You won’t find Charming in these photographs. He was six time zones behind me, waking up stateside while I posed on the Puente de San Martin with new friends. The women are all preparing to lead our first tours; Pat is our EF consultant. A week ago, he was just a voice on the telephone, but that was before I met Rachel and Regina at the Norfolk airport.
We sat three in a row on the first flight on our way to Spain last Wednesday. By the time we met up with the EF staff and other teachers and faculty attending the training tour, the clock read 8:15 am in Madrid, but it felt like we were old friends. We tended to gravitate toward one another all weekend, wandering off to take photos, shop for souvenirs, and find delicious food options together.
The purpose of this tour was to help us learn both what to expect when leading our own tours and the best practices for preparing for and taking a group of students to a foreign country. In practice exercises, fully immersed as students, we toured the Prado Museum, the Palacio Real, and the Catedrál de Toledo. In classroom sessions, we explored questions and got answers from experienced tour leaders. The effective approach sent me back to Virginia armed and ready to start fund raising.
This summer, I’ll take a handful of junior girls to Italy. It’s been my dream to visit the country where my family has deep roots, and this particular crew excites me. While on my training tour in Madrid, I could substitute the scenery and just as easily imagine my young blogger Rapunzel at my side looking up at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We will, in seven months, we’ll see that and so much more.
On my first night in Madrid, after we’d returned to the hotel from a late dinner, I found myself wandering the cobblestone streets around a park. My time clock was off. I couldn’t sleep yet. I was secretly hoping that if I stayed awake long enough, Charming would get off work and call me. He did. I continued wandering as we spoke; amidst the Spanish town, he felt further away than ever. We hung up, and I sat on the steps of the hotel, planning how I’d get ready for bed without waking my roommate.
Chris came and sat beside me. He’s one of the experienced group leaders. We talked about the tours he’s led, and discovered a shared passion for the Italian language. He’ll be in Italy when I take my girls, studying in an immersion program, and we promised to connect. Like me, Chris doesn’t have any children of his own, and like mine, his students reap the benefit. Ask him the best, most efficient way of navigating a group of forty through a foreign subway, and he won’t hesitate to explain.
Chris is evidence that experience does, in fact, foster wisdom. With each tour, different problems presented themselves. With each tour, Chris would then prepare for those possibilities. Years in, he’s developed a guide for new group leaders like myself. In our brief conversation on the stairs of the Leonardo Hotel, we started from a common ground, skipped over pleasantries, and dove into genuine dialogue. It was refreshing.
Earlier that day, I didn’t know his name yet, but he’d jumped into my selfie in Plaza Mayor. He’d made me laugh then, too. I’d honestly felt dejected when I hung up the phone with Charming, lamenting my singleness for the hundred thousandth time. Then Chris sat down with me overlooking the avenue, and I started to see the community I was being inducted into last weekend.
Chris leads two to three tours a year. He sees the world, and he takes his responsibility to his students seriously. By the time we left those stairs, I was planning our next trip to Cuba, Spring Break 2018. I’ll be ready then to take a larger, co-ed group. I don’t have kids waiting at home for dinner or a ride to baseball practice, so there’s no sacrifice necessary in leading a tour each year in the meantime.
There’s something about being in a foreign country that naturally predisposes you to looking on the bright side. For example, I left the USA before the post-election news coverage began. Also, I knew Mr. G. was going to have a few awesome days with my students back in Hampton. Better yet, I’d made two local friends, Rachel and Regina. Rachel teaches social studies in Virginia Beach, and Regina teaches math at our rival high school, Bethel. We might even do that Cuba trip together.
And when mishaps occurred on our trip? They were just learning experiences, opportunities for us to know what to do in an undesirable situation. Like when Rachel and I were taking pictures in Toledo, and the group had disappeared down tiny streets, only we had no clue which one. A handful of us were separated, but there was a plan in place. Our tour director had prepared us for this before exiting the bus. We were supposed to find the Puente de San Martin. As you can see from the picture, we did.
Of course, in that moment, I remembered getting lost in Portugal with Mulan eleven years ago. As an hour passed and we hadn’t found our hotel, we were scared. In our fear, we turned our frustration on each other and quarreled. The argument made us stop, reorient ourselves in more than one way, and ultimately find our hotel. There were no smart phones then. We didn’t speak the language. Each stressor built until we weren’t enjoying our experience.
On the nine hour return flight from Madrid on Sunday, I journaled for an hour. The bright side I’d been looking on was clearly behind me, the distance from it deepening as I hurtled westbound. It had nothing to do with the position of the sun. On foreign soil, surrounded by new friends like Chris, Rachel, and Regina, I saw the wonder and possibility of the future.
But the plane was bringing me back to my present, and my present is far from an organized EF tour. It’s reminiscent of the never-ending twists and turns of streets and stores that all look the same in Lisbon. I’m lost, on the way to somewhere, and I can’t seem to get there. The further from Spain we flew, the darker my tone. I can look on the bright side and see the opportunities my freedom from a family affords me in the future, but in the muted silence above the clouds, I saw no bright side.
Could a mood change so drastically simply by geographic location? It’s the fear when we’re lost that makes us lash out in frustration. As I wrote on the plane, my tears smudged the sky blue ink. I want to be a mother. I also want to be happy while I’m lost in these tiny streets finding my way there, confident that I’ll know what to do in a crisis because wisdom comes with experience. I wanted to go home…
Home to my students, my children. From my new community at EF Tours back to my family at Kecoughtan High. Yesterday, we set in motion our official travel club: Beyond Borders. Limitless possibilities, exponential potential for the broadening of teenage horizons, and mine — this is the effect of meeting inspiring people like Pat, Chris, Rachel, and Regina abroad.
I can’t wait to see who inspires my girls in Italy. I’m counting down the days.