In 1998, I was sitting alone at a table in a nice restaurant in Madrid, Spain, preparing to eat lunch, when a Spanish man invited me to join him and his wife for lunch. I was hesitant, because I was alone in Madrid, and I did not know how to relate to other people, always being the loner and outsider in any gathering, afraid of being rejected or teased. But, I was traveling alone to try to overcome my fear of mingling with other people, especially people who did not know me.
So, I decided to accept their gracious invitation. After learning that I was from the United States, and seeing that I wore a wedding ring, the man asked me where was my husband, assuming that if I were married, I must not be traveling alone. I told him that my husband was at home, and he was shocked! With eyes the size of saucers, he asked with true disbelief, “You mean your husband lets you travel alone? I don’t even let my wife go to the store alone!”
I looked at his wife, and I was as appalled at his constant oversight of her as he was of my being alone in a foreign country. She did not speak or even look at me. She was so quiet that I assumed that she could not speak English. I responded to her husband that, in America, most men did not tell their wives where they could go, and that because I wanted to see Spain and my husband was content to never leave the United States, I made the decision to overcome my fear of going where I didn’t know anyone and trust that God was with me and would protect me.
Staring at me as though I had sprouted two heads, he said, “That is why America is going downhill. The women are wearing the pants!” That was the most stupid statement I had ever heard, but I did not tell him what I thought, not wanting to get into an argument in a foreign country with someone who might turn violent. But, I did defend the American male honor and masculinity by telling him that American men and America were doing just fine, thank you! As I spoke to her husband, his wife looked up at me with something like awe in her eyes.I realized that she could understand English.
I think she was absolutely fascinated that a woman was traveling so far away from home alone and that a woman was actually debating her husband! When he saw how she was looking at me, he told her that they were leaving. I realized that he was afraid that she would get the crazy notion in her head that women really could take care of themselves outside the home and insist on going to the store without him.
It was a different feeling to be the object of someone’s fascination, and I had one of those moments when just know that you are where you are meant to be at that very moment. This ability to talk to strangers and debate with them the merits of American manhood was new for me.
I had never been anywhere by myself. In fact, because I was shy and somewhat afraid of people, I tended to only hang around with family and friends, people who knew me and would protect me from anyone who may try to hurt me physically or emotionally. My best friend, who was a total extrovert to my introvert, insisted that I attend parties and not go off and hide somewhere. Yes, I was always the person hugging the wall at parties, trying to render myself invisible for two reasons.
First, guys never asked me to dance, which was embarrassing, so I tried to pretend that I was not interested in dancing, rather than having people know that I felt rejected. Second, I did not like being among strangers, as I was worried about upsetting someone and getting beat up or, worse, being called out in front of everyone and teased or taunted. Being an outsider and a loner suited me, mainly as I saw it as a safety measure.
But, when I found myself wanting to see Spain and not finding any family or friends willing to go with me, I chose to go alone. Of course, my family thought that I had lost my mind, since they knew that I was basically scared of my own shadow. My aunt said, “When did you get white? Black people don’t go to Europe!” I had to remind her that black people live in Europe.
Then they argued that I did not know a soul in Spain, and as a woman, I was putting myself in harm’s way for no reason. Usually, I would listen, but I knew that if I did not overcome my fear of new people and new places, I would miss out on my dream to see the world, a desire fostered from reading spy novels and British mysteries.
In my imagination, I had walked the streets of London, secretly meeting with other spies in Piccadilly Circus, to swap information to stop the latest arms deals that threatened my country, and I had rendezvoused with government agents on the Champs Élysées in Paris, as I saved the world from annihilation. Thanks to Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, and Clive Cussler, to name a few, I had developed a craving to walk the streets of European cities, seeing for myself the beauty described in my books. To do so meant going places where no one knew me.
So, I decided that, as a Christian who had witnessed God come to my rescue, I would step out in faith and practice my belief in what I preached to others: We are surrounded by angels sent by God to care for us and warn us in ways that can keep us from making the wrong move. Hebrews 1:14 states, “Therefore, angels are only servants—spirits sent to care for people who will inherit salvation.” And Psalm 34:7-8 reminds us, ” For the angel of the Lord is a guard; he surrounds and defends all who fear him. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him!”
I had a great time in Spain. I got lost once and I was accosted by beggars once, but in both cases, God answered prayer and I came home refreshed, happy, and determined that being an outsider and loner can deprive us of the company of really great people. I met two traveling sisters in Spain who advised me not to go to certain countries alone, very helpful information. I made it a point to introduce myself to people on the outings I took.
Two years after I went to Spain, I went to Geneva, Switzerland alone for eight days, and I stood on the top of the French Alps, watching skiers gracefully glide down snow-covered slopes, looking for all the world like ballet dancers. I made friends with an African American couple, and we promised to stay in touch.
I have pictures of people from other parts of the world who I would never have had the joy of interacting with if I had not overcome my fear of going where no one knows my name. There is a release from a seemingly innate xenophobia in meeting people and realizing that, no mater where people live, we have all the same anxieties, hopes, dreams, and need for a Savior, Redeemer, and Comforter.
If you have dreams of traveling and you are afraid to do it alone, especially as a woman, then find a group of people and travel with them. I traveled a couple of times with Women Traveling Together, an organization that takes women all over the world, sharing hotel rooms with strangers who become new friends. There comes a time to shed the outsider and loner roles, and interact with the rest of the world, and, in doing so, we live our faith, touch the hearts of strangers, and see God in their faces and smiles.