I Am On Fire [Food Bloggers of Canada Conference Recap]
Oh me, oh my. Where do I begin?
I suppose the beginning seems like the most logical place to begin. This past weekend I attended the very first Food Bloggers of Canada Conference. It was the first non-work-related conference I’ve attended and while it was a no-brainer for almost every other attendee, I went into it with much hesitation.
I don’t talk about this often and I can’t recall if we’ve touched on this before, but I suffer from anxiety on an almost daily basis. Social, non-social, sometimes all-encompassing, sometimes little more than a dull ache coursing through my gut. If we’ve met, you might be surprised to hear this since I am typically pretty outgoing, loud & approachable, the first one to yack your ear off and the last to leave a party. But pretending that this is natural to me does not always come easy. It exhausts me from head to toe and leaves my brain feeling like a juiced lemon, void of any substance.
Willingly throwing myself into a room full of people I haven’t met (for a full weekend) sends me into a bit of a tailspin. I was very, very nervous to attend, almost enough to back out last minute. The combination of flying (another anxiety-inducer for me), being away from home and my security blanket (otherwise known as my boyfriend, close friends and family) and meeting new people had my stomach in such knots that I thought I might be sick as I touched down in Toronto on Friday morning. I told myself to be brave, to enter into this experience with an open mind and let what was going to happen, simply… happen. And so I did.
As someone who is often on the outside of large social gatherings looking in, I live with a lot of regret for missing out on events, parties and conferences that I am too nervous to attend, too overwhelmed by the debilitating anxiety that I feel so often. I was not going to let it happen this time. After a turbulent flight to Toronto, some alone time wandering the culturally rich streets of the city and lunch with a close friend that calmed me slightly, I took a deep breath and walked into the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel on Friday afternoon to meet up with Renee, Jan and Julie so we could carpool to Hockley Valley Resort. I was greeted with warm smiles and hugs and we hopped into Jan’s van and took off for a weekend I won’t ever forget. One foot in front of the other, one deep breath at a time.
Arriving at Hockley Valley Resort was overwhelming. So many people bustling about, trying to organize themselves before the onslaught of bodies took over the resort. To make matters slightly worse, the resort was handicapped by a power outage due to bad weather, but it just barely slowed them down (kudos to you, Hockley Valley Resort!). Slowly all the unknown faces that gathered around the lobby were named, as we said shy hellos and exchanged business cards and stories of our travels through inclement weather to get to FBC. I met my roommate, Andrea, and we quickly became acquainted. She was my first real friend of the weekend and it was a relief to be able to finally let the knots in my stomach loosen slightly.
We shared a glass of wine at the bar with a few other friendly bloggers before it was time to attend the cocktail party followed by a 3 course dinner of impeccably prepared dishes, with wines to pair, provided by sponsors Canada Beef, Mushrooms Canada, Rosewood Estates Winery and Henry of Pelham. Our tables were assigned and I had the pleasure of speaking more intimately with Bridget Oland of Crosby’s Molasses, Jenny Jack from Brunette Baker, who is as bubbly as a freshly corked bottle of champagne, Alexa Clark, whom I’ve admired from a far for some time, and Melissa Hartfiel, co-organizer of FBC and someone I’ve been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get to know in person for as long as I’ve been a member of Food Bloggers of Canada. It was a real treat to get to know these ladies on a more intimate level and it left me feeling confident that I could do this. These people were “my” people and if I was brave enough to walk up to them and start a conversation, I would be rewarded by getting to know someone who was interested in what I was interested in, and who wanted to know me as much as I wanted to know them. This was one of my biggest lessons from the weekend. That first 10 seconds might have been uncomfortable (or flat-out unbearable if you’re like me), but after that, once the initial greeting was complete, I’d opened myself up to a new relationship that had the potential to grow into something more than acquaintances, which I was lucky enough to experience (more on that later).
I would love to regal you with tales of all the life-long lessons and tips from the pros that I absorbed over the course of the weekend but quite honestly, I have not yet wrapped my head around it all. It was difficult to try and take in all of that precious information. I did my best to lap it up as quickly as it came out (thank god for my notebook), but I still feel like I need a couple weeks before it all sinks in. I can tell you this, Food Bloggers of Canada brought in a caliber of speakers and panelists that you wouldn’t believe. Keynote speaker, David Leite of Leite’s Culinaria, had a crowd of energized, loquacious attendees silenced and enthralled by his honesty and openness to share with us what brought him to this place in life, what has made him successful and what he has learned in his years as a writer (not a food writer, but a writer who writes about food - that was specified) I felt lightheaded being in his presence, his self-awareness and refusal to apologize for being just who he is and doing only what he truly feels is right for him and his life really spoke to me. I even managed to, despite my stomachs booming call to run away and hide, nab 10 minutes of David’s time to chat with him one-on-one about my future and his thoughts on how to push forward when I feel like I’m stuck in a straight line. It was clear that this weekend would be a game changer from that point on.
The next two days (or day and a half) were a blur. Seminar after seminar of awe-striking speakers and panelists provided moments of clarity that I thought I might never have, spoke on topics I’d never even thought were important to me but now realize affect my livelihood as a writer and recipe developer, and provided insight on items I had never quite understood fully. Again, to absorb all of this information was overwhelming but in a way that made me feel fired up rather than stressed out. A whole different kind of anxiousness that I hadn’t discovered yet. One that I can deal with.
Something else happened over the weekend. When I first met Kathy and Kris, bloggers from Halifax and Toronto respectively, I didn’t feel that gut-wrenching anxiety that I’m typically faced with upon making a new connection. I felt at ease. Astonishingly so. I felt like I didn’t need to prove who I was or why I was there, I could just be easy in their presence, like we’d known each other all along and were just getting together for the umpteenth time in our friendship. I don’t feel this way often. I attribute this calmness to the fact that we are like-minded in so many ways (which makes sense given we were attending the same conference and were interested in the same things). I know that had I not been brave enough to attend FBC, I would have missed out on these two connections. I would have let them slip away like so many other things I have let pass me by because of the fear. It’s sad to think how many people I might have missed in my life because of this, but it makes my spirit soar to know that this time I didn’t let it happen. I can call these wonderfully talented, quirky and kind women my friends (in real life!). I don’t know when we will connect again, but I do know that I’ve made friends that I plan to keep in close touch with, to collaborate with, and to find comfort in knowing there are people out there who just “get” me (and I can be an acquired taste so they’re brave to take me on). I have FBC to thank for that and for so many other unforgettable moments from the weekend.
To Mardi, Melissa and Ethan, organizers of the conference, I don’t know what to say to you but thank you. For your undying devotion to all of us writers, photographers, stylists, authors, collaborators, eaters, drinkers and food-lovers in Canada. You forever hold my respect and admiration and I hope you realize you are superheroes in our eyes. You are the first people we can thank for any success we experience after the conference, and the people that brought us all together to relish in good food, impeccable company, and unforgettable learning experiences.
This weekend stirred my soul and made me feel more alive than I have in some time. I said it throughout the conference and I meant it when I said it; after all the talks, all of the wisdom bestowed upon us and all of the connections and conversations… I am on fire. Thank you, from the very pit of my gut, to every single one of you I met, connected with and shared in this experience with. It was a dream.