Eight years went by since this interview was published, but Jean and I never lost contact. After a period in Ethiopia, Jean, a French accompanying man, and his wife Pilar (who was part of the Expatclic Hispanic team for a while) moved to Santiago, Chile, for four years. During that period I visited them twice, once on the birth of their splendid Carla, who is five years old today. After Chili, they went back to Spain, in Madrid, and today they live in Manila, The Philippines. Without ever losing his good mood, Jean has kept on following Pilar, enjoying the experiences, making new friends, trekking (his big passion) where possible, and working as a French teacher whenever he had the chance. I did not want to interview him again, but when I told him that we would talk about accompanying expat men, he allowed me to publish an article he wrote for a Spanish review for diplomats. We therefore propose you to read his original interview below, which is always relevant, and his article, where Jean talks at length about his feelings as a trailing spouse. Thanks a lot Jean, for everything.
Jean, a French accompanying man, left his work in France to follow his wife, Pilar, a Spanish national, in her diplomatic career. In this long interview, which was carried out between the end of their contract in Honduras, and the transfer to Ethiopia, Jean tells us what it means for him to be the accompanying man for his wife.
At the beginning…
What is your background, how did you meet Pilar, what did you do when you met, did you have professional projects, had she already decided to follow the diplomatic career?
To start with, and to avoid any strange suspicions, let me tell you that I met Pilar when she was only 17 years old. Therefore, at that time it was a bit difficult for me to imagine that my “destiny” would be to get to the diplomatic milieu. In fact, Pilar wanted to follow the diplomatic career, but it was only an ambition. As for me, my one and only objective, before an overseas post was offered to us, was to be able to live in Spain, a country I had been obsessed with since the age of 15.
Did you have to leave your work in the country you lived in? If so, what were the factors that led you to take this decision? How did you react when you knew that you had been chosen for an overseas post? And how did your families and your friends react?
It should be said that both during the application process and during the first year that Pilar spent at the Ministry, we were more or less undecided. However, from the beginning I wanted Pilar to be successful through the application process and thought very enthusiastically of the possibility of following her abroad. In spite of this, once faced with the fait accompli, I became a bit more reticent. I had created a good position for myself in the field of French teaching and I was totally satisfied, apart from the fact that I earned good money, almost as much as Pilar did at the time. Over the years, as an independent professional, I had built up my own client base and I couldn’t accept so easily the fact of having to give it all up suddenly.
Therefore, even though Pilar was a bit reticent, we decided to delay departure by a year. But at the last moment, while the Ministry was assigning the posts abroad, I changed my mind, also thanks to the constant pressure by Pilar’s work colleagues who convinced me of the fact that waiting for a year meant that the range of vacancies available overseas would be reduced. Everybody knew that I thought this situation was a good opportunity, even if I wanted to delay it by a year.
You are there…
Did you need a lot of time to adapt to being the partner who follows? How did you get organised? Did you look for work? Were you always happy with your decision, even if you didn’t find any? Did you meet any other men in your situation?
Our arrival in Honduras was a bit of a disappointment. I was stuck in a hotel, I didn’t know anybody, and Pilar was focused on her professional activities. But this was only a period of transition, which I am sure I will relive every time we move to a different country, as an accompanying man.
It was surely at that time that I felt very strongly the issues that my new situation forced me to face. How would I fill my days in a city as “unglamorous” as Tegucigalpa?
The first people I spoke to at post were not at all reassuring. They advised me to rent a house with a large garden in order to “keep busy”. Others were worried about the fact that I didn’t have any children because, I imagine, this also “keeps you busy”. Fortunately, right at the beginning, I managed to get into the French Cultural Centre, which gave me the possibility to carry on with my profession.
From this point of view I am very fortunate since France has an exceptional cultural network, both in terms of the Cultural Centres and the French schools. Unfortunately, the pay they offered me ($ 5 per hour) quickly unmotivated me, whilst I managed to occupy my free time in other ways.
After all, in general, these professional activities are so unrewarding, financially, that one could even consider them as an alternative to psychological treatment. For example, in Ethiopia, our next destination, I have the possibility to apply for a teaching post at the French High School, for which I would be paid $200 for full time work. Therefore I have no scruples in just following my interests and my training, devoting a year to University studies. In any case, I still give some private classes, which provides me with better money.
Relationships with people…
The most common situation is the woman who accompanies her husband or her partner overseas. How do people around you (both locals and foreigners) see you? How do people react when you say that you are in this country following your wife? In the expatriate circles there is a stereotype of the accompanying wife: sweet, silent, who works for her family and for the children, who accompanies the husband to official events connected to his work, and who drinks litres of tea (in exclusively female get togethers): is there a corresponding stereotype for the men who accompany their wives? How is your relationship with your wife’s colleagues?
I have recently heard of an accompanying man who arrived here following his wife. He worked for international organisations, and when necessary (or indeed when the wife has an opportunity of work overseas) he asks his employer for a sabbatical. My situation is still atypical.
It is a bit difficult to speak of stereotypes. At the worst I imagine some people might compare the accompanying man to a gigolo who takes advantage of the wife and others to the modern husband who sacrifices his own interests for those of his wife’s.
I don’t recognise myself in any of these categories. Having said that, when I am asked what I do with my days, I feel I must somehow justify myself. I try to make a bit of a joke of it: “I read, I play tennis, and I iron”. I often ask my friends if they would be ready to follow my example, or indeed to work very little or not at all, to give up a career. Up to now, only 20% think that they might be able to accept the challenge. I understand them, before I left I belonged to the other 80%! In the diplomatic milieu in fact, it is a real drama for the women who remain stuck at the Ministry because their husbands refuse to follow them, or those who just cannot find a husband. Many couples have broken up when it came to leaving. I think the situation of an accompanying man is not necessarily more complicated than that of an accompanying woman, on the contrary. For example, in general, men can move around and risk less in terms of personal security, which gives you a bit more freedom. Besides, socially, we are not so much relegated to a junior role, in comparison to women. For example, at cocktail parties, it seems to me that those who “work”, mostly men, accept us naturally. Without a doubt, it is expected that women who do not work form a “separate group”.
Are you happy with your choice? Do you feel this situation is somehow temporary or do you feel ready to follow your wife in a long term future? Can you give us a reason for frustration and a reason for satisfaction connected to your situation of following husband? Would you advise a friend to do the same thing (follow their wife overseas)?
For me this experience as an accompanying man has definitely been very positive. I discovered I am capable of keeping busy in a sane way without a business that absorbs 10 hours of my day.
That seems to me to be very healthy, and not meaning to sound arrogant, sometimes it seems to me to be a pity that some people are not capable of taking advantage of this freedom. But obviously each person has their own personality. If one’s self-esteem depends on the points awarded by a line manager, you better give up.
It is also important to be able to socialise, since one of the classical places for making friends, work, is not within our reach. Personally, I know that my capability to keep busy on my own will be extremely useful in the future (we’ll talk about my faults some other time…).
Finally, let us speak about the wives. Often, they are the ones, in the end, who put up obstacles to the possibility of a departure together. Even though they want the husband to follow them, they cannot stand the fact that they must support them with their salary. And, when changing countries every three years, it is a bit difficult to demand that the partner follows a career. In this sense, when the roles were inverted, men have often shown that they were more understanding… It was more easily accepted that if the man earned a salary, the money belonged to both people in the couple. After all, the fact that one adapts to this untypical situation sometimes causes suspicions. It is easy to believe that many would prefer to end up on the sofa of a psychologist. As for accompanying women, this situation inevitably presents risks, particularly in case of a divorce. For example, I am sure that a judge, in this case, will favour the woman more than the man.
In general, we end up by asking ourselves if the subsidy for the mission overseas, which represents two thirds of the salary of a diplomat, should not be considered as a payment for the couple. In truth, this subsidy was created to compensate the possible risks connected to expatriation, risks that the spouses run equally, if not more than the husband/wife. In any case, one thing is for sure: it would be a mistake to at least not try out the experience.