Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Making yourself heard - and other thoughts from the Women's Travel Fest

The Angel Orensanz Foundation

I spent last weekend in New York, attending the Women's Travel Fest, organized by Go Girls. It was unexpectedly fun - my feelings on corporate greige conventions being well-documented, I planned this trip in a surprising whirl of bullish energy, and then proceeded to dread it for a while.

But I was taken by surprise - hosted at the beautiful Angel Orensanz Foundation, and featuring speakers such as Samantha Brown, Sarah Shourd, and Teri Johnson, the energy was really welcoming and relaxed. The whole day was much more about meeting people and getting psyched up about the world than passing business cards around (though the ones that I got were all attached to very cool people).

I waltzed in late (bagels and tiny ridiculous dogs required my immediate attention at 10am) and caught the end of Sonia Gil's presentation. Gil is the founder of Fluenz, a brilliant non-profit that helps people learn basic English for free.

Tiny ridiculous dog, shortly before getting in a fight with another tiny ridiculous dog in spherical red shoes. Like a miniature clown's boxing gloves.

Most of her talk was pretty standard fare - packing, travel apps, that sort of thing. But it was when she discussed language that you could really see her eyes light up.

She'd been learning Mandarin, she said, when she found herself traveling in China. And she'd been struggling to make herself understood - no matter how carefully she pronounced the words, no one ever seemed to catch her intended meaning. And then one day, she asked her taxi driver to wait five minutes while she ducked out of the car.

As many of us know, it can be really isolating to spend time surrounded by people who cannot comprehend a word out of your mouth. And frustrating. But we can seemingly adjust to anything in this world, and Gil had, at this point, just started to accept that her communication would be minimal.

But there, in the cab, he understood her. And this was big. Gil remembers what she was wearing, and the thoughts that exploded in her head - "I love you. Marry me."

That's how important it is to be heard.

A lot of the time, I'm preoccupied with the subtler signals of belonging, like etiquette or heritage, or "getting" cultural references. But as I listened to Gil, I was reminded of the importance of literally speaking the same language.When I travel, I usually find plenty of folks who can cobble together some English, and I have only rarely been trapped with no words at all. But it has happened - and as a wordy sort of person, when it does, it's discombobulating; sometimes, it's actively depressing.

But after all the work of attempted communication, you'll occasionally have a flash of understanding - a moment where you and another person get each other's meaning perfectly. When that happens, I feel such elemental gratitude, because the other person has tapped into a necessity so basic that I may have even forgotten about it. Among folks who travel, who have some craving to be foreign, it can be surprising to find yourself in a situation that requires no explanation, no background, no miming or similes.

It's comforting to have someone else recognize your needs, especially if saying them has been particularly arduous; in those moments, I have also wanted to propose marriage, to document exactly what I'm wearing, to tell a room full of hundreds of strangers so that they can remember, too.

Because whether it's "I love you," "I'm sorry," or "wait five minutes," sometimes we just really, really need to be understood.

Also, these are the sorts of things you get in your attendee bag at a women's travel conference. See? You learned something today.

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