The London Olympians

A quickly-approaching 10-year high school reunion can really help put things into perspective. Somehow, an entire decade can easily slip by without warning. What did I expect to have achieved by now? What happened to all of the traveling I had hoped to do? I had never been to a foreign country aside from Canada. This had to change.

As I mentioned previously in an article published in January called “Vegging out” about my vow to make more healthful food choices, I decided that this would be the year of accomplishing goals I’d been putting off for years. My sister, Hilary, and I got together one evening in late December 2012 and each made a list of 12 objectives that we considered “outside our comfort zone,” and we would spend 2013 tackling at least one per month. Traveling to a foreign country was near the top of my list.

Hilary had a friend, Reetika, doing her post-graduate studies in London who had invited her to come for a visit. She graciously offered to let us stay with her during our trip (a million thanks to Reetika), which helped to make it financially feasible for a journalist on a shoestring budget to go on this journey. The last week of March would work best for everyone’s schedules. Still, I debated taking the trip for a few weeks, wondering if I could actually afford it I evaluated my expenses and realized that if I stuck to a strict weekend budget that I just might be able to make it work.

In mid-January, we discovered that airfare wasn’t quite as much as we expected (we read that rates just after the holidays can be low, since airlines assume everyone is too broke to travel), and bought our tickets. We would spend four days in London with Reetika, and three days in Paris. I’ll be writing about Paris in a subsequent article.

I couldn’t believe this was really happening! I spent the next two months preparing doing research on each city, noting restaurants, stores and other sights we wanted to visit, learning French and penny-pinching as best I could. It’s actually not difficult to save money in the dead of winter here in Chautauqua County, since there really isn’t much to do, and who feels like leaving the house and venturing out into the snow anyway?

Hilary and I each had things we wanted to do and see in London and Paris, and compiled a list before we left. At the top of her London list was giving a speech at a Toastmasters meeting.

“Seriously?” I exclaimed. “That’s how you want to spend an evening in London? Public speaking for fun?”

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” she insisted.

I agreed, with the understanding that we would do one thing on my list that she wasn’t particularly interested in. I just hoped that the meeting wouldn’t end up becoming a five-hour ordeal and that these British Toastmasters would be a rollicking good time. The experience ended up becoming one of my fondest London memories.

HILARY THE HERO

A little background information on Toastmasters for those who are unfamiliar with the group: it’s an international club with “more than 280,000 memberships in 13,500 clubs in 116 countries,” according to the organization’s website. Essentially, it’s extracurricular public speaking, helping members to build their confidence and gain leadership skills in a supportive, encouraging environment.

Our local chapter is called the Concord Spellbinders; I discovered the Toastmasters while typing up the club’s meeting minutes in my early days at the OBSERVER. While typing, I thought to myself, “I bet this is something Hilary would love.” She has more hobbies than any other single human being alive and is always in search of new ones. At one time, Hilary could be taking a cake decorating class, teaching English to refugees, learning Mandarin script and stenciling wine glasses in addition to her full-time job in finance. She promptly located a Toastmasters chapter near her in the Buffalo area and has now been a member for three years.

Hilary enjoys many things that I’m at odds with, public speaking being one of them. The mere thought of public speaking is enough to make me break out in hives, and I would rather get a root canal or listen to nothing but “Macarena” on repeat for a solid 24 hours than speak in front of a crowd. Getting through my required public speaking class in college was rough, to say the least. Giving a speech just for kicks? No siree!

Weeks before our trip, my sister found a Toastmasters chapter called the London Olympians that would be meeting on our first night in London, which was a Thursday. The club calls itself “The Friendliest Club in London.” Hilary contacted them ahead of time and made arrangements to give a speech. She would be the “mystery speaker,” and would be giving her presentation after the group’s International Competition.

Since I would be present, Hilary told me she would be giving her “Poodle in Peril” speech, which I was really excited to hear for the first time. It was based on a harrowing and heroic experience that she had one morning on the way to work. For my family’s amusement, I wrote this faux news article summarizing the story she so enthusiastically regaled me with earlier that day. Her Toastmasters speech was based on the incident and the following article (I never actually put this in the paper):

Poodle in peril

Fredonia native rescues dog from fatal fall during morning commute

By APRIL DIODATO

OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor

BUFFALO – Hilary Diodato could not believe her eyes.

During her Thursday morning commute from Clarence to Buffalo, Diodato spotted a poodle clinging on for dear life to the steep second story roof of an older suburban home. There was no owner in sight.

Quickly, she took action to save the poodle from what could have been a fatal fall. She dialed 911, uncertain if it was the correct step to take.

“(I) felt kind of dumb because it was an animal emergency,” Diodato said. “But what else was I supposed to do? That poor poodle was all by itself.”

Diodato was informed that emergency responders had been sent to the scene.

“They said it was the second call they had received about the poodle,” she said.

Hours later at M&T Corporate Headquarters in Buffalo, where Diodato is employed in the insurance department, she was still haunted by the image of the poodle in peril.

“I hope that it’s OK,” Diodato said wistfully. “I am at least comforted by the thought that I helped save a life this morning.”

Diodato anxiously awaits a phone call from Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown with an offer of the key to the city, congratulating her on her heroic act.

A VENTI AMERICANO

After our red-eye flight from JFK to London Heathrow, we took a taxi to our British home base in the Cricklewood area of the city, making bleary observations about the homes that looked like fairy tale cottages and how odd it was to see vehicles driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Our original plan was to hit the ground running upon our arrival, but decided to spend the afternoon taking a nap to rejuvenate and prepare for Toastmasters while Reetika was in class.

We awoke groggy and starving. Upon Reetika’s recommendation, we dined on delectable South African-style chicken at Nando’s. Also at Reetika’s suggestion, we got Oyster cards that would cover a week’s worth of unlimited travel via basically all of London’s public transportation the Tube (subway), the bus, etc. It is so easy to get anywhere you want to go in that city using public transit.

In a food coma following our feast at Nando’s, Hilary and I were desperate for some caffeine before Toastmasters and finally spotted a Starbucks (it seems like coffee isn’t as ubiquitous in London as it is in the U.S.). Here are two things about my sister that you should know: she is too thrifty to frequent Starbucks and also doesn’t know how to drink coffee properly. She imbibes it as if she’s an extraterrestrial who’s only had cool beverages thus far and is handed her first steaming cup of coffee with no understanding of how it is customarily consumed; instead of sipping it, she slams the entire thing in a couple of gulps. Hilary stared at the menu quizzically for a couple of seconds before asking me to order her a large Americano because she didn’t understand the Starbucks “lingo.” She was taken aback when I handed her a 2-foot-tall “venti” Americano but, of course, she guzzled the entire venti within seconds. I would probably toss my cookies if I tried to do this, especially if that Americano was coupled with the stress of impending public speaking.

South Kensington, where the London Olympians meet, is a very ritzy part of London. The three of us decided that we would live there if we ever became fabulously wealthy, in a fancy apartment with our own personal wrought-iron balcony.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find MyHotel Chelsea, the meeting locale, and our vital Starbucks stop had set us behind schedule. It was already a few minutes past start time. By the time a helpful shop clerk pointed us in the right direction and we realized we had passed it a couple of blocks ago, we debated whether it would be worse to walk in during the International Competition or if we should skip it altogether. But we had come this far! We would not be deterred.

THE OLYMPIANS

As we apprehensively entered the Lavender Room of the hotel where the group was gathered, we found that, fortuitously, the Olympians were also running late. We managed to squeak in just as the meeting began.

It was a large group maybe 30 to 40 people, with a wide range of ages and sartorial choices among the crowd. We did a warm-up exercise, which was like a game of “Telephone,” before the competition began. Five speakers would be contending.

I was completely floored by the speeches I heard that night. Each one was powerful and inspiring, delivered with total confidence. Mark Yansen, spoke on “The Legacy of Love,” explaining that we can all accomplish big things through small acts of love, which is the true path to greatness. MaryRose Fison’s speech focused on sleep and lucid dreaming (Einstein discovered general relativity theory in a lucid dream). Catherine Chadwick reflected on finding the strength within to overcome a dark period in her life. David Jones talked about survival and strategy in his speech, “We Can All Learn To Toughen Up.”

The one that moved me the most was by a Toastmaster who had once been paralyzed by his fear of public speaking. James Phillips encouraged his audience to “Shine as Children Do,” reflecting on the fearlessness we possess as children, which we unfortunately outgrow as adults. It is our fear, he said, not of inadequacy but of being powerful that holds us back. We fear judgment, however, the criticism is usually about the hang-ups of the judgmental party – not you. He now vows to do what he fears in order to truly live, and asked the group, “Is something holding you back?”

After a brief break, it was time for Hilary to take the stage. She seemed calm and collected as they announced her name and the title of her presentation, but I was a bundle of nerves on her behalf. Would our American humor translate to a British audience? If she felt half as exhausted as I did after traveling all night, how could she get up in front of a crowd and deliver a speech?

I proudly watched my sister as she told the tale of the “Poodle in Peril” with ease, grace, wittiness and charm. The audience laughed at every joke as she detailed her plan to rescue the poor poodle and her grandiose vision of accolades the City of Buffalo would bestow upon her for her courageous deed, only to discover that someone else had already brought the dog to safety while she was busy concocting her scheme. It was incredible to watch my sister do something that I’m not sure I could ever do – assuredly give a speech with aplomb, completely unaffected by anxiety and an entire venti Americano. I’ll never forget it.

The London Olympians showered Hilary with applause, and Reetika and I clapped wildly for her from our chairs in the back row. When she got back to her seat, Hilary told me that she realized the entire second page of her notes was missing partway through the speech. She hadn’t even batted an eyelash.

Afterward, as part of a contest, five Toastmasters each gave a brief evaluation of Hilary’s speech, including praise and recommendations for improvement (which I would have considered even worse than the public speaking itself). They were largely rave reviews.

We joined the Olympians for a drink following the meeting and had a great time mingling with real Londoners – students and professionals, members and guests. The club certainly lived up to its “Friendliest Club in London” slogan. Hilary and I received tips for our trip to Paris, and I was encouraged to join a local chapter in an effort to overcome my fear of public speaking. (That’s another goal on my 2013 list). When my sister informed the members that she had just arrived in London that morning, they were astonished.

At a restaurant on our first night in Paris, we toasted to her smashing success at the London chapter of Toastmasters.

Hilary now considers a venti Americano from Starbucks to be her coffee “sweet spot.”

Send comments on this story to adiodato@observertoday.com