The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Sandra Aragona

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Sandra Aragona

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Summary: Sue loved Sandra Aragona's lightly-fictionalised autobiography of life as a diplomatic spouse. There was a lot that she wanted to ask about when Sandra popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 3 October 2017
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue loved Sandra Aragona's lightly-fictionalised autobiography of life as a diplomatic spouse. There was a lot that she wanted to ask about when Sandra popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Sandra Aragona: The image I prefer is that of the unknown reader who wrote on Amazon.com It's one of those books that annoys other people in the room, as you keep laughing and then interrupting them so you can read them bits. Or the wonderful lady fighting cancer who confessed she was reading it slowly because she saved it to cheer herself up each time she had to go back into hospital for another operation.

  • BB: After a career as a diplomatic wife, what inspired you to write Sorting the Priorities?

S.A.: To be honest, I was fed up with sundry other Wives Of moaning about the hardships of their peripatetic lives. Yes, it can be hard work at times (State Visits), tedious (sitting through interminable speeches in a language you don't understand), nerve-racking (having the Queen to dinner), heart-breaking (uprooting the entire family every few years), but it is also a highly privileged existence. So quit complaining and look for the comic side in each situation.

  • BB: Nigeria, Brussels, Moscow, London: it's probably not everybody's list of ideal holiday destinations, but they're exciting places. Which did you like best and why? And dare I be so undiplomatic as to ask if there's anywhere you wouldn't want to go back to?

S.A.: Spot the odd one out? Wrong. Nigeria, when you are young enough not to be thrown by the odd lack of creature comforts, is a highly rewarding experience. No electricity or water for days on end? I have had austere Ambassadors knocking on my door at all hours bearing soap and towel and begging to use my shower. Or turning up unannounced, (there were no telephones in the mid '70s in Lagos,) to ask for a sleep-over because the temperature in the Embassy had risen to boiling point in the absence of air conditioning. You make genuine, long-lasting friendships in conditions such as these. Climatically speaking Brussels was easier, of course, and the houses were beautiful, the woods glorious, the people kind and hospitable, the food wonderful. We stayed there for five whole years, time enough to put down roots. Not as Ambassador – we were still climbing up the ladder at that stage. And could I use this juncture to beg you, dear reader, to remember that Sorting the Priorities is a fictional autobiography? Before I get divorced? His Excellency and daughters were Not at All Amused when they first read it. Moscow was cold and given the option I prefer hot, but the real problem was the language. There is nothing more frustrating, when you are dying to bond with a new acquaintance, than waiting for an interpreter to translate your inane conversational gambits and then wait again, welcoming smile turning to rictus, for the carefully phrased replies. After two years of expressing myself in infinitives and sign language, London was a doddle, linguistically speaking. So, since you ask me to be undiplomatic, (or truthful as it is also called,) I have to admit it was really rather jolly to come back home after forty years abroad.

  • BB: The life sounds glamorous, but there's obviously a lot of drudgery involved when it comes to organising an event for however many people (most of whom you don't know) in what amounts to your own home. Did you ever long for an evening when you could share a bottle of wine in front of the television and let the world get on without you? What's the greatest life skill that being a diplomatic wife has given you?

S.A.: As for the hard work – yes. Especially in the early years when you can't afford a cook or a nanny unless you have private means. When the baby has a high temperature and the toddler a bad attack of Mummyitis and your Ambo calls you at 13.05 and asks you to fill in for an absentee wife at his lunch table. And you seriously need to wash your hair. Or when you have prepared a special dinner down to the last tiny detail for Somebody Important, instructed the waiter how to serve and in which order of precedence, and then spend the entire meal wiggling desperate fingers behind your back because he's decided to serve the Also Rans before the V.I.P.s and your husband's career is on the line because Somebody Important is going to be so mightily offended you risk being shipped back home cattle class.

Nights off were very rare, but it was the silence of reading a good book rather than yet more talking from a television that we yearned for when possible. A break from singing for one's supper. Though that must certainly qualify as a life skill, I guess. Never leaving a gap in the conversation and wherever possible never leaving a guest standing on their own in a corner admiring the paintings because they don't know anybody at the party.

  • BB: Ambassador's wives have to attend a lot of functions. Obviously you can't go in the same dress every time and new dresses are expensive. You probably built up a collection of multi-purpose outfits over the years, but as these functions usually involved eating rich food, how on earth did you manage not to go up a dress size and put the whole wardrobe in jeopardy?

S.A.: Armani suits and chain store tops. I swear by that combination, or something very like it. And a beagle. I defy anybody to put on weight with a beagle. They demand to be exercised and you ignore them at your own risk and that of the Embassy chair legs.

  • BB: When diplomats are moved their spouses and families have to up sticks and move too. Did you ever wish that you didn't have to go? Some children of diplomats can seem able to cope with anything that life throws at them, but did you ever feel that the disruption affected your children adversely? Did your and your husband's parents ever think that they didn't see enough of their grandchildren?

S.A.: May I cheat and quote a sentence from the book? Returning home at the end of a hard day in a new job, Sarah discovers her husband and daughters in a state of excitement because a new posting is in the offing. She is overwhelmed by the news:

What's it all got to do with us? We've only just got here. I only just finished unpacking. I've only just started to get on top of this job. Alex only just started to settle into school and make new friends. Francesca only just started a highly stressful course at Rome University. Beagle only just started to realise that a Roman dog's bark is worse than its bite. And you cannot pack a goldfish.

The daughters, to their everlasting credit, managed to grow into two amazingly normal, wonderful trilingual adults. According to where they spent their formative years, one still harbours a special affection for Africa, the other for Belgium. One now lives in Rome, the other in London. I feel sure they were scarred by the constant disruptions in their lives whilst growing up, but they have survived and managed to come to terms with the experience. It is true that they saw relatively little of their two (already widowed) grandmothers. The English one reacted to this deprivation with the traditional stiff upper lip. The Sicilian one was, let us say, a tad more demonstrative in her chagrin.

  • BB: When an ambassador arrives in a country he's immediately pulled into a complex network of diplomatic links. The spouse, on the other hand, can feel isolated. Do you think the job puts an undue stress on marriages? What were the first things you established when you move to a new country?

S.A.: I remember arriving in Lagos where white women at the time rarely drove their own cars. I lasted a week, staring blindly at the walls of a borrowed house with none of my own possessions. Then I went out and purchased a rickety old two-stroke Daihatsu and drove myself around, found a job translating for the French Embassy (shhh! Not strictly allowed) and learned how to play (badly) Polo. My glass was half full again. Gin and tonic, if you must know. In those days it was considered medicinal, you see, for the malaria. As for the stress on marriages, I believe that statistics show that a rather large proportion of the wives are exchanged for newer models in middle age, especially during postings to Russia. There is no competing with those cheek bones. But I hardly think this is exclusively applicable to the diplomatic spouse. Being a lover of the countryside yet condemned to living in capital cities, my priorities were mainly concerned with seeking out wide green spaces in which to escape whenever I had time to myself. Preferably accompanied by something four-legged. Oh, and supporting my husband to the best of my ability. Of course. Though fortunately he was more than capable of supporting himself most of the time.

  • BB: Given the time over again, would you do anything differently?

S.A.: Lots of things, so all in all it's a good job I didn't have the option. I would definitely have ruined his career!

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?

S.A.: I have been privileged to spend my life with a successful man who, despite being a Sicilian, permitted me to write this somewhat thinly disguised novel without being shocked, offended or issuing a total veto. I would love to be able to repay some of his patience with a small success of my own. Think J. K. Rowling followed rapidly by a whole comic T.V. series along the lines of Downton Abbey but in a diplomatic setting.

  • BB: I don't think that's a big ask at all, Sandra! What's next for Sandra Aragona?

S.A.: Well, if I can’t have the Downton Abbey option, I’ll just have to find an illustrator and a publisher for the next book. Watch this space!

  • BB: Oh, now you're spoiling us Madam Ambassadress (as the famous advert doesn't quite say!)

You can read more about Sandra Aragona here.

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