Agnes Fenyvesy talks to Elizabeth Stewart about the hidden side of diplomatic life and what inspired her to set up a new association for diplomatic spouses in the Capital
It’s a bit of a myth that the life of a diplomatic spouse one of privilege and glamour, moving from one exotic post to the next. “It’s not really a fairytale,” says Agnes Fenyvesy, the chair of the Diplomatic Spouse Club of London (DSCL), an association she founded to help spouses connect with each other.
Arriving in London in September 2012, Agnes had given up a successful career in the Hungarian civil service to join her diplomat husband in London. What initially seemed like a dream posting turned out to be very different in reality. “It was a huge adjustment not going into work everyday. I found myself alone at home with nobody to talk to,” recalls Agnes.
The sense of loneliness was compounded by the frustration of getting to grips with the eccentric British way of doing things. “Setting up a bank account was a real challenge,” she sighs, rolling her eyes.
So Agnes reached out. “I thought in a diplomatic city as big as London surely there must be a club for diplomatic spouses? But there was nothing designed for the better halves.”
At the Embassy Induction Seminar, she learned that there had been a club for spouses run by the Foreign Office but it had been discontinued, an early casualty of budget cuts. The Young Diplomats extended membership to spouses but their activities were, in the main, focused on diplomats (the two clubs now work together and have hosted joint parties).
An idea takes shape
Yet Agnes is not one to give up easily. “I was sure that I could not be the only one with these feelings of isolation. So I started thinking about how we could go about setting up a club for spouses.”
She started an informal group with the handful of spouses, but widening the circle and connecting with spouses in other embassies was hard going, so she approached Embassy Magazine to see if they could help.
It was agreed that at the upcoming Induction Seminar (in 2014) there would be a full programme tailored for new spouses. The Doyenne of the Diplomatic Corps, Dalal Al Duwaisan, the wife of the Ambassador of Kuwait, would welcome the spouses and Agnes would introduce the idea of a formalised spouse network for the London diplomatic community.
The Doyenne gets on board
The reaction was overwhelming. Mrs Al Duwaisan was so moved when hearing the experiences of the new spouses that she immediately offered to host a meeting at the Embassy of Kuwait to launch the club. As soon as invitations went out, the Embassy was inundated with responses. Two meetings had to be held to ensure every mission could be represented.
At the launch meeting, the association’s name was formalised, its basic mission was agreed and later Agnes managed to recruite volunteers for the committee. Those attending pledged to spread the word to all spouses at their missions.
Connections and friendships
The aim of the DSCL is simple, explains Agnes: “To be a place where spouses can connect, give each other support (especially the newcomers), share information and discover London together. This is such an exciting city and you should be able to get out and enjoy your posting here.”
Setting up an organisation from scratch – with a constitution, membership list, logo, bank account and sponsors – was a quite a slog, “but I’m quite pushy,” admits Agnes cheerfully. She could also draw on the legal, financial and creative expertise of the membership: “It’s amazing how qualified the spouses are, some of them more qualified than their diplomatic partners…”
A closed mailing list was set up, which has proved useful for new arrivals. “Between us we have a lot of knowledge, so if any newcomer has a question, they can post it on the mailing list. They just need to pick up the courage to ask and we will always do our best to point them in the right direction.”
DSCL members live all over London so they can share their local knowledge of their neighbourhoods with newcomers. They can also introduce fellow club members to interesting off-the-beaten-track places to visit.
Foreign Office links
Agnes also reached out to the Diplomatic Service Families Association (DSFA), the official spouse/partners organisation of the Foreign Office. “Our members would like the chance to meet their counterparts in the Foreign Office. Although the DSFA cannot offer us resources, we have their moral support,” says Agnes. A DSFA member sits on the committee and provides a valuable link between the two organisations.
This liaison has already produced results with DSFA members offering to participate in the DSCL’s ‘Conversation Club’ to help members gain confidence in speaking English.
In addition to the Conversation Club, Agnes and her team have organised many events for spouses – such as visits to the Houses of Parliament and, because there are so many lawyers in the group, popular excursions to the Supreme Court, the Royal Courts of Justice and the Inns of Court to learn about legal London. A visit to the Old Bailey is also in the pipeline.
There have also been talks and lectures, including a meeting to mark International Women’s Day and an eye-opening seminar to learn about a research project on diplomatic spouses. “It was great to share our common experiences and to realise that we are not alone.”
Helping children adjust to a new post is an additional pressure that diplomatic parents face so the DSCL set up a kids’ club (called ‘Diplodokids’) to provide a network where children can have fun while the parents can meet and swap notes.
With the support of Jaguar Land Rover and Chacalli De Decker and the Embassy of the Slovak Republic, the club staged a Great Easter Egg Hunt in the embassy’s garden, complete with Alice In Wonderland characters, face painting, arts and crafts and plenty of chocolate. In October, the Belize High Commission provided the venue for a Halloween Party with tricks and treats for the kids.
With limited financial resources, the DSCL often depends on the spouses of heads of mission to offer venues for meetings, Agnes points out. Concerts and coffee mornings have been hosted, among others, by the Slovene, Slovak and Hungarian embassies and the Hungarian Cultural Centre, where spouses have also had the chance to learn a bit more about the host’s country, culture (and cakes!).
“These missions have been so generous and we really appreciate it,“ smiles Agnes. „One of the nicest aspects of the club is being able to find out about different cultures. That’s what the club is all about – connections and friendships.” And these friendships and knowledge may one day prove valuable in future postings, she adds.
It underlines her point about how important it is for missions and foreign ministries to support their diplomatic spouses and families. “Our work behind the scenes assists the diplomats in their work but it is seldom recognised,” she remarks.
Looking to the future, at the recent AGM, Agnes was re-elected Chair and is already planning the next phase of the organisation. “Now that we have got all the basics in place we can see what else we can do for the community,” says Agnes.
She plans to set up a website, for which the Consular Corps of London offered a generous donation, raise the profile of the organisation, expand its membership and its horizons beyond London (day trips to Stratford Upon Avon or Highgrove Gardens are ideas for the spring). She is also in the process of writing the Posted to London report for EUFASA (European Union Foreign Affairs Spouses, Partners and Families Association).
Finding a job is one area where spouses would like more practical assistance, but this is very complex and requires a lot of research, cautions Agnes. “Although Britain allows diplomatic spouses to work, sometimes our own countries may place restrictions on the sort of work we can do. Also waiving some of our diplomatic immunities might be challenging for some of the countries, and some employers are put off by our diplomatic status,” she says. “So by the time you have finally secured a job, you have to leave again!”
Interestingly, male spouses seem to find work more easily, reflects Agnes, which is possibly a reason they don’t participate in many DSCL daytime events. So Agnes and her team are thinking creatively about ways to involve London’s growing cohort of male spouses in the club’s activities in the evenings or weekends.
Which brings Agnes to her concluding point: “It is important to stress that our doors are open to everybody – men and women. And this is not only a head of mission spouse club. Spouses of all ranks and all regions are most welcome to join.”
Photo: DSCL Chair Agnes Fenyvesy (right) and the Doyenne of the Diplomatic Corps Dalal Al Duwaisan (left) welcome new spouses at the Embassy Induction Seminar