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  • Writer's pictureValérie Besanceney

FIGT 2015 — Trying to Recapture It All Under the Tuscan Sun

It’s been almost four weeks, but I am still basking in the afterglow of FIGT 2015. Lucky for me, I am literally writing this under the Tuscan sun in what my daughters have fondly been calling ‘our Italy house’. Our Italy house is a charming apartment in an old, renovated iron mill. Here, by the thundering sound of a waterfall rushing past our idyllic terrace while sipping a glass of wine after eating delicious pizza, I sit down and reflect. My husband (reading his book next to me) and the girls (napping) — my favorite home — are here and this spot by river is really growing one me.


For the record, we do not own a place in Italy, but there is something endearing about them calling the apartment that we have rented for a week ‘our house’. In their two and four-year-old eyes it has become our home this week. And here, far away from our home and work, I feel I am finally letting all the amazing people, presentations, and impressions truly sink in. Many others have already written about the FIGT 2015 experience so eloquently and poignantly that I am not sure how to contribute at this point, but I know I need to write about it for me. For anyone else taking the time to read this, I have tried to add many useful links to the blogs and websites of others who made FIGT 2015 so memorable.

As I board my plane from Zurich to DC, I try to think of the last time we traveled to a far away place without children. A three-month backpacking trip to South America comes to mind. Then I think about the last time I boarded a plane on my own for work. Flashback to working at an international school in Burma for a year. It’s been a while since I have traveled on my own.

Taking advantage of being ‘all by myself; on a flight for the first time in five years, I happily order some wine and open up Brittani Sonnenberg’s (one of my fellow panelists) novel, Home Leave, on my laptop. Even though I read it before and knew it would leave me in tears, I finally get to reread it during the nine hours of solo flight time. Most of that time, I hide my teary face behind my MacBook Air. Although my (almost) 5’2’’ frame never leaves me to complain about a lack of leg room, I relish the luxury of a half empty flight and feel relieved no one was sitting next to me. When I finally finish and am done wiping away my tears, I take a long look at the Ever-Growing List of Third Culture Authorsthat our panel leader, Antje Rauwerda, has put together. Clearly, I need a few more flights on my own to get through that list, but how wonderful to have such an inspiring list at our fingertips!

When I finally land in Dulles, I suddenly really miss the luxury of traveling with my American husband and daughters. Instead of going through the quick customs, I am forced to wait in line with all the other foreigners with my Swiss passport. My Swiss passport that I am very proud of and happy to have, but I know I am still as much Dutch as the day that my Dutch nationality ceased to exist due to my newly acquired Swiss nationality. The sobering realization that I am now officially not traveling any longer on my own Dutch passport feels a little naked, but that’s another TCK story altogether.

When I finally make it through the hour and a half of customs and luggage, I am kindly informed there is definitely no shuttle to my hotel and I reluctantly join the taxi line which seems longer than the previous two lines I had to wait in. I landed at 4:00 p.m. I finally make it to the hotel by 7:30 p.m. My flight between Geneva and Zurich took less time door to door. Luckily, the whole ordeal is very pleasantly spent with Michele Bar-Pereg, founder of RelocateYourself. I hadn’t even made it to the conference yet, and already I met an ‘relocation angel’ and her charming husband, Joseph. As we drive through one of the heaviest snow storms of the week, we share a taxi, driven by an interesting man from Ghana who reminds me that everyone has their own interesting story.

Spending three days and nights in a Marriott hotel for a conference without leaving the hotel (apart from a sprint back and forth to Barnes and Nobles to find a copy of Frozen and the latest season of Game of Thrones for the family) is not exactly a form of traveling I indulge in. However, I couldn’t help but think that being at Tyson’s Corner Marriott was very much like a crossing between landing in a really great international school while staying in an over the top luxurious hostel. I might have been even cooler to all be on a beach somewhere around a a big bonfire, but the general feeling of mutual understanding, of ‘being home’ resonated. Everywhere we were “surrounded by people like us, people who get us, people who has our same experiences and struggles. Our tribe.” (GeniusXpat, Finding Our Tribe and Our Purpose).

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Just like quite a few international schools and backpacking hostels, the place was filled with the most amazing people from all different walks of life feeling incredibly passionate about a common topic. “It’s a place where you don’t have to explain yourself, your background, or your differences – unless you want to. And since everyone in the room has a unique story to share, it’s also the one place where everyone wants to hear it.” (Rebecca Grappo, Homecomings). “At FIGT, I found immediate and unspoken kinships with people. It was a singularly magical experience to be immersed in a community that understood my feelings because they had all experienced something similar. At FIGT, everyone wanted to hear each other’s stories, and every story was met with knowing smiles and empathetic eyes.” (Lauren Power, Global Nomad).

The first night I wake up at 3 a.m., and too excited to go back to sleep, I turn on my computer. Julia Simens just posted this on her website and before I know it I am sucked into the 20 minute spectucular film by Rahul Gandotra.

Although Julia Simens is one of the warmest people I have ever met, I had yet to meet her in person. Over the last few years, she has been one of the people I enjoy following online the most, and I feel so honored that she wrote two glowing reviews for my books. Needless to say, I was very happy to be able to spend some time getting to know her in real-life. I have come to learn how delightful life can be when someone turns out to be as lovely, or even nicer than, the persona you met online.

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During the writer’s Forum on the first day of the conference, I was able to have a powerful conversation with Ruth Van Reken (Co-Author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds), Lauren Zelek (Co-Founder at Use Your Difference Magazine) and Taylor Murray (author of Hidden in My Heart: A TCK’s journey through cultural transition). Ruth mentions that people sometimes ask her where she is from and she simply tells them where she lives. They often don’t even realize she never even answered their question. She notes that her generation has given us the words to describe and understand our TCK experience, but that it is up to our generation to answer the “So what?”. I know that I will spend much of the rest of the weekend trying to answer that question (posting on that question to follow soon).

That evening, I am blown away by Teja Arboleda’s keynote. Although jetlag is tugging at my sleeve, I make my way to the hotel restaurant and am delighted to have dinner surrounded by inspiring minds and Ruth at the head our table. I try to imagine what her original kitchen table sessions must have been like. To think that if those sessions had never been there, these seven strangers feeling strongly connected would have never been sitting at a table together. As a matter of fact, if I had never had collected the guts to ask Ruth’s advice about B at Home, I would have never been sitting here. And as I look around me, I can tell she isn’t just my hero, but everyone else’s too. And although I never had the honor of meeting David Pollock (Co-Author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds), it is touching to see how his son, Michael, and grandson carry on the torch.

The next day, I couldn’t even worry too much about giving our Literature Panel presentation because there were two many presentations of others I wanted to attend. As my school’s PTA had provided me with a generous grant, I made sure to attend all of the sessions related to children and schooling. It is fantastic to see that some of these session can be relived through webinars like the: A Safe Passage Through a Sea Change: A Review of Effective Support for TCKs From Childhood Through the Transition to Adulthood, led by Amanda Bate from Bate Consulting, Ellen Mahoney (founder of Sea Change) and Jennie Germann Molz, PhD.  Luckily, others were also kind enough to share their presentation on their blog, like Katia Vlachos’ presentation on Home is what you make of it.

Next, six fantastic ignite sessions were provided by Norman Viss, Michele Bar-Pereg,Tayo Rockson, Tashi Nibber, Naomi Hattaway, and Ginny Sampson, each of them unique and enriching. Like Tayo mentions, “this type of conversation is more of what we need to have in today’s society. The three sessions I could retrieve on the internet where Tayo’s Use Your Difference speech, Naomi Hattaway’s I Am A Triangle explanation, and Norman Viss’ Home: Carry it on your back like a turtle. If the others are out there, please let me know, I’d love to watch or listen to them again!

Another speaker who really caught my attention was Christopher O’Shaughnessy. His book, Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures in Between, left me in tears once again on my way back to Geneva. This time, in tears of laughter. If you ever have a chance to be part of his audience, grab it, you won’t regret it! Not only did he have his audience captured during his own presentation, but also when he was leading the excellent Panel of Dudes. Do yourself a favor, especially if you are a TCK (but even if you are not and like to read about traveling), read his book. You will laugh a lot.

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Finally, there was the presentation by Douglas Ota, author of Safe Passage: how mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it. Goodbye. What a loaded word for all of us there. At the end of his powerful final keynote, I took a quick look around the room and pretty much everyone there was wiping a tear away. “Being able to share the wisdom that I received from Ota’s closing at FIGT15 will be passed on to my family as we say our goodbyes.” (Julia Simens, A Blessing but Harder than I Ever Thought Possible: FIGT15).

Before I know it, I am on my flight back home. I don’t even need to take the anticiapted taxi ride to the airport because three other fellow FIGTers offer me a ride and therefore my experience is delightfully extended by another twenty minutes.

On my flight home, I ask the flight attendant for one more glass of wine. He kindly gives me another small bottle and smiles. As I start to offer my credit card, he smiles and says, “don’t worry about it.” Random acts of kindness always pull my emotional heartstrings.

When I make my way to the bathroom, I walk up to him and explain that my mother was a flight attendant for 35 years and that she always told me how refreshing it was when passengers were thankful. So I tell him I am very thankful for such a kind gesture. His reply is “thanks so much for saying that. It really makes a difference”. Immediately Tayo’s words, use your difference to make a difference, repeat in my mind. 

While making my way through the first chapters of Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures in Between, I finally feel the fatigue of the last few days settling in. I fall asleep and when I wake up, another kind flight attendant comes up to me with a big bottle of (really nice!) wine. “This is from the other flight attendant who really appreciated your comment.” What a way to end such an inspiring three days! Not quite sure how to repay, I quickly sign a copy of my book and leave it for him. When I finally ask this tall American sounding man how come his French is so excellent, he replies that he is originally from the Côte d’Ivoire. I wish I had more time to hear his story. I have a feeling it might be really interesting.

As I step off the plane, I cannot wait to be truly home, back with my family. Nevertheless, I certainly felt like I was with ‘my people’ this weekend. I cannot wait to be with them next year again. In Amsterdam this time! Maybe, by then, I can travel there with a Dutch passport again. Either way, thanks to FIGT 2015, I am learning so much about who I am beyond the boundaries of nationality. And here, almost a month later, under a Tuscan moon, I am counting my lucky stars, once again.


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