Knock knock. Hear that sound on the camera glass? That’s Sonia Gil trying to get your attention, and she wants you to check the scenery. Whether she’s running through the streets of Berlin or people-watching along South Beach, her “Sonia’s Travels” YouTube series is dedicated to finding the “secret code” of each city she visits. Her quest to find that code has earned her a People’s Voice Webby Award, and she’s now part of Big Frame’s roster of stars. Gil is currently in London covering the Summer Olympic Games for “Sonia’s Travels” and enjoying whatever sunshine this stereotypically gloomy city has to offer. We caught up with the travel-happy personality recently as she soaked up the sun and mused about her most intriguing travel experiences.
So, what has changed since you’ve received your Webbie award?
Sonia Gil: Everything, pretty much. So ever since the Webbie, everything has been going on the fast lane. Post-Webbie, we did the Tuber Tour, so we went to Barcelona with the 5 Youtubers, all of that, then came back and then we’ve just gotten a lot of media. Release in “Entertainment Weekly,” gotten a whole bunch of phone calls, subs have been going up, interest in the channel just keeps growing and growing. The Webbie was just the mark of the fast lane, 100%, so it was amazing.
So I take it the rest of the year is pretty much planned?
No! The year is never planned! I mean, there is an idea of what is going to happen. I definitely know what is going to happen in the summer: I will be spending the summer in London; I will be doing coverage of the Olympics there, which I am very, very excited about. Proctor & Gamble contacted me, so I still have to do a second. So I have access to this thing that they are putting together and just blog about it and figure it out. I’ll be doing that, and then I will be spinning that into some “Sonia’s Travels,” London and then whatever I can pull out of in the vicinity. So we’ll see. Probably going to do some Spain, maybe a little bit of Paris. We’ll see what comes out of it, so that’s the plan.
Second time you visited Paris?
Yep! Paris is successful, so get some more footage there. It’s a city that I know well, and I can really maneuver it, so we will see.
How well do you know Paris?
Pretty well. I know my way around. I spent two summers there when I was younger, and I have been going back and back and back, and I like it. I like to explore places; I like to figure them out, so I take my time to really get it, and Paris, I have been able to.
The audience watches you try to find the secret code of places. Can you explain how you find the secret code?
How do you find the secret code — that’s a good question. First thing you need to do is get lost; just figure it out without a map. Just go in there and see what people are doing in their everyday lives, and then whatever catches my attention, that’s what I focus on. So, for example, a starting point for me in any city is a local market, so whatever open market there is that is open on weekends or during the week, that’s where locals are going to do their shopping, and that is where I am going to figure out like, “Okay, this is what moms do, this is what people buy, this is what people eat, this is how they dress,” and then you kind of take it from there. It’s kind of how you get the jist of it, that it depends on the city, right? So, Berlin, an open market in Berlin behaves very differently than the Mexican market, so from Berlin you might get, you know, you see all these amazing breads, so then, like, “Alright, this is a great bread town.” Figure out where the bread comes from.
800 plus types of bread in Germany is what I’ve heard.
Yeah, there you go. See, you know that. So then you see it, and you want to know more about it. That’s how it goes, and then in Mexico, you know you find all kinds of spices. It’s like, “Alright, spices is a big thing here. How do they use it? How do they cook it?” You know, I think the market is a great place to start.
Tell me a market you didn’t go in.
I don’t know a market I haven’t enjoyed. I love it! I could just spend hours there looking at everything, tasting things I never knew existed, finding out about fruits that I had no idea what they were and different uses that people have for them. A market that I might have enjoyed more than something else — or maybe not more, but gives you more of that food — the African market in Paris — out-of-world experience. You’re in Paris, and in your mind it’s beautiful streets, beautiful people, berets, and then you go into this market, and it’s like you’re in Africa. Everyone is dressed differently, the sound of it, the smell of it, the vibe of it is like, “Where the heck am I?”
And they have those really big outfits.
Yup, the whole deal, the whole deal right there. Amazing. And then it gives you an idea of the identity of the city. You know, “Alright, Paris is not berets and beautiful streets. Paris is this, and it’s everything. It’s vibrant, and it’s alive, and it’s multicultural, and it’s more than what you see in the postcard.”
So you’re not trying to focus on the touristy places?
I think that’s important too. I mean, if you have never been to Paris of course you are going to want to go to the Louvre, or you should — it’s an amazing museum, and of course you are going to want to walk in Champs-Élysées, and you should. But you know, it’s not just that, and for me, that’s what I like to figure out. I really like to figure out the entirety of the city — it’s real identity, not just the picture-perfect stuff. But, I think it’s all important. I wouldn’t tell you to skip out on the Louvre if you go to Paris.
But that’s not really what you are trying to focus on.
It’s not what I focus on, but I do do regular sites. I have a show on the Louvre, but instead of focusing on the insides of it — which you know if you’re going to go, you’re going to go, and you are going to experience it yourself. It’s like I am going to sit outside and see what people are doing, and it’s an entire show of how all the people outside of the Louvre are taking the same picture of this — they are all holding the pyramid. So, it’s like, “Wow, people dressed up in full wedding gowns, people dressed up in all kinds of everything, so it was interesting. I mean, you always get a story behind wherever you go. It’s like finding a twist on it, I think.
Most people would never think of Paris as a place where you can find peace and quiet at places like the Grande Mosquee de Paris.
Grande Mosquee de Paris. That’s a great example of the secret code, because it’s a place that is public, it’s easy to find, it’s very centric, so it’s surrounding well-known tourist sites, but it’s somewhere that nobody would go visit, and it’s so beautiful. You seldom get to see a mosque inside. It’s not something that everybody goes visit, and it’s open, friendly, incredible, a great place to rest between going one place to another to have a different experience, so there is a little secret for you. Take some time to rest between one place and another, and check out this spot which was quite out there.
It’s not as easy as just going to random places and filming stuff. I’m sure it takes a lot of time and planning just to get 5 minutes.
It’s a lot of work. I mean, we wake up very early, and we go to bed very late. The reason any of this is possible is because Mariana Hellmund is behind the camera. She is awesome, like, she is a film director, she knows what she wants, she has that incredible eye that just gives it that magic. This is how it happens: we have a plan more or less, so we are going to visit the African market, for example. Let’s go, so we know we are going to go there, but you never know what you are going to see, right? You never know exactly how it behaves. I’ve never been to the African market before. Once we get in there, Mariana and I talk, like, “Alright, so follow me,” and I’ll start, and then she just kind of like real life right there follows me, and then she’ll either point out to something like, “Oh, go check that out,” or I’ll be like, “Oh, come with me. Let’s talk to this guy. This guy wants to talk with me.” That’s the other thing: you have to be just very careful of, be respectful of the culture, because everybody is different. Berlin was a very difficult place to shoot at because people don’t want to be featured; they don’t want to be in a video, you know. You have to be mindful of that, to ask for permission, make sure that everything is fine. I mean, obviously I don’t want to be that person who is in their faces, whereas in Paris, everybody is like, “Look at me, please! Shoot me!” You know, they are posing. So different culture, different places, so that’s something you have to be careful of. We don’t do retakes. We don’t go through constant, like, “Okay, take this over and over again.” We just kind of live it, and what I am really experiencing and looking at, that’s what you are getting in the video. We get a lot more footage than what you see. Each video would probably take us like four hours to get in terms of the beginning to end. I don’t know how much footage comes out of that. It’s like four hours, and then it ends up being 2 to 5 minutes, so yeah.
It gives you plenty of time to peruse types of food or like —
Or interesting people or it’s not just — if you look at the video, I’m not that much in it. It’s because it’s what I see too, so it’s either interactions that I have with people or looking at other people and how they’re doing their things, or you know, how they are tasting their fruits and however it is. So it’s more about the observer. I consider myself very much like a good listener and a good observer, so that’s what Moriana really captures is what I’m looking at, what I really get from that place. I think that’s what gives it that secret code aspect of it.
That’s what I get out of it.
Good, because that’s the idea [laughs]. So if you don’t get it…
What I get out of it is it’s not “Look at me, I’m doing this.” It’s more like, “Hey, why don’t you check this out for yourself without me butting in.”
And that’s the whole idea; there is a voice-over that kind of guides you through the story, but I’m not telling you this is good or this is bad or this is how you should look at it. I am giving you stuff, and then you can make your own conclusions: I like this place, I don’t like that place, I would like to be friends with those people, I would not like to be friends with those people.
How do your fans interact with that — stepping away from the camera, as far as comments and stuff?
I have the best fans ever. Like, really. They’re just very involved, super supportive and very smart. They make very incredible comments about what they see, like super deep thoughts about other cultures or whatever. It’s interesting to see what they get out of it, and I think that the message of the secret code does get out of it because you see it in the comments, like, people really get involved with the stories. And you see it in the stats, I mean, they’re watching the entire video. It’s very few people who actually step away, so that’s got to be a good sign. I hope we can keep it up, but we’ll see. So, good fans, we have great fans, 100%. Hopefully, we will get them to get out of their houses and go explore by themselves.
Check out markets.
Yeah, why not? Even in your own town. I mean, think about it. You know, wherever we live, who knows the places that they live really well? When I was doing the Miami videos, I was like, “Wow, I do all this stuff outside of my homeland, of my home place, but I don’t do it here. I don’t do the secret code here.” It was interesting for me to do my own town and actually look at it from my exploration eyes, and it was great.
So how did you come about making segments about your hometown?
It’s something I know because I live there, and I know very well this is where this happens. That is where that happens but actually conceptualizing it and putting it together and showing someone what I know and making sure it translates, it was just an interesting process, like mapping out the beach in Miami. That was great from beginning to end, and it was interesting, because it’s something that as a local you talk about, and you know that it exists, but you never know — when you film it, is somebody else actually going to get it? Is that in my head that I made it up, that this map of the beach exists? But no, it turned out that we were right all along. There is a map of the beach, so it was good.
But I know you are now just branching into giving people advice on travel tips.
Yes, that has been fun and incredibly successful. I mean, fans have been super supportive of it, so now I do a blog every Monday where I give tips about traveling, very specific tips. So it could be from how to deal with wrinkled clothes to what you should look for in a suitcase, money, how to save up on your phone bill. Throughout all these years that I’ve been traveling, all these things have happened to me. I have come back and seen the, you know, phone bill.
While people may know you as a YouTube traveler, you developed your own language software called Fluenz. How did the software come about?
Oh no, so I bought the software, and I hated i. I thought that it was terrible, I felt cheated, I felt like I paid all this money for this terrible product.
What was wrong with that software?
It was a lie. There was no way it could learn something that gives you no explanations whatsoever. The most random content, like, don’t teach me elephant. I mean, I’m not saying elephant isn’t important, but I doubt I’m going to be using that word anytime soon. I mean, I’m probably going to have to probably get into a very friendly conversation to talk about elephants. I’m probably going to talk, go to a restaurant, order food or directions or things like that. I just felt that it could be organized a lot better, and it could be explained a lot better, so that’s kind of where this interest on making something that already existed better started. I think at the end of the day, I am an entrepreneur, and whenever I see things that can be better I always think about, like, how would I do it? How could I get started with this? And language just happened to be something that I was passionate about that I saw, so I didn’t find anything that I thought was great, and I thought, “You know what? I can do this better. I will learn everything that I need to learn and put something out there that actually teaches people, and that’s where the idea started. And then 7 years later, we are here now and Fluenz has 5 languages. We are trying to complete our library to have 5 levels, and we have an incredible user base that are super happy and have learned, and it’s something I’m very proud of. It’s an interesting job coming up with these programs.
Does it tie into your web series?
Yeah, 100%, because if you look at the places that I visit they are places where the languages that we teach in the software are spoken; so French, hence Paris; Venice, Italian. So you see me speaking the languages in those places that I’m at. Obviously, I truly believe that if you learn at least a little bit of the language, your experience at that place is going to be exponentially better, and so obviously, its not the end-all, be-all. You want to focus on the town and have a great experience in Italy. If you do have time and the interest, learning a little bit will change your experience, and I’m also trying to convey that a little bit so it kind of ties in. It’s like a full circle of life. The reason to learn a language — that’s one that I think about a lot, and I think that in the end of it, it’s not so much about a reason. For a lot of people, it’s just about self. It feels good. Why would anyone want to learn Italian? The only place that it is spoken is in Italy. It’s not useful or practical, but it is beautiful, you know? And it’s like, it feels good. If you’ve always listened to people — say, Italian films or something — it sounds so great, and I want to be able to do that. I think that’s what it’s about. It’s empowering, it’s beautiful and it’s just self-fulfilling. It feels great, and I think that’s one of the big elements in language learning, more than a super practical reason.
Also, I found it the same way with other romance languages like Spanish or French, for instance.
Yeah, everybody has their own. How many people do I know have this yearning to learn French just because they love how it sounds. Some other people, it’s Italian. For some people, it’s German because for whatever reason they thinks it’s really cool. Not necessarily the best sounding in my book, but I love it. I think German is like the coolest language. For other people, it’s Spanish. Whatever it is, there’s always something that is a spark, something about it that just grabs your attention. I don’t know, what is the language that you want — close your eyes and think I would love to be able to be super fluent in?
I have an interest in French, Spanish. It’s not like an ordered list of languages, but just romance languages.
You’d love to be able to speak French?
I’d like to be able to speak French and Spanish, especially Spanish and Portuguese.
And Portuguese too? See, we are always adding to that list, there is something about it. Yeah.
Thinking about your travels and growing up, did you ever think you would be traveling as a full time job?
No! Not at all, but I’m glad I am. But it’s definitely something that has been a pattern in my life. Now, looking back, it makes all the sense in the world. I think I’m pretty much a nomad; every two years, I live somewhere else. Looking back, and ever since I was young, my family, we’ve always travelled a lot, so it’s something that’s been part of my life since the beginning. When I was young with my family, after college because I started a language business, I started to really travel for my job. Now, I’m doing a travel show. It’s just a great evolution, and it makes sense, but I would have never thought this is what I would end up being. I am a biologist. I lived in a lab during my entire college career. I mean, no, I did not imagine this at all.
Can I ask your university?
That I went to? Cornell University.
Oh, Ivy League.
Upstate NY. Very cold, very cold, very cold. I realized then I will never again live somewhere where there is such a harsh winter. I never lived in winter before, so that was an experience.
So that was your original day job? Working as a biologist?
No, so I am a biologist. Specifically, under my title, my degree says, “plant sciences.” I was very much into plant propagation and plant genetics, and I was hard core lab. And then what happened, when I was one semester away from graduating, one morning at like 2am in my lab, I just looked up and was like, “What am I doing? I mean, I like this but I don’t think I want to do this the rest of my life!” So I had a little moment of crisis there, and so I graduated because I obviously only had one semester left, and then I just took off to kind of figure out what to do. I went to live at a jungle – it’s like a whole other story. I was living at a border of the savannah, the jungle in Venezuela, for 6 months with an NGO just helping out the community and just coming up with some ways to bring health to there. Whatever, I just really did not know what I wanted to do. And so after that, while I was in college, I took some online courses, and I thought that they could be a lot better, you know? I’m in this Ivy League, amazing university, the technology is there — why is this class so terrible? I mean, the content of it was good but the format wasn’t. It wasn’t great, so from that spark and then the fact that I had bought this language-learning software — this is after college — so all these ideas: online can be better, language learning software’s not great, I want to do something better. And then I got together with my business partner and decided, you know what? I’m interested in languages, you’re interested in languages, we’re both interested in technology, I know we can do this better. Let’s give it a try. So we just kind of dove into it, and now here we are.
And that’s how Fluenz and Sonia’s Travels was born?
That’s how Fluenz was born, and “Sonia’s Travels” was born after Fluenz. So that’s kind of the story. It’s been a ride, but a fun one for sure.
It seems like the Internet has helped you become this YouTube celebrity, and now here you are at Vidcon.
Yes, I mean, two years ago you would have said I would be here doing this with you guys, and I probably would have been like, “What? That makes no sense.” There is going to be 7000 people at some convention — they’re fans of all these amazing content creators. I mean, it makes sense now, of course, but back then who knows what I would have said. You know, “You’re crazy. I’m going to be selling software at universities.” That’s probably what I would have thought, but here I am. This is much better for sure.
Now what can we look forward to in the next few months for “Sonia’s Travels?”
Great stuff. The plan is to continue doing what I’m doing, finding the secret code in more and more cities and hopefully, hopefully, become the go-to destination on the Internet for travel. But for now, I am going to go to London soon, and I am going to be doing some “Sonia’s Travels” in the actual city. And I’m also going to be doing some coverage on the Olympics, which I am very, very excited about. So I am going to be blogging daily for the first seven days of the Olympics, and I’m going to be doing more “Sonia’s Travels” show. And since I’m going to be there, I am going to jump around a couple of cities. I’m definitely going to be doing some Spain; I’m looking forward to that tremendously.
What cities in Spain?
I have to finish planning, but I’d like to go to Seville, I’d like to go to Cordoba and —
Granada would be great, but we’ll see. I mean, I’ll definitely do Barcelona first, which is a city that I’m very, very comfortable in, so it makes production just that much simpler than if I can swing by and go to Seville that would be great.
Kind of just finish up what you did when you were last in Barcelona?
Last in Barcelona was a little bit different. I mean, I didn’t do secret codes in Barcelona. It was the Tuber Tour, so it was very much more of a our experience there and just how fun it was. There is a lot more that I can show in Barcelona. There is plenty to be done there still, and it would actually look completely different from what you saw because there is just a lot more. So, looking forward to that.
So, where do you see “Sonia’s Travels” in say, five years and beyond?
Wow, five years. That’s a long — I mean, I think the plan for us is consistency and diligence. We are going to keep this up — secret code, secret code, secret code. Hopefully cover the entire map and just have that library of great, great content. In five years, ideally, yes, I would be the travel destination on the net. The Travel Channel — the true Travel Channel. So, we’ll see. I’m hoping we’ll have more shows in five years and more content, different types of content. We’ll see.
August 1, 2012 – We catch up with Sonia at the London 2012 Olympics
How do you like the Olympic atmosphere so far?
It’s amazing. When I talk to people in the street I realize how much pride there is in hosting the event. Londoners are suffering because the event is huge, transportation isn’t easy, streets are blocked, and yet everyone is really pulling together to make it work. And it is working wonderfully. You see so many volunteers all over the place. I can’t image what it takes to stage something of this magnitude.
Any events that you’re looking forward to?
Diving is incredible, specially synchronized diving. I would love to get me some tickets!
I noticed you tweeted from the tennis matches. Is this your first time going to an Olympic event?
First Olympic event, and first time at Wimbledon. The venue itself, Wimbledon is awesome. Small, friendly and very proper (say with English accent), add the national spirit everywhere and it’s hard to beat.
What Olympic coverage can we look forward to on Sonia’s Travels?
As always, I’m focusing on unlocking the secret code of the city itself and of the vibe and rhythm that the Olympics bring with it.
Any collaborations with other YouTube artists during your Olympic coverage?
Certainly! I’ve done a couple of vlogs for #waywire from London which are in their YouTube channel. I’ve posted two vlogs on my channel, one with LiveLavaLive and one with DailyGrace, and I have a great video in the works with Hannah Hart.
*Check out Sonia’s Top 5 YouTube Videos!
Special thanks to Viva Electico
Photography by Melly Lee