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“I’m an International Woman!” – The Ribbon Interview (Winter 2011/12)

winterribboncover

“To me the IWC is like an all-you-can-eat buffet”

– Agnes Elam, IWC Charity Chair

by Zsuzsa Béres

The Ribbon: Agnes, what makes you an International Woman?

Agnes Elam: I’m truly an international woman! On my mother’s side of the family my great grandparents were Austrian and I’ve got Polish ancestry on my father’s side. I married a British man whose mother is Dutch, so I have a Dutch mother-in-law. Besides Hungary, I’ve lived extensively in London,  and in The Hague and Beijing, all very different in character, adding new dimensions to my international life. Life is full of interesting twists and turns, isn’t it? For instance, I could not use my English in China, but got along splendidly with my Russian. I’ve spent the last decade-and-a-half  abroad, with 2 years in London, and 8.5 years in The Netherlands, where my younger son was born. He, at age 3, defined himself as half English, half Dutch and half Hungarian. I really love being an international woman. It’s great!

TR: When and why did you join the IWC?

A.E.: Fifteen years ago when my husband and I settled London I found out about the International Women’s Club for the first time. I felt quite lonesome in this huge city of eight million. The IWC welcomed me warmly, helped me settle in, to adjust to my new life. And when two years later we moved to The Netherlands I automatically sought out the local IWC club. And again I found many new friends. Then in Beijing it came naturally to me to pursue my charity work in a land of striking contrasts and great need. Over the years I’ve come to love and appreciate the IWC as an international women’s organization with a formidable mission that wields formidable prestige. And I’ve come to know how to make the most of it, to cultivate it, and to contribute to it.

TR: You’re a force of nature spearheading the Budapest IWC’s charitable efforts. Whence your passion to help others?

agneselam

A.E.: Charity work is very important to me personally. This is rooted in my family background, in how I was raised. My grandparents, parents and relatives for generations grew up imbuing strong a moral and cultural code. The legacy handed down by each generation to the next was that if there’s something you can do to help, then do it because it’s your duty to do so. I’ve raised my children in the same spirit. Both my sons – one a college student, the other a 13-year-old elementary school boy – already practice the ethos of setting aside for children in need things they don’t need. It’s also very important to me that when one offers to help another one should do so in a way that does not offend the sensibilities of those to whom such help is extended. Conviction, belief, family upbringing, and an inner moral sense of what’s right propel me to engage to the best of my ability and in the most elegant manner possible so that recipients of our charity receive charity with the best possible feelings.

TR: What did you miss the most from your Hungarian life abroad, and what do you miss from your life abroad here in Budapest?

A.E.: Friends and books were what I most missed abroad. Obtaining things I love to read in Hungarian has always been the greatest challenge for me abroad. When, for instance, we moved to China five years ago about ninety percent of our limited baggage allowance was taken up by books. It’s a very important for me to be able to create a special space, a special ambiance where I can be alone together with my books. To be able to take it in hand, sit with it in a chair and read it with a cup of tea in my hand. A book has a special fragrance, its pages a special texture. I can’t get this experience via the Internet. Equally, I’ve always missed my good friends. I’ve often had to make do with nurturing old friendships in my heart during periods of physical separation. Yet I’ve been able to preserve my deepest and most precious friendships during all my absences. Any time close friends and I reconnect, be it a friend in Rome, London, or in The Hague,  we can always instantly start where we had left off. What I miss in Hungary from my international life is people’s good cheer and optimism. In Hungary I miss people being in a good mood, of being optimistic, people smiling in the street. In China, where poverty is enormous, unimaginably so to most Europeans, people still smile, are out in the parks, are engaged with their community, do tai chi together, and welcome strangers like me. I miss this very much.

TR: What did you look for in the IWC and did you find it?

A.E.: In the IWC, wherever I was, I looked for friendship, for interesting people and lives, for lives and cultures different than my own. The IWC to me is like an all-you-can-eat buffet, where you can taste, try out everything, where you’ll find all sorts of different things, where you can learn interesting things. Members’ openness, their interest in one another is very important in the IWC context. Also, that there is a common goal towards which we all work together. And this common goal for me is charity. In every country I’ve lived and have been an IWC member, there was that one principal project chosen by the given IWC group for itself. In London, for example, we helped a children’s hospital, raising funds to buy life-saving equipment. In The Netherlands we helped mentally and physically impaired children. In Hungary, too, children are at the heart of IWC charity. Because children are the future and to invest in the future is the safest investment there is. This is a vital mission, one I was looking for. And, of course, very good friends. Cultural diversity, too, is very important to me. Though a Hungarian by birth, I’ve lived such an intensely international life that it makes me feel really good to find such amazing cultural diversity within the Budapest IWC, just as I’d experienced in Beijing or London.

TR: In what way could the IWC better serve YOU as a Club member?

A.E.: I’d love to see the Club reach out to different constituencies of international women here in Budapest, especially professional women. I’d like to see more intellectual type activities and programs, especially after work hours. And, of course, a great new flagship charity project in 2012!

TR: What advice would you give newcomers to Budapest?

A.E.: I would encourage newcomers to fully embrace all things cultural Hungary has to offer. Enjoy its marvelous cuisine, enjoy its folk traditions from the pig killing feast to All Saints’ Day, from its wine regions through its amazing bathing culture to its theaters and opera – all well worth becoming acquainted with for anyone here for an extended period of time.

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