a lifetime dream of visiting Spain and studying Spanish there. Ever since Professor DeCamp had spoken of the wonders of Espana in my first year college Spanish class–“las montanas, el mar, las playas, la cultura, las mujeres bonitas”–I had known that one day I would travel there. I had packed carefully as any good Goshen College traveler does – just what I needed in one carry-on suitcase (five of this, three of that, two of another), a large purse containing a little bit of everything and the travel pouch around my neck with passport and a few euros close to my heart.
I embraced Barcelona with delight, visiting the Gothic Cathedral with the black Jesus in the first chapel on the right, smiling at Gaudi’s playful architecture – his Hansel and Gretel houses in the Parc Guell and the still-to-be-finished La Sagrada Familia, the only church in the world, the guide tells us, with a representation of the marriage of Mary and Joseph.
The next morning I worshipped the work of Pablo Picasso in the Museo Picasso as thoroughly as any Mennonite college professor dared. For the first time I felt that I understood the various periods of his life and work – the Blue, the Pink – and the story behind the painting of Guernica.
I then decided to sit in the park near my hotel. On the bench to my right sat a family of three eating ice cream and chatting; to my left sat an old woman in pink with a beige hat. I pulled out the yogurt from my large bolsa and began to eat. The old woman moved, perhaps feeling that the 20 minutes of sun had been enough for the day.
I noticed a young man sitting down where the woman had been. He was texting. Moments later he asked me a question about a paper he was holding. Determined to demonstrate my best Spanish, I tried to respond. No, I didn’t understand his question. He began to move away as I settled into my seat.
Then in one wild moment I knew: the purse on the bench beside me was no longer there. “Me robaron!” I had fallen prey to one of the oldest schemes of a skillful ladron. While one person distracted me with a question, his accomplice had grabbed my bag.
For one long moment I couldn’t breathe, let alone speak. My mind whirled through the contents of my large travel purse – all my prescription meds, itinerary and travel vouchers, umbrella, cell phone, credit cards. Wait! Where was my passport? Had I also put the travel pouch in my larger bag that morning as I sometimes did on the plane?
Or was it…? I grabbed my neck and finally began to breathe in a semi-regular rhythm again. I had my passport safely in my pouch along with – I tried hard to remember –about 40 euros.
When I could walk again, I wobbled to the nearest tienda for help. The kind storekeeper assured me confidently that I would never see my bag again, and he called the police, who, he informed me, wouldn’t be able to do anything either. Sure enough, the police arrived minutes later to affirm that my bag was gone forever but that indeed– they nodded wisely – I should file a report at the police station.
Ting-Toomey and Chung’s revised W-shaped model of culture shock which I teach every semester in Communicating Across Cultures had come alive for me. Gone was the honeymoon stage. I had dropped to the bottom of the first V of the “W” right into the hostility phase.
What was I to do, alone in Barcelona, sans meds, credit cards, American dollars, and travel information? I stopped to breathe again. In just one hour I was scheduled to go to the airport en route to Malaga and my two weeks of language study. “I should strategize,” I thought. What resources did I have? Well, the passport would bring up my flight information and I had enough to pay for the taxi to the airport. That would leave me a few euros for the next day. My transport from Malaga’s airport to the school’s residence was already planned. So I retrieved my suitcase from the hotel, asked for a cab and headed to the airport where I would begin another adventure.
The taxi driver suggested I head to the airport pharmacy to see about refilling my meds. With no prescriptions, I wasn’t hopeful. But the pharmacist told me she could refill two, but I would need a doctor’s signature for the third. There was a doctor, she informed me, in the same area as airport security. I should go and find him, get a prescription with his signature, then return to the pharmacy for the medication before my flight.
Several versions of directions later, I arrived at the area where airline names proclaimed their offices of seguridad, along a Kafka-esque corridor of look-alike doors and offices. Many conversations later (my Spanish was improving rapidly now!) I met the doctor who reluctantly signed a prescription since he didn’t know me and I trudged back to the pharmacy, then lined up for my boarding pass. I had never been so happy to sit on a plane waiting an extra hour to take off as I was that night.
Arriving in Malaga, I was relieved to see my name on the placard held up by the school representative who came to meet me. My troubles were over, or so I thought. The next day I discovered that the residence had no phone. I would call the next day when I started classes, I decided as I munched on the dry bread I had bought in Barcelona. The next morning I headed to the school’s computers to email someone at GC and my family and friends. I was going to need some money fast or I would have neither food nor transport.
I waited as the computer tried repeatedly to connect to the Goshen College site. When that failed, I finally asked to make a telephone call. The phone would not connect either. I tried again. No ring to GC. This was getting ridiculous. By now day two was over, and I had reached no one.
The second day of classes began with a sense of urgency as I tried my GC email and then the phone again. I was one can of tuna and four crackers away from being without food or money, and the school’s business manager had firmly explained to me that he could give me money only after it was securely wired to the school’s bank account.
Finally on late Tuesday afternoon I reached a close friend who called GC with the school’s bank account number and Swift code. Maybe I would be all right. But I knew no money could possibly arrive before day three. I really was alone. “Nervous in Barcelona,” “Hungry in Malaga,” – “Stranded in the Costa del Sol.” I imagined the possible titles for the story I would someday write about this experience.
Finally I decided to do what we had been informed to do in our orientation meeting on Monday morning. “Si tienes un problema grande, pida a hablar con la directora.” At 6 on Tuesday afternoon I did just that and found out that the school’s director was kind beyond my expectations. “How much do you need before the wire comes through?” she asked “500 euros?” She reached for a large envelope thick with money and began to count. “Oh, no,” I replied. “300 will certainly be enough.” And it was.
I began to relax into the rhythm of classes, afternoon tea in a café by the Mediterranean Sea, completing homework as the sun set over the water. The next day money arrived from the United States, wired from Goshen College to my language school. By Thursday I had moved from the hostility phase of the revised W-shaped culture shock to the In-Sync stage where one day slides poco a poco into another. Soon enough I would move on to the ambivalence stage, anticipating the trip home while wishing I could stay longer before I experienced reentry culture shock.
So what have I learned? First, that I can indeed be comfortable with being uncomfortable, a challenge I present every semester to my Communicating Across Cultures students. Second, that even when isolated and alone I am part of a rich global community. Third, that distinct and beautiful differences enrich the similarities of people in every place. And fourth, most importantly, that God is present with me…no matter where, no matter what.
Am I ready to go again? Ask me in a few months. I strongly suspect my answer will be “Si, por supuesto!”
(Many thanks to Nancy Miller, Dallis Miller and Anita Stalter who together made sure that money was wired to me as quickly as possible after the robbery.)
—By Pat Lehman