If I could choose which section of a bookshop my books should be sold in I would go for "travel", for though I have not hitch-hiked to Xanadu or bicycled to India, I do know where to buy dog fat in Kazakhstan (and why you might need to). Some people are born to travel and some have travel thrust upon them ... I am one of the latter. I have travelled all my life but through absolutely no desire of my own. To start with it was my parents' fault: I was born and lived my early life in various military towns in India because my father served with the Indian army. When I grew up I worked on the Sunday Times, which sent me abroad from time to time – though I admit that covering the Paris fashion collections or attending the opening of Vidal Sassoon's hairdressing salon in New York are not really "travel" as we know it. Then I married a diplomat, and spent the next 35 years trying to make some corner of a foreign field forever England. Because this is what we trailing diplomatic spouses have to do, replicate our English (or French or Italian) lives abroad, and along the way we learn a huge amount about the places we live in and how to cope with them (which is why I know that dog fat rubbed on the chest helps with a cough and cold, and that sweet potato makes a good substitute for chestnuts in Christmas turkey stuffing).
We foreign women are confided in, asked for help, and told things that men would never hear. Being a woman meant that when my husband was posted to Damascus, I was able to research a book on the houses in the old city – no Syrian housewife would ever have opened her door to a strange man. I learned about female circumcision (as it was called then) from Joko, a stall holder in Bakau market in Gambia, who became my friend and told me all the gory details. Still in Gambia, when our steward whispered to me that he was impotent and that the witch doctor had told him it was because he had not made the correct sacrifice when his father died, I saw something of the hold that marabouts have in west Africa (and, the week he found a younger, prettier wife, how quickly an impotency problem can be solved). And I learned that, in the developing world, nothing is wasted when I realised that the paper wrapped around a baguette I had just bought was a letter from my best friend that I had binned some weeks before.
The writings of other, earlier, trailing spouses have often been godsends: when I was working on a book about Kashmir, the memoir written by Honoria Lawrence, the wife of soldier and statesman Sir Henry Lawrence, gave me a picture of Indian society in the 19th century that I would never have found in any history book. In Syria, my bible was The Inner Life of Syria by Isabel Burton (the wife of Sir Richard Burton, scholar and explorer, who was consul in Damascus in the mid 19th century). It was the only source of the kind of "human" material I was looking for, from accounts of bathing in the hamman, to shopping in the soukh, to the poor taste in interior design of some of the nouveau-riche merchants. And in central Asia I was informed and entertained by the down-to-earth memoir of Lady Macartney (trailing wife of Sir George Macartney, the British consul in Kashgar, Eastern Turkestan), who, for the first 16 years of the 20th century, had lived just the other side of the Tien Shan mountains from where I was in Almaty.
From their experiences I drew some comfort in sometimes difficult circumstances. I cut my artery putting my hand through a window in Ethiopia and learned, in a Russian aid hospital, that a tourniquet has to be released from time to time or your hand goes blue. I discovered you could hire an operating theatre, a surgeon and an anaesthetist in Trinidad when my husband broke his ankles and had to have an urgent operation, and I both had a baby ("Soufflez", "Respirez"), and dealt with my husband's heart attack in French ("Est-ce que mon mari va survivre, docteur?" "Hmm... probablement oui.").