Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Are you ever scared?"

Amy wrote and asked me the question that is the title of this post. Am I ever afraid when I am out and about, globetrotting alone? The easiest answer to that question is: yes and no. Truthfully, I am not afraid - in the sense of "I could die if I do this." Or "What if I get raped or robbed or drugged in a restaurant?" I really don't feel that sort of fear or panic.

What I do feel are occasional waves of heightened awareness. I will be walking down a street and get the sense that someone who is approaching me is paying more attention to me than I'd like. Or someone approaching me from behind is walking too close for comfort.

In the former situation, I avert my eyes from that person's eyes, and I watch their feet as they go past. As long as they keep moving and don't slow down, I'm fine. If they slow down or appear to be approaching me, I look up, directly into their face, and stare right at them. I am adamantly clear (by my expression) that I am NOT afraid. That I will stand up for myself. That I know who I am, Whose I am, and I am not lost in their country.

Here's an example. One afternoon last week, as I walked down a noisy, crowded street in Rome, a homeless man approached me with his hands extended for money. I shook my head and began to walk around him. He grabbed both of my arms and tried to keep me from going around him. I looked him directly in the eye, and said, firmly, "No. No." He was quite surprised at my strong response, immediately let go, and moved on. Was I afraid? Not at all. I know (or felt rather confident) that he wasn't going to hurt me. His intention was to frighten me into giving him money. When it was obvious that I wasn't frightened by him, nor was I going to give him anything, he left me alone.

(By the way, that is the only time - since 1986 - that a person has ever touched me like that. Lots of times, people ask for money or try to get me to look at them or speak to them or buy something from them on the street. But physical contact is not the norm. In August of 1986, on my first trip to Europe, I was groped on a train by the conductor! By the ticket-taker!!! Same response: "No, no, no." He left me alone after that. That night, alone in the sleeping compartment on that train, I was afraid. But I also decided then and there to not let that incident ruin my entire trip or take away my love for European travel. The resolve I began to build that night has only grown over the past 21 years. I will NOT give up my rightful place on earth to creeps and jerks like that. No way.)

If I feel like someone is too close for comfort behind me, I will choose a store window or restaurant doorway ahead of me, and when I get there, I stop and look in the window. I casually look at the person who is behind me as well - letting them know that I know they are there, and that I am not about to pretend that I don't know. By stopping suddenly on the sidewalk, I force the person behind me to move on. I have never been afraid at those moments.

The truth is that God has developed a sense of peace in me that is inexplicable - peace that passes all understanding. I am always aware that I am not alone. There are no foes that can defeat me. There is no one out there that can harm my soul or my spirit. I am no less protected and loved and cared for alone in Rome than in Charlotte or New York or Connecticut. Peace truly reigns.

This photo was taken this past Sunday morning. Read on.

This past Sunday, on my last day in Rome, I left the hotel in search of a fountain that is known for its turtles. As I had purchased several small turtle statues for Kristiana (who loves all animals!), I decided to find that fountain and take photos of it for her.

So early in the morning, I set out on my long walk. It was raining. The streets were mostly deserted. Heightened alert. "Pay attention, Gail." Every couple of blocks, I stopped and looked around me. Is there anyone walking down the street behind me? Does anyone seem to be watching me or paying attention to me?

At one particular corner, the answer to that last question was an unmistakable "Yes." There was a man walking on the street across from me who looked over at me three or four times. He slowed his pace and seemed to watch to see which direction I was heading. Because it was raining, I had an umbrella up. I lowered it so he wouldn't be able to see my face, and I watched his feet. He slowed down. I did too. I walked across the street to the side he was on as that was where I needed to be. He slowed down even more, but he was still ahead of me, so I ducked into a doorway and stood still for a minute or so. Peeked out. He was further along on the street. I stayed where I was for another minute or two. Peeked out again. He was gone.

I continued down the street in the same direction he had gone. Turned the corner onto what I thought was the street I wanted and picked up my pace considerably. I didn't want him to see me if he backtracked. I was the only person on the block. "Keep paying attention, Gail."

I looked up at the street sign: wrong one. Oops. "Keep walking, Gail. Don't turn around." Half a block down on the left side: Sanctuary. Refuge. A church. I went inside. Sat down on a pew. Took a deep breath. Prayed and thanked God for the alertness He'd given me and the safety He'd provided.

Then I pulled out my map. I was on the right street. At the next corner, the name would change to the one I needed. Two short blocks down on the left: the turtle fountain. I took photos. All along the way as I walked on to my next destination, I said my favorite prayer of all: "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Lord."

Was I afraid? No, I really wasn't. Alert? Attentive? Prayerful? Absolutely. But I refuse to give up my curiosity about the world on account of fear of the unknown or fear of potential harm.

That is a great question, Amy.
The simplest answer is this: No, I am not afraid when I am on these trips.
Two Scriptures flash through my mind frequently while I am away.

I am the Lord, the God of all mankind.
Is there anything too hard for me?

(No, Lord, there is nothing too hard for you.
Protecting little old me here in little old Rome is nothing for You.)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God,
and the peace of God, which passes all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

(At the end of each of the three Italian masses I sat through
- four actually - three in Italian and one in French -
the priest says, "Andate in pace." Go in peace.
In my mind I answer, Yes, I will go in peace.
On these trips, truly I am at peace.)


Professor Howdy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Amy said...

Well said! Thank you for sharing and for your reassurance to those of us who haven't yet taken that big step of going abroad solo.

By the way, I'm one of those Target wanderers, too. A Starbucks in hand while roaming the aisles isn't such a bad thing!

Laurie said...

I have a son in law who is in Iraq for the third time (well, actually Iraq twice and Afghanistan once). He flies Black Hawk helicopters. I told Kelly when he left that God already had his days numbered and if he were to live to be 100 years old that no bullet, no terrorist could steal his life. And if his time was up, then he would pass, possibly even at home in his sleep. It brings comfort to me to know that God is ALWAYS in control.
I love Europe and travel. I leave for Bolivia in late March for the third time!

Shelby said...

Thank you for this. You breathe life into encouraging words.

Lisa said...

Oh, I love this post. Like many of your others (most, in fact) your unique voice and experience shines through.

We simply MUST travel together sometime. We would make a great team!

I was accosted on a train in Europe, too! And again in my dorm room in France. But neither experience left a cynical mark on me.

Go in peace, indeed.