By Nancy Bowne
When I worked as an au pair in Barcelona this past summer, I quickly discovered that getting lost helps us prepare for the adventures and decisions of the present.
Not knowing where you are is frightening — my family and friends would certainly never endorse my navigation skills on LinkedIn.
I’m a planner by heart, often creating theoretical lists of free museum days and concerts.And although I’m not a particularly competitive person, losing is one of my greatest fears — losing memories, people and or even losing belongings.
I soon realized that the beauty and clarity of getting lost can sharpen our instincts and our priorities. While working in Barcelona, I created a distinctive cultural life experience that would prepare me for my future endeavors.
As my host mom drove me to the local bus station for my first weekend in the city, I went over my game plan for the day. She downplayed what navigating the city would like, but I didn’t want any pressure. I wanted to experience the city for the first time with ease.
“Oh, when you return tonight, stay away from the neighborhood bulls,” she said.
“What are they in English? Pigs?” she responded, like it was no big deal.
I began roaming the city, strolling down the giant walkways while sporting a denim hat that I made especially for my trip. I discovered empanadas and freshly squeezed fruit juices at the Boqueria marketplace, eagerly used my T-10 ticket to transfer metros and watched performers in the El Born neighborhood.
The day went by without a hitch — until I found myself lost when I began the journey home in the unfamiliar city.
I took photos of the neighborhood routes that morning. But at night, it all looked different. The dogs behind the gates of the houses made their presence known as I trudged across pebble pathways, desperately hoping each turn would lead to a familiar sight. To this day, I remember pacing the streets, listening to Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans,” on my Spotify playlist and coaxing myself into believing that I could make it home. It was around 10 p.m., and only the faint glow of streetlights shedded light on the scary situation I found myself in.
I took pride in being a lone traveler. But could I handle it? Whenever I was self-critical, I reminded myself that I was an 18 year old girl traveling alone in a foreign city with no WiFi, no phone service and no knowledge of the native language, Catalan.
Surprisingly, I got lost in the high fences and bulls of suburbia rather than the busy streets and subways of the city. I had to trust my instincts and use my available resources. After asking some people on the streets for help, I met an elderly couple, Paco and Carmen — my Spanish guardian angels to this day.
Paco and Carmen rejuvenated my trust in people and helped me improve my confidence in speaking Spanish. We were able to navigate the city together as they led me to my destination. I gave them a big hug. I don’t know how I would have made it home otherwise.
I felt fearless. I continued to get lost throughout the trip, but I embraced it. I found the best tapas with my au pair friends and even found an Apple Store when my phone shut down. There was nothing to be afraid of. I probably know Barcelona better than I know Philadelphia.
Nearly a third of the photos from that trip are random timetables and maps. Perhaps public transportation is the real artifact of the local lifestyle. I also have a framed photo of the Barcelona metro map in my dorm that my parents gave me for Christmas.
What we plan in the morning does not always offer the same results by the evening. We must appreciate the future and embrace the unknown.