In between worlds

The flames from the kitchen fireplaces roared, and the dim lights flickered. Music was making people a little too loudly, or maybe that was the drinks. I’ve chosen not to drink this trip, sticking to coffee and water, yet now I feel like I’m stranded here by the food table, not knowing how to break in to the little pockets of conversation. I ask the server for a cup of coffee, even though it’s 7:30 pm.

We chat as he brings it over to me, and I ask him how he is doing.

“I’m in a good place,” he says.

“What makes the place good?” I ask back.

“Honestly?” he asks.

“If you’d like,” I offer.

“I’m launching my business this weekend, in a couple days, and it’s going to be a global brand. I’ve been so anxious about it. But lately I’m just settling and and ready for it.”

“That’s amazing,” I say.

I wanted to ask more but he was pulled away like pork

The server has helped make sure the food table is stocked with a grazeable selection of elevated southern cuisine — pulled pork, fried green tomatoes. And I’m standing here alone, shovelling it in my face, trying to get the courage to talk to the other people that are here.

This is day zero of the conference; we’re at the speaker’s reception. It’s at a classy southern kitchen five minutes away from the hotel, and I’m last one here. I arrived from the day of flying, checked in, showered, and headed over. I’m committed to talking to people, because, well, let’s make this thing worthwhile, right? From business development to plain old friend-making and story-telling, the point to travel isn’t to stay reclusive. But it takes a while to summon the social energy to make my presence known and try to start conversations.

I finally break in, thanks to the efforts of the conference organizer, Jen, who recognizes me and pulls me over — and then, the conversations become a little more fluid.

I’ll paint you a picture of Farahd, from South Africa. He’s wearing a furry-hooded parka indoors in Atlanta in December, and he’s travelled 27 hours to get here.

Farahd described to me the conditions in Cape Town, where 2-3 million people live in “informal settlements.” He describes that homelessness has always been a problem, and that he strives to have compassion in his heart when he has interactions with them. It upsets him when his partner treats disadvantaged people with disdain. Here in Atlanta, he’s noticed, though the streets are clean, there is still a sharp divide between the haves and have-nots.

Lately, he says, there has been a growing refugee population, and it frustrates him that his fellow South Africans treat them with such xenophobia. The refugees are protesting, holding up signs which show pictures of the physical mistreatment of their fathers and brothers in South Africa.

This week, he will be giving a talk about a campaign he helped launch to market the business school. However, he’s also taking some post-graduate studies at the business school, where his class is having conversations about values-driven businesses — and he’s frustrated that the faculty don’t seem to practice what they preach in the actual workplace.

I’ll tell you about the trio of guests from Mexico I met. With big smiles and hard-working English, we talked about life in our respective cities and countries. Mexico City, with its 23 million inhabitants, is a city for cars, not people. “If you come to Mexico, you will have a fun time. You will be stuck in traffic a lot, but anywhere you get out, you will have fun.”

They describe that there used to be a river here, but now it’s under the city, and the city’s old buildings are sinking. One of them is leading a workshop at the conference on hand-lettered typography.

I’ll tell you about my fellow Canadian here — he guessed I was Canadian because I had a hoodie on that said “peacemaker.” On the lookout for opportunities in Atlanta, he’s heading to an ASAP Ferg concert tonight. (I had no idea who that was either.)

From Scotland, America, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, we have arrived here in Atlanta, mixing our stories and cities and expectations and cities into one new blended experience. Each of us have talks to prepare, stories we’re telling, connections we’re hoping to make.

Tonight was valuable because it’s the first sense I can get of where people’s hearts are, and where their interests lie, which will invariably influence my own talk.

I notice Farahd’s eyes most intensely interested when talked about themes of “organizational justice.” Of why organizations feel the need to be bullying, exploitative and unethical, even though they may know better. There’s a clear and attentive thread about bringing humanity to the workplace. I will bookmark that.

This is a group of people that are practitioners in their specific fields — in universities, focused on visual design — and they will workshop with each other to get nerdy. My role, as the keynote, is to help provide a different perspective than usual. The talk I’m working on is heading more into the direction that Farahd was most curious. I’m thinking that with the right blend of humour and practicality, we’ll be able to find a good thread here.

My talk is on Thursday. I’ll be using tomorrow to continue to listen, learn and adapt.

For now, I find myself in a spacious room at the Hyatt in Atlanta, waiting to FaceTime my family back home, writing up a blog post.

It feels like I am in between worlds.