Baklava, Moussaka, olives and gladiator sandals…just some of the wonderful things that I experienced during my recent visit to Greece. Two weeks ago, I was privileged to attend the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in Athens. It was a busy week, full days of lectures and seminars which ranged from topics that I had already thought through to interesting new concepts, some talks that were heavily biased in one way or another, as well as some that were simply way above my understanding.
The actual conference itself, wasn’t the only reason for my excited anticipation during the preceding weeks whilst organizing my visa requirements. I was almost more excited about the people that I would meet, the conversations that I would have and the unlocking of yet another facet of the Deaf world, whilst re connecting with some of the friends that I had made at the FCEI in Austria last year. I won’t pretend that I didn’t look forward to sometime of exploring and shopping! Indeed, that had been budgeted for, and my girls had given me long lists of presents that they were expecting. The long summer days, made late night shopping and midnight dinners doable in spite of the busy conference schedule.
I hadn’t anticipated that my fourth night in Athens would be my highlight of the conference week. I accompanied my friend to a special dinner hosted at the New Acropolis Museum. If you ever travel to Athens, this is a MUST do experience. History and culture are preserved through original sculptures and artifacts from the legendary Acropolis. An intriguing tour by two Greek archeologists (one in English, the other by a Deaf archeologist in Sign Language), was concluded by the invitation to dine in the museum’s restaurant. The illuminated masterpiece, the Acropolis itself against the sapphire sky, was our back drop.
People were finding their friends, and then choosing a table. As someone who prefers the familiar and struggles with “small talk”, I understood why this was the case. Feeling ever so slightly lonely, we found a table that was empty and chatted about the artifacts that we had just seen. A few minutes later we were joined by six other people. Without hesitation at being seated next to a stranger, they took their places at our table. At this point, my friend whispered over… “These are six of THE world’s most influential Deaf leaders.” She went on to explain that one was the President of the Gallaudet University, and another was the Chairman of the World Federation of the Deaf. My mind was consumed by the juxtaposed emotions of feeling completely honoured and excited to be spending the evening with these people, whilst terrified to communicate in Sign Language and nervous for them to discover that I was no one special in the Deaf World; mothering a bunch of Deaf kids being my only qualification.
My reasons for being intimidated by the Sign Language were multiple. Firstly, I have only been learning it for 20 months. Secondly, I was concerned about the expectations of people; might they think, “How could she possible be mothering her kids effectively when she is not a fluent signer?” Then throw the fact that they were not using SASL but rather mostly American Sign Language, in the mix, and gosh, that made for a stomach full of butterflies! Like losing my breath to the fright of icy sea water on sunburnt skin, I plunged in and introduced myself. Warm smiles and welcoming looks of intrigue slowly eased my tension. I told them where I was from and took great delight in discussing my 3 precious girls. I do however, struggle receptively with fingerspelling. The one thing that unites our languages, but man, as soon as someone starts fingerspelling – it’s as if I get a mental freeze. I can’t remember what the first few letters were, then pick up half way whilst still trying to remember what the letter before was, not knowing whether to spell it out loud or sound it out instead. Simple words end up becoming a finger spelling conundrum.
I admitted my inexperience and embarrassment and was embraced even more, and then for a few minutes I sat back, whilst bowls of steaming risotto were set before us, and observed. The amazing thing about a visual conversation, is that you can tune into them from across a table without straining to hear. On the flip side, private comments to your neighbor, don’t exist. Everything you say is public, like it or not.
Zoning out to reflect on my own thoughts and feelings, and totally at a loss with most of the conversation at the table, I became very aware that this experience reflected that of a Deaf person at a table of exclusively spoken conversation. Even a Deaf person with access to sound through amplification, would struggle at a table with several conversations occurring simultaneously, whilst the din of background noise competes for the clarity of directed words. Limited access, limited participation, a potentially isolating experience. I enjoyed considering this for a few minutes as I was grateful for the opportunity to step into my girls’ shoes. I did not feel isolated though, as the atmosphere was inclusive. I was tapped on the arm and questioned about how much I was following. I admitted that I wasn’t getting much, but it didn’t matter. This engaging man, invited me to ask him at any point to explain anything that I was missing. I was stunned by the humility and kindness of this world leader. These people did not see me as an outsider, in spite of my difficulties with communication and short history with the Deaf World. My three girls meant that I belonged. As I relaxed, I was able to converse more, whilst having my hands preoccupied in conversation meant that, by the time it came to having a mouthful, my risotto was cold. I’d trade warm food any day for another experience like that.
A marble lane led us back to our hotel shuttle. The air was warm and fragrant. My heart felt full of appreciation. Appreciation for Deaf culture and for experiencing something new. An appreciation for my girls, and the gift that they have given me. The gift of belonging to a brand new world.