I know what you’re thinking— Isn’t Yelp what you use to find a restaurant while desperately pacing a frozen Boston street?
Well, yes, but Yelp also employs event coordinators, who seek out local businesses to promote through Yelp sponsored events (search Yelp and your community’s name on Facebook and/or Instagram to find a treasure trove of highlighed events, from concert ticket giveaways to niche food finds to Yelp sponsored events that will introduce you to undiscovered places in your neighborhood). Our local Yelp coordinator contacted Christina, the owner of Speak! to arrange an event to showcase Charlottesville’s beloved language school. Christina loved the idea and since we’d tossed around the notion of having a party at Speak! for my book, The Road Taken: How to Dream, Plan, and Live Your Family Adventure Abroad she asked if I wanted in.
Since I’m always up for talking about my books, I said a hearty, “Va bene!”
What a treat! An author event I didn’t have to plan or bring food for! The only other one I’ve had like that was the Virginia Festival of the Book panel on romance writing, where I talked about Santa Lucia, my romantic suspense novel set in an Italian hill-town.
To join me in the travel-themed panel discussion, I invited Nell, who wrote about her year in France for The Road Taken, and Wendy, whose recent year around the world with her family inspired our own plans. The three of us arrived at the venue to find excellent wine and food, and Speak! at its most vibrant and welcoming. Walking through the new space, I thought about what a great place it is for language learning.
At the entrance, visitors filled out name-tags, which suggested that guests note their favorite place in the world. This became conversational fodder, as people chatted about beloved places or asked questions about unknown destinations.
I noticed one guest had “China” on his name-tag and I leapt on the poor, unsuspecting guest in a way that probably belied the fact that I was not, in fact, raised by wolves. “Where should I stay for a month???” I all but yelled in his ear.
See, I’ve been well and truly stuck in this part of our global year planning. We are set on staying a month in China, but the where has sent me into a tailspin. I can’t get real information from blogs, or even books, since China is so vast, so varied…guidebooks can include no more than passing information on any one area. And people’s visits to China trend towards sampling the variety China offers. If you want to go for a month and find an itinerary that includes 3 days in each of 10 places, that’s easy. But finding ONE place for an entire month—that has been tricky. When I ask online, I get answers like “Taipei”. Not part of China.
My daughter and I had initially penciled “Xi’an” into this part of the itinerary. She studies Mandarin, and knows that apparently the city’s name translates to “western place” , a nod to its role as a capital city on the Silk Road. I love the Silk Road, as I’m always fascinated by a confluence of cultures and food-ways. But as I explored Xi’an as a destination, I had a hard time getting a sense of it as anything other than its main attraction. I’m sure the terra-cotta warriors are very cool (I was certainly blown away by them when the traveled through Richmond last year), but that’s not worth basing ourselves for a month, surely. When I hesitated on this point on-line, people contemptuously explained that Xi’an is more than warriors. It also has a Muslim quarter.
Which I know.
And it does sound fascinating. But again, I’m not interested in going somewhere simply because of some things to see. I want a livable place, a place to feel a bit like home.
I seemed incapable of figuring out how to get real advice on-line or through reading. It made that month of the year an overwhelming and dank hole in our itinerary. I kinda just didn’t want to go anymore. If I hadn’t promised my daughter we’d go to China as a way to bribe her to join us and start college a year late, I’d likely have skipped the whole country. With a sigh of relief.
So when I saw Doug’s name-tag, I thought, “Eureka! The thing I’ve been missing! Human connection!”
Doug introduced me to his friend Terry, who is from China, and they approached my question like sport, tossing about ideas, reminding themselves about dishes and culture, and together they landed on Chengdu. As they were explaining the benefits of Chengdu (and also explaining that the reason I couldn’t find any real insights into Xi’an is that it’s “like any Chinese city”), the panel began.
I read from The Road Taken (the “Deciding to Go” Chapter, one of my faves) and we opened the floor to questions. I’ve done many events in my tenure as an author, and I can honestly say that the level of discourse at this Yelp event was second to none. Some of the attendees came because they saw it advertised on line and wanted to talk travel, some came because Yelp events are a fun part of their lifestyle, and together the combination lead to a vibrant and lively conversation. About how travel changes a person, about how to dig into who we are to create an intentional life, about language and its ability to alter the perception of realty, about stretching out of our comfort zones into a place of tender vulnerability.
And when we wrapped up and moved to more mingling, I pounced on Doug and Terry in a way that they had already grown accustomed to and asked, “Now that you know me, would you change your answer?”
“YES.” They said. Doug went on, “I know what you want now. You want a local experience. You want the Chinese equivalent of Italian men playing cards in the piazza.”
Doug. You nailed it.
It is so interesting that I needed a local Yelp event to make clear that I want a local experience during our global year.
Doug and Terry went on to tell me all about Dali, in Yunnan province. It’s a city of about half a million people, with a looming mountain peaks at its back and a lake dotted with traditional villages at its edge. Overflowing with provincial charm, residents of Beijing are apparently dropping their flats like hot Chinese yams in favor of homes in Dali.
Teahouses abound, burbling with people playing games and drinking tea. The landscape is stunning, arguably the most beautiful in China, with ready excursions like Tiger Leaping Gorge (okay, I admit I want to to visit by name alone, how cool is that hashtag?) where you can hike all day, stay in a guesthouse, and then hike some more.
My favorite kind of hiking. Hiking with food at the end.
They told me about the food (I got a head start on breakfast research—addictive fried dough dipped in a kind of soy milk). And also told me about art and possible day-trips. They even told me that the area boasts beautiful weather all year long, a boon since I’d wondered where we’d go in winter months that wouldn’t require woolly clothes I didn’t want to pack.
I practically floated home, the “February” slot of our global year determined. I told Gabe all about Dali, and showed him photos from Google images. We even searched on Airbnb, and found miraculous houses—think authentic ancient Chinese village vibe with modern amenities and flower bedecked courtyards. For like $30 bucks a night.
Okay, so maybe a Yelp event didn’t teach me the meaning of life or help me consolidate my debt. But I met some great people and through them my window to the world got a little clearer and my global path a little richer.
What could be better than that?