacy and program operations. Supervisors give serious attention to training ELOs, diverting their time from conducting regular operations. The transition from one-year to two-year tours should improve the officers’ ability to build and apply new skills and to cultivate relationships with Saudi contacts.
Officers have not implemented Departmental procedures on information sharing and document management, as is required by Foreign Affairs Manual (5 FAM 400) and the Foreign Affairs Handbook (5 FAH-1 H-300). Instead, officers retain material in personal email folders that are not accessible to colleagues when an offi cer is out of the office, away on leave, or departs from post. The exceptions are the consul general and office management specialist (OMS) in Jeddah, who maintain files correctly—a practice not extending to the Jeddah political-economic section. Reliance on individual email folders causes inefficiency in terms of time spent searching for information, the inaccessibility of model documents for inexperienced offi cers, and a loss of retrievable material for the Department and historians.
In 2009, the Department downgraded the mid-level officer position covering the banking and finance portfolio to an ELO-level position. A fi rst-tour offi cer will fill the position in summer 2010. Rank conscious Saudis are unlikely to work extensively with a first-tour ELO on sensitive banking and finance issues. This means that the counselor and the deputy will need to plan on devoting more of their time to banking and finance issues, in addition to the existing demands that already generate substantial overtime.
Recent turnover of Foreign Service staff in the information management section has resulted in only one person serving longer than four months. The embassy and consulates general have been one-year tours, and consequently items have been neglected. Two-year tours have just been implemented in the last year. The loss of corporate knowledge and continuity is apparent in the documentation.”

On the challenge of maintaining morale:

“Maintaining morale at Mission Saudi Arabia can be a challenge, in view of the security concerns, difficult climate, heavy office workload, limited recreational opportunities, and the highly conservative Saudi culture, in which norms are enforced by the religious police. It can be a particular challenge for women, since they are not allowed to drive or ride bicycles and—although not required by embassy regulations— they are expected, by Saudi culture, to wear a floor-length, black abaya whenever they go out in public.”

About those compensatory time for locally employed employees:

“For budgetary reasons, LE staff members often are required to work for compensatory time, in lieu of overtime. Current guidance from the Department’s Office of Human Resources/Overseas Employment (HR/OE) provides LE staff members with only eight pay periods in which to use compensatory time. The mission’s workload often prevents LE staff members from using their earned compensatory time in that short timeframe, and as a result, they lose it. This dilemma is not unique to Embassy Riyadh, and the Bureau of Human Resources (HR) is aware that it is a worldwide issue. HR currently is developing a global policy to allow LE staff 26 pay periods to use their earned compensatory time.”

On the overall challenge of US Mission Saudi Arabia:

Mission Saudi Arabia faces challenges that will tax its resources. These include supporting a large influx of personnel to support a joint U.S.-Saudi critical infrastructure protection program, meeting its target to double visa issuances, accommodating the return of families after several years in unaccompanied status, moving to the new housing and consulate compound in Jeddah, and locating property for and constructing a new housing and consulate compound in Dhahran.

Adherence to Saudi local practice has led Mission Saudi Arabia to run afoul of Equal Employment Opportunity precepts and complicates monitoring contractors’ compliance with their obligations regarding basic worker protections and freedom of movement.

You can read the whole thing here.

Related Item:
-03/31/10   Embassy Riyadh and Constituent Posts, Saudi Arabia (ISP-I-10-19A) March 2010  




FSN Invited to Ambassador’s Presentation of Credentials

The following is an excerpt from what an FSN in the Philippines posted in Facebook. Apparently, he was invited to the presentation of credentials by the new US ambassador to the Philippines at the presidential palace:

 US Embassy Philippines Facebook

“When I first learned that I was invited to attend Ambassador Thomas’s presentation of credentials, I was very excited and had to read the email many times to make sure it was correct. The Ambassador was only allowed to bring five people with his delegation for the ceremonial presentation of his credentials to Malacañan Palace and he wanted a locally employed staff member to attend. There are more or less 1,200 locally engaged staff under the Chief of Mission here at the Embassy Manila and being selected to represent the local employee community was a great honor.

At the initial planning meeting I did not pay much attention to the discussion and was more worried about what I would wear to such an important event. After this meeting, I called my wife and asked her if the dark suit I had in the closet since 1996 can still be used and if she could bring it to the laundry shop for rush cleaning. I have never been to Malacañan Palace and have never met a Philippine President in person, especially while accompanying the Ambassador with the rest of the delegation from the Embassy. Wow!
The ceremonial events, including the wreath laying at the Rizal monument, were amazing to say the least. It is not common that locally employed staff working at an Embassy be given an opportunity to join the Ambassador during the ceremonial presentation of their credentials to the Palace. I want to thank Ambassador Thomas and DCM Basset for giving me the opportunity to represent the local community at this important ceremony. Through this act of inviting me to the ceremony, I know firsthand that our new Ambassador is aware of the important role that locally employed staff have in the operations of U.S. Embassy and has a great respect for the services we all provide.”

Read the whole thing here.  View more photos from the Ambassador’s presentation of credentials ceremony here.