BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
IN AN INTERVIEW WITH AZERI OBSERVER, THE SPOUSE OF THE DUTCH AMBASSADOR IN AZERBAIJAN, MRS. SIGRID KERVERS, SHARES HER VIEW ON THE MOST CHALLENGING AND REWARDING ASPECTS OF A DIPLOMATIC LIFE, DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES BETWEEN AZERBAIJAN AND WESTERN EUROPE, AND GIVES ADVICE TO FAMILIES OF YOUNG DIPLOMATS.
Question: Mrs. Kervers, could you tell our readers a little bit about your background, education, and profession?
Answer: I was born in the western part of Germany, between Essen and Dusseldorf, in the industrial area called “Ruhrgebiet.” During my youth, the coal mines gradually closed and the area became greener and more pleasant to live. I grew up in the era of the German economic reconstruction after WW2, which opened many doors for people of my generation. After studying economics, there were many possibilities for an attractive career in this sector. However, after working for a large German company for a few years, I developed a desire to work abroad. Abroad in those days was Brussels in Belgium, where I worked in the German Council Secretariat of what was then the European Economic Community. My husband was also working in Brussels for the Netherlands Delegation to NATO, and we married there in 1983, then I followed him to his subsequent postings. When he was posted in The Hague more than 15 years later, I worked eight years for the German Embassy there, starting in the cultural department and ending up in the press section.
Q.: What does it feel like to be the spouse of a diplomat? How would you describe the role of an Ambassador’s spouse in diplomacy?
A.: During the many years that I spent with my husband, both abroad and in the Netherlands, I often questioned myself if this was what I expected from life. Yes, during the postings in foreign countries there was always the opportunity to discover new persons, local traditions, and beautiful places. Back at home, in The Hague, you were suddenly brought back to ‘daily life.’ Many spouses of my age were still working. For somebody who moves houses every 3-4 years, however, it was not always easy to establish oneself – at least not professionally. Once I was lucky, in the year 2000 I got the job in the German Embassy in The Hague, as previously described. Diplomatic life changes when your spouse attains his professional goal and becomes the ambassador. Getting to know a new country and becoming accepted in the international community somehow appears smoother. At the same time, as a person, you are more actively scrutinized: your special position raises expectations.
Q.: Have you found any difficulties representing the Netherlands, which is not your home country?
A.: Although I have no problem whatsoever to represent the Netherlands, and I really always loved and still love to do it, after a certain point I cannot suppress the inner urge to tell people that in fact, I am not Dutch at all!
Q.: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being a diplomatic spouse? What is the most rewarding?
A.: The most challenging is that you seem to be on the move constantly, and this does not become easier with the years that you are in the Foreign Service, to the contrary. Apart from the hassle of moving houses, you always have to again say goodbye to your children, family, and friends. Upon arrival at your new destination, you will encounter the challenging and recurring process of making a new home, establishing yourself, and functioning in a new and relatively unknown country. However, this is more than compensated by having the opportunity to explore and experience new countries that you would never have the chance to see if you only spent your holidays in them. This is especially true for getting to know and understand different people and their cultures.
Q.: Before being appointed to Baku, your husband served in Venezuela, Turkey, Belgium, and other countries. Could you tell us about the most unforgettable experience while living in those countries?
A.: As I am a cautious person by nature, I started a bit reserved and expectantly in each new country we went to. Nevertheless, I left all of these countries reluctantly and with great regret! A very important country was, of course, Colombia, where our first child was born. Professionally, from the point of view of a diplomat’s wife, there were many different highlights in all the countries we stayed in. In Istanbul, the year 2012 stands out for the celebrations of 400 years of diplomatic relations between the Netherlands and Turkey. It was a year full of visits (the Queen, the Crown Prince and Princess, the Prime Minister) and cultural activities (such as an exhibition of Dutch Golden Age painters and performances by renowned ensembles such as the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the ballet of Nederlands Dans Theater). Here in Azerbaijan, the privilege to accompany my husband when he presented his credentials to President Aliyev was an unforgettable experience.
Q.: Being married to a diplomat is challenging for numerous reasons, including living far from loved ones and moving frequently. How do you and your husband support each other and your family?
A.: Both our families know that both of us will always be there for them, especially in emergencies. This is not always easy because of the travel distances, but I know that if need be, we can buy a ticket to fly home as soon as possible. Fortunately, we both have sweet brothers and sister, who are taking excellent care of my parents and my husband’s mother. Our two daughters visit us any time they can since both of them have permanent jobs it’s a bit less frequently. Moreover, thank God for Skype and WhatsApp, we are in constant contact. Because we are all great fans of David Bowie, our family’s WhatsApp group is called ‘Heroes!’
Q.: What do you most admire about your husband? What does he most admire about you?
A.: That he always has a positive attitude, especially when we are heading for a new destination abroad, with all its challenges and hectic moments. He admires my flexibility and my support for his work, the quiet and easy-going way in which I act as an ambassador’s wife and how I connect to people and build close relationships with them.
Q.: What were your impressions when you first time arrived in Baku? Have your impressions changed since then?
A.: I will not forget the first time we drove from the airport to our Residence in İçəri Şəhər, it was simply breath-taking! I never expected Baku to be so spectacular. This sensation, by the way, is also felt by family and friends visiting us! Having read ‘Ali and Nino’ before coming to Baku, I could identify immediately with İçəri Şəhər and our Residence – it was as if I was reliving the book. I was also positively surprised that with my basic Turkish I could make myself understood quite well in shops and restaurants. These impressions mostly continue: traffic can be hectic, Baku is very hot in the summer, and there are many tourists in İçəri Şəhər, but that can happen anywhere. All in all, Baku is a very clean, safe, and pleasant city to live in.
Q.: What activities have you been involved in during your stay in Baku?
A.: I am an active member of the Baku Heads Of Missions Spouses (HOMS), and this does not only mean participating in coffee mornings. HOMS organizes many meetings, charity events, and dinners. I work closely with other members to develop ideas for activities, organizing them, and getting in touch with charity organizations to determine a useful destination for the funds we raise. With my husband, I organize dinners and receptions at the Residence for our colleagues and visiting delegations.
Q.: What differences and similarities do you find between Azerbaijan and Western Europe?
A.: It was a surprise to me how European the feel of the country can be, especially in Baku. In the countryside, it is different, more traditional, you see people in their national dress, which you seldom see any more in Western Europe. Also, weddings, music, and dancing are more traditional and you certainly get a more oriental feel when you visit markets, bazaars, etc.
Q.: What could you advise to families of young diplomats?
A.: If you decide to live the life of a diplomat, go for it. Learn the history and language of the country you are posted in (or at least their basics) and reach out to meet its people. Always try to see the positive in customs and traditions that appear to be completely different from those of your own country. You will encounter difficulties, but sometimes it is necessary to take things as they are – it will not make you happier if you grumble four years long.
Q.: And now for our signature question: It is said that behind every successful man there is a woman. How does this manifest itself in your family?
A.: Yes, in our case you can put it that way, but my husband and I see it more as teamwork. As ambassador, he holds the main responsibility for doing his job effectively, but he knows I am there to support him and to complement his efforts. At the same time, I like his job and our diplomatic life. I know that my activities in HOMS and my networking contribute to the image of the Netherlands and help achieve our diplomatic goals in Azerbaijan.