The American Women’s Club of Antwerp celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2019. The event was a festive affair held at one of my most favorite places in Antwerp, the Antwerp Zoo. We gathered in May, the break from the cold, long winter had lifted for our celebration. We dined on duck, toasted with champagne, and danced late into the evening. But before the party began, I delivered a welcome message. I was the incoming President of the American Women’s Club, and I knew I was stepping into a role of historical significance. Of responsibility. Of honor. I had not been a member of the club for very long, but at the same time, I recognized and appreciated the hearts, the passion, and the dedication of its members and the legacy.
At 7:00 p.m. sharp, my strappy heels clicked on the ancient marble staircase. The ping of my teaspoon on my champagne flute resonated throughout the elegant, vast hall. One hundred pairs of eyes lifted towards me, full of anticipation and excitement. . . and with a deep breath, I began to speak. . .
“A Connector is a person who is considerate, cooperative, and encouraging. Connectors seek harmony and personal connection. Connectors are good at recognizing strengths in others, getting consensus, and place a high importance on personal growth.
A few years ago, I attended my first FAWCO event, hosted by our own club. It was the Region 4 conference and I entered the Paleis op de Mier not knowing what to expect. I approached the Hall of Mirrors with an anxious heart, but similar to the Cathedral tour many of us experienced on Thursday evening, upon entering I was calmed by the beauty, harmony, and light of the elegant room. With our images reflected on the mirrors surrounding us, my husband and I moved around the room smiling at the new and unfamiliar faces. We were soon captivated by a woman from Germany named Carol. She told us her story – which took us on a journey across continents, time zones, and decades. Later in the evening, as we sat around tables, candlelight dancing off our wine glasses, Joan and I sat next to each other at dinner, and she assured me that guinea foul was ‘like chicken, but even richer, you’ll love it,” and I did. We were treated to ballet performances by the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp and upon conclusion, Alain leaned over from the next table and said, “Don’t your kids go to Drakenhof in Deurne?”
I gazed around the opulent room, searching at the faces around me thinking, I’ll never learn everyone’s name. . . energized and hopeful that perhaps maybe I had found my place. I always knew what an expat was, and while the technical definition of an expat is a person residing in a country other than their native country, I knew in my heart that a woman willing to become an expat, a woman that says yes, I’ll give it a go is a woman who is courageous, strong, and a little defiant.
We snapped a board photo, and as newcomers’ co-chair, I stood tall and proud next to the women. It was that evening, when I understood that the American Women’s Club of Antwerp, and their sisters across the borders were not just expat women, but FAWCO women – women who take all that expat knowledge and energy to transform it into something more meaningful and worthwhile than their own agendas.
Today I stand before you as the incoming President of the American Women’s Club of Antwerp – which is an honor and a privilege – but more than that – I look around the room here today and see how many connections I’ve experienced. How all those small relationships have blossomed into something greater than I could have imagined on that warm September evening in 2017. With each of you, I can write a story – how we’ve already spent hours and hours planning at board meetings, drinking coffee at newcomers’ events, sipping wine. . . well, wherever and whenever, and sharing stories and history of ourselves. We’ve been connecting. And we’re just getting started.
A silo is a structure that’s built to hold and protect grain, feed, or corn inside it. (I know, I’m from Texas), but eventually, the commodities must be released. If the goods stay inside too long, the harvest will rot. As I look around the room today, I know that none of us are silos – we wouldn’t be part of a club if we wanted to be autonomous – but my hope, plan, and inspiration for the next year is to connect. To knock down silos. As AWCA women and FAWCO women, we are in a unique place that no other organization in Antwerp offers. This next year will bring hundreds of opportunities to connect with each other, as members, with our spouses, and our families. To connect with our charities, our city, our region, and FAWCO, who will directly lead us to connecting with the world. Each of us has a story, a journey, and it’s just pure coincidence, or perhaps fate, that has brought us all here tonight, together. A crossroad of 100 different lifetimes, and I’m so proud and honored to be part of it. Cheers to a great and happy 90th anniversary, and I’m looking forward to the 2019 – 2020 year! — Celeste Bennekers, AWCAntwerp President, 2019 – 2021