Last week I went to the Netherlands. Without my children. To a conference. It was the annual FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference, which I found out about on Instagram, digital guru that I am (not). With no kids. Did I mention that bit already?!
The FIGT conference was for three days but, not knowing anything about it, I decided to just dip a toe in and go for one day. Well now of course I wish I had gone for the whole thing. But a brief encounter was better than nothing.
There were some great presentations by a whole host of women. Because it was nearly all women at the conference. Is this because, like me, they are all non-working spouses? Maybe. For many of them their overseas move had been triggered by a partner’s job. But that was just the start. I met some hugely inspirational women who have set up careers and businesses of their own, using their expat experiences to take them in a new direction.
I also met lots of women who, like me, are trying to work out what they want to do. Women who can’t – or don’t want to – go back to what they were doing ‘before’. And the overwhelming feeling I had was that all these women, regardless of their skill sets, nationality or interests, had something in common: they all wanted to share, and they all wanted to be of help to others. Ok, so this ‘help’ might differ – from the academics who are working on understanding cross-cultural identities, to the NGO workers, to the psychologists, therapists and t business coaches. But it was something that came through really strongly for me. Not just in the sessions I attended, but also in all the conversations I had with people.
I loved the fact that here was a big group of women who were motivating other women to find their way, to discover their ‘thing’ – be it writing, a business start up or further study. There was a sense that whatever your idea might be, there would be at least one woman here who could point you in the right direction, and a boat load more who would cheer you on.
I came away from my conference day at The Hague feeling elated. And, while the presentations and the discussions were interesting and thought provoking, they weren’t the true cause of this elation. This feeling came from the connections I made. To meet in person the ‘friends’ I had made on Instagram, or the women whose blogs I have been reading. To have them smile at me rather than run away screaming when I approached them with, ‘I know you, I have seen you on the internet and now I have stalked you to a conference and will you please be my friend?’ (ok, I wasn’t quite that bad!)
My highlight was the dinner afterwards. I joined a group of women for a glass of wine and some food and sat around a table with them, chatting about everything from writing to careers to politics. Between the 11 of us we covered 9 different nationalities. And yet we had so much in common. There was no lull in the conversation, no awkwardness. But there was a lot of laughing. I had only met these women earlier that day, and yet I felt I already knew them.
And then I left.
And somehow this brief encounter with these women was a microcosm of my experience as an expat these past four years. People come in to your life, people leave. You leave. Sometimes the connection is as short as one conversation over dinner. But that doesn’t make it less meaningful. Sometimes our lives are shaped in the biggest ways by the briefest encounters.
I am back home in Germany now. I feel very fortunate to have been able to have some time to myself, and lucky to be able to come home to my family – who all appreciated me a little bit more after missing me for a couple of days!
And all the women I met will be back at home too – wherever in the world they call ‘home’ at the moment. While the distance between us is great, and the time we shared small, there is a common thread that connects us.
So I will be looking forward to the FIGT conference next year and the conversation around the dinner table. And that hotel room to myself of course…
What is FIGT?
FIGT is a forum for globally mobile people and their families. It is a place where research and best practises are shared, and it’s all about supporting people as they move cross-culturally. There is an annual three day conference, and it’s also possible to join the forum. More information is on their website here.