I’ve been in a bit of a depression fog lately. I reached out to family members and a few friends lately, trying to see if they — as the meme goes — had appropriate space to hold for me. And it turns out no one does, really. Everyone has their own struggles to deal with, mine are insignificant by comparison, and I should feel fortunate for that.
So I’ve done two things. One, I’ve set up an initial session with a therapist in Geneva, something I had thought I wouldn’t pursue here since my insurance doesn’t cover anything related to mental health. But this is important for my wellbeing, and if she turns out to be a good fit, then I should be able to save up enough money to see her out-of-pocket twice a month.
Two, I’ve started a meetup group. Right before I left DC last year, I went to an event hosted by Hello Neighbor, a regular meetup for people who enjoy socializing without the banal small talk aspect. The creator of the group, Patrick, had developed these lovely cards with totally original and thought-provoking questions about life, love, happiness, sadness, and everything in between. It made for great conversation, and it was one of the things I was sad to leave behind in DC.
But then it dawned on me. Why couldn’t I bring this to Geneva?
I wrote to Patrick, asking if I could buy the cards from him. He graciously sent them free of charge. (I paid him back in Swiss chocolates — thanks to my mom for being the courier in-between!) I set up the group on a local website for expats, picked a random date and venue, and created the event, not sure what to expect.
Well, today was the first meetup… and around 18 people showed up! We had to push four tables together to make room for everyone.
First off, the diversity was remarkable. At my table alone we had folks from Egypt, Chile, the US, Ireland, and of course Switzerland. There were college students and retirees. Agnostics, Christians and Muslims. People who were born and raised here in Geneva, and people who just moved here last week.
Second, the conversation was surprisingly candid and open. We only had three ground rules: no talking about where you work, no judgement around the disclosure of mental illnesses, and to keep people’s identities private when recounting to others about what happened during these conversations.
Some of the big topics that came up were…
Anxiety. Most people seem to have it. I used a metaphor from The Good Place to describe my brain — “it’s like a fork caught in a garbage disposal” — and everyone understood it right away. Someone shared their experience of meditating in silence for seven days on a mountain. Someone said that their mind was always racing, which is how I often feel. Another person shared their experience of going in and out of therapy. I shared that I was getting into therapy again, and everyone cheered me on and wished me success.
Difficult family dynamics. This was a big one as well in response to the question “What is one thing you would change about your upbringing?”, which got a huge laugh and groan from everyone at the table. Someone shared the challenges of growing up in a very conservative Christian household and straying away from religion as an adult almost as an act of rebellion; another person who was raised Catholic in another continent felt the same way and described how they were now intentionally raising their children to be secular so that they could choose their own path. Someone shared that they had a difficult time connecting with their daughter; another person shared the challenges of maintaining a relationship with a sister who often cut off contact without warning.
Worrying about the people we love. Many of us have family members who are facing difficult physical illnesses. I shared about my grandfather, who is facing a long journey with Alzheimer’s. Someone shared that their father was going through the same thing. Someone became emotional talking about their mother falling very ill a few years ago and never being the same afterwards, but also how it changed them and made them a stronger, more appreciative person.
A mutual love for travel. This was the biggest difference I noticed from attending the same type of meetup in DC; here in Geneva, people love to travel. When asked to describe their favorite memories or ideas of a perfect day, everyone gravitated towards places they had been during a moment in time where they felt the most happy. Scuba-diving in Bali. Hajj in Mecca. Walking around in Paris. (For me, it was eating a pizza next to Il Duomo in Milan.) Someone said their dream job would be to travel non-stop, every day. Someone was excited about an upcoming trip with their daughter, exploring southern Spain for a week.
My biggest takeaways:
- We really have more in common than we thought.
- Cutting out the small talk works wonders. We had a deep, candid and comfortable conversation that we often don’t have with “real-life friends” until the second or third time we meet them.
- It’s not about making friends. It’s about having a good conversation. If I see the same people again next month, great. If a whole new group of people show up, also cool — I know we’ll have a good time either way.