I’ve been in San Sebastián, Spain, for the past couple of weeks teaching a class on mindfulness and how amazing it is for, well, it would seem pretty much everything. For those who have asked if I’m enjoying myself, the answer is yes. And no. But mostly yes…I think.
The thing is, I didn’t necessarily do this because I was internally motivated to learn more about mindfulness, or even because I am passionate about travel. And truly, I’m not here because I think I have something brilliant or special to offer, although I do think the students are appreciating my jokes and stories.
No, I’m here to face my fears.
Yesterday, my beloved family left Spain after spending the first two weeks of the trip with me. Their flight left early, so I was nervous about all of the pieces falling into place. This is especially true since neither my husband nor I speak Spanish well enough to problem solve at 5:00 a.m. should something go wrong. Well, it didn’t. Aside from the fact that the bathroom was too busy for me to have my morning constitution (I’d have the bathroom all to myself in a few minutes, I told myself) everything went completely smoothly. The taxi we reserved arrived right on time, and all of the kids were troopers about getting up and out of the apartment. I was even able to let go of my need for control enough not to jump into another cab and follow them to the airport to make sure they got on the plane. (There wasn’t room in the cab, and my husband convinced me to save the money for pintxos and fancy Spanish souvenirs). I gave them all a kiss and watched them drive away in the dark. That was a medium step for me.
As I went back into the apartment, I rode the elevator to the 5th floor and thought of the ups and downs from the past two weeks. We had some really great afternoons at the beach, and I think at least one of my kids might be interested in studying overseas as a result of this experience.
So, when I got to the apartment door, I took a breath and realized that I was about to be on my own—really on my own—for the first time in my life. Of course, I travel for work a lot, and I’ve been away from people I care about for periods of time, even doing things that terrify me slightly (think: AIDS Ride). But I’ve never lived alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language (very well). This is why I volunteered for this experience. I know that I come from a long line of mavericks who have moved to foreign lands because it was best for their families, best for their professional lives, and/or because they knew they needed to face their fears. I needed a reminder that I, too, can do hard things.
I put my key in the lock and…hmm…why is it sticking? Ugh. Old building, old lock, new key. Maybe if I jiggle it? Why isn’t it turning…at all?!
(Insert curse word)
(Insert lots of curse words!)
You know that feeling of calm that washes over you in the midst of a crisis when you realize everything is going to be fine? Yeah. Me, neither. I was locked out of my apartment at 5:30am in Spain, where I don’t speak the language (very well).
Okay, get a hold of yourself, Juni. I rode the elevator back downstairs and paced around the block. What was that I had just taught the students about surfing the wave of distressing emotions? And something about expressing gratitude to pop the bubble of panic? I somehow had the foresight to put on a bra and my glasses, at least. I also instinctively took my purse because that’s where my stupid nonfunctional key was, and I had my phone. I remembered my dad once telling my aunt, “As long as you have some money and can speak English, you can survive anywhere in the world.” I suppose I was about to test that theory.
Now, mind you, I knew I wasn’t in physical danger. San Sebastián, even at 5:30 am, is a pretty safe place. I also know that as far as travel catastrophes go, this one was really mild. But I hope you’re getting the point—this was MY greatest fear: Being in a semi-vulnerable position, by myself, in a country where I don’t speak the language (very well). Plus, I really had to poop now.
I went back up to the apartment to try the key again. I jiggled it. I tried to force it. Hell, I even went to the end of the hallway and took a running leap at the keyhole. I don’t think I cursed out loud, but I was starting to worry that my crazed key-jiggling would wake up the neighbors who, I was sure, would call the police to report that a brown woman complaining of a roiling gut was trying to break into the apartment next door.
(Insert another curse word).
I went back outside and swallowed the urge to cry. Not sure why—I had just lectured the students on how important it is to mindfully accept our emotions without judging them. I wanted comfort, so I faced my fear of getting slapped with a huge AT&T phone bill next month and did what I knew would help: I called my husband.
Me: “Hey! Did you make it okay?”
Eric: “Yeah. The airport wasn’t even open when we got here. We’re just waiting at the gate now.”
Me: “Great! Guess what happened to me?”
Eric: “You locked yourself out.”
Me: “Not exactly. My key just doesn’t work. It goes in just fine, but it won’t turn at all.”
Eric: “Hmm. Did you try jiggling it?”
Me (silently): “DUH”
In his defense, he did say some very comforting things that I couldn’t hear because I now realized that no one was going to come rescue me. I was going to have to: (1) ask for help, (2) ineloquently, and (3) poop in a public toilet, probably a dirty one. My personal hell.
The truth is, I’m a good problem solver. Exceptional, really. I think it comes from having a sick dad who needed a lot of rescuing, mostly because his dementia made it hard to remember where things were. Like his wallet. Or the bathroom. Or our house.
I also remembered that I have witnessed a lot of amazing problem solving in my family. I remembered my mom fake sobbing in a mob full of men at the Kolkata airport when they announced that some people were getting bumped from the plane. “I have small children!” she wailed. My sister and I were 19 and 15, respectively.
I remembered my brother-in-law leading us around Kathmandu in search of help for his mother who was experiencing symptoms of panic and/or psychosis and needed meds (traveling in South Asia is tough, y’all).
I remembered keeping it together while driving my daughter to the emergency room after a nasty encounter with a ceiling fan.
I pulled out my phone and opened the translation app I downloaded a couple of days ago “just for fun.”
Mi llave no funciona. Necesito un cerrajero. ¿Puede ayudarme, por favor?
I repeated it a few times as I walked around looking for someone who seemed forgiving enough to give a frantic, flip-flopped, half-blind person a break. Then I remembered the fancy hotel I pass every day as I walk to the university. Europeans are streaming in and out of it all the time. Surely the front desk staff there speaks English! I’ll tell them I’m a very important doctor teaching at the university and need help getting into my apartment.
I walked in, and sure enough, the lovely young concierge tried not to look at me sideways as I explained my situation. In perfect English, she explained that she thought there was a locksmith across the river, and that they might open later this morning.
“Thanks. May I use your bathroom?”
It was very fancy with real towels for drying your hands. One fear averted.
I wandered back across the river toward my apartment and thought about what else I should do. I would probably find an open café in an hour or so. I could drink a café con leche and then call Tito, the charming USAC staff member who helped us get this great apartment in this great part of town. Then I remembered that Tito expressly told all the students at the orientation meeting that they could call his cell phone, “Only if your apartment is on fire. Haha.” My apartment certainly wasn’t on fire, and I wondered if international law would protect me from threatening Tito with bodily harm.
I found myself back at my apartment, just standing there. Then I noticed a hostel a couple of doors down. Yes! There were two women working at the front desk! I made sad puppy eyes and pressed my palms together to beg for help through the window. The first woman cracked the door open so she could hear me better.
Mi…key…no funciona. Necesito…a locksmith. ¿Ayuda me?
She was sweet, but clearly questioned my intentions. The other woman chimed in.
“I speak English. May I help?”
I explained that my family had just left, and I said goodbye, and my worst nightmare came true when I realized I couldn’t get back into my apartment, and I’m so embarrassed, but at least I found a bathroom…
Between the two of them, they found a 24-hour locksmith. The English-speaking hostel staff member told me her name was Ane, which I’m pretty sure means “Angel Sent from the Gods” in Basque. She translated the whole mess over the phone for me, and within 20 minutes (I kid you not), a strapping young locksmith was at my apartment door. We communicated non-verbally, and I showed him how my key didn’t work. Then the dude took a piece of plastic and shoved it between the door and jam, and it popped open. I asked him to check the other keys I had in an envelope in the apartment and tried to ask why mine didn’t work? He held mine up next to the others and said, “Es diferente.” Sigh. Somehow, when I was “getting organized” and making sure Eric’s keys got back into the envelope, I switched mine out for the one set that was nonfunctional.
The locksmith was very polite as he wrote up the ticket for opening a door (1) during non-regular hours, (2) on a Saturday, and (3) during a festival weekend. The bill certainly sucked, but I mindfully expressed my gratitude that I am no longer a starving student and handed over my credit card.
So, what did I learn from all of this? As I see it, I have multiple options:
- International travel is risky, so you should avoid it.
- International travel is risky, so you should only do it with people who will take good care of you and will make sure you are never uncomfortable.
- International travel is risky, and that’s why you have to do it. You are capable, Juni, and stronger than you know. Your superpower is relating to people, and once you did that and were honest about how embarrassed and scared you were, people helped.
I think I’m going with C. Tomorrow’s lecture is supposed to be on “How Do I Teach Mindfulness to Clients?” I think this all happened to help me prep for class. I think you teach clients how to accept, surf, and not judge distressing emotions by putting them in situations that feel unacceptable, permanent, and embarrassing…and then help them see what a great job they did getting through it all.
Devjani (Juni) Banerjee-Stevens, PhD, is the Associate Director of the Counseling & Wellness Center at California State University Chico and was a Visiting Professor at the USAC San Sebastián program in July 2017.