Trouble in a foreign land


The young woman wore a white lab coat and smiled back at me, but before she even said a word, I could see that she had no idea what I had just asked. I was more than 3,900 miles from home and I was in trouble. 

When I had agreed to travel with my daughter to Barcelona, Spain as part of a middle school educational travel program, I was looking forward to seeing the Basílica de la Sagrada Família, the largely unfinished Roman Catholic basilica, designed by famous architect Antoni Gaudi, and a million other sites. I was expecting a trip I would never forget. I wasn’t expecting to get off the plane, go through customs, and walk out of the airport with itchy burning, bloodshot eyes.

Traveling light

I thought I was just tired from the long flight from the U.S. to England and then to Spain and that the problem would go away on its own, but the burning after the first night went from bad to worse. I was starting to look like I had gone a round with Rocky in the boxing ring. My eyelid had swollen and was starting to impact my vision. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to go to the hospital. 

Our large group of students, teachers, and chaperones was getting ready to board our bus to start our day. I needed to act fast, so I stopped by a small “farmacia,” a half of a block outside of our hotel. Of course, as my luck would have it, the woman behind the counter spoke no English. When I asked if she had anything that might help, she stared back at me. In typical ugly American fashion, I spoke slower a second time, thinking that if I spaced out my words she might somehow understand and be able to help.

Say what again

I tried to offer a few rudimentary words in Spanish. My study habits and three years of high school Spanish let me down because she continued to look back at me in a blank stare. Mrs. Burns, my teacher, would be so disappointed in me. In my mind, I could see her staring at me over her glasses the way she used to do whenever someone was caught talking when they weren’t supposed to be, yell out my Spanish name I went by in the class, and ask: “Benjamín, is that the best you can do? I don’t think so.”

I was ready to give up. I knew my group would be leaving soon and I didn’t want to be late. As an afterthought, I pointed to my eye. The pharmacist must have noticed the redness, because she reached under the kiosk and pulled out a small box that looked like the Spanish equivalent of Visine. 

Thank God for small miracles!

The pharmacist muttered something under her breath, probably about how crazed I looked, and I was able to make out that it cost several pesos. I handed her the coins and raced out of the store. 

All’s well that ends well

I made it to the bus just in time. I plopped into my seat tried to read the back of the box. I could make out only a few words, but I squirted a few drops into my eyes and prayed for relief. Fortunately, my eyes cleared up within a few hours and I could go back to enjoying my vacation and rest of our trip first to Barcelona and then up and down the Spanish coastline. 

I thought about the memory a few weeks ago while I filled my car up with gas. A small man got out of his car that was pulled up next to me and asked me in clipped English how to get to a local site. I had to focus hard to listen to the man’s words through his mask (yes, we are still trying to deal with COVID) and tried to help the man the best I could. 

When we were done, he thanked me several times. I told him to forget it since I hadn’t done much. As I was walking away I thought about it for a second and turned around, adding that someone had once helped me. 

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