Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

GSP 9: The providence of an unplanned Spanish stop

After I’d settled into my third UK residence of a 10-day visit, I became immersed in the problem of visas for my west Africa stops. As a result, I fell behind on planning more immediate stops: in southern Europe.

When my London host asked, on one of my last nights there, where I was headed next, I had to admit I had nothing really finalized, except a short visit with my brother. In fact, I hadn’t even decided which countries! I’d emailed some leads in Italy, but it seemed that everyone went on vacation around then. Literally. Everyone.

Fortunately, my London host had a friend in Spain, who not only answered promptly, but also agreed to a few-day visit. And that is how I wound up not in Barcelona (as I expected) or Madrid (where I’d actually done a brief stint of street evangelism) … but Valencia.

Until I arrived there, I’m not sure I’d actually heard of the place, but Valencia proved one of my most picturesque cities yet.

I had ample time to explore the city in my first few days there, because the only person I knew was my host. With only a nominal Catholicism at best, she knew no more about local churches than I did. Thus, for the first time this trip, I closed my eyes and googled “mass in English.”

Well, OK, I’m not that good a phone swiper. But as modern searches go, googling a church is not far from blindly fingering a map. Fortunately, my search yielded one church. And after a few emails, combined with an in-person visit, I finally found an English-speaking priest.

Part of a church in Valencia — one of many I saw.

Part of a church in Valencia — one of many I saw.

He didn’t think I’d chosen a very good place to find single Christians (the church did well as a wedding venue), but when I went to the advertised English mass on Saturday, I managed to find two single Spaniards. (Pictured below: traditional attire in a shop not far from the church.)

Score one for Google! Unfortunately, my window to stay with that first Valencia host had shrunk to mere hours. So after a few more Google searches and emails to another congregation, I packed all my bags and took them to a Protestant church the next day. (The Catholics I’d met proved quite kind, but somehow I’ve had more success finding hosts in my own tradition.)

When I got to the church, I didn’t know where I was staying that night. But strangely, I didn’t feel as worried as I probably should have. Either the growing heat wave had lulled my usual first-born planner instincts (and the panic that should have accompanied my predicament) … or I trusted what I could not yet see.

In any case, God provided. By the end of that service, a woman I’d never met before had not only agreed to host me for the next few nights, she’d given me the key to her apartment!

The view from my second “home” in Valencia.

The view from my second “home” in Valencia.

Going into this trip, I knew that I’d get to see the church around the world in ways that few people get to, but I didn’t expect to be so humbled by its generosity.

In the end, I didn’t make it to any other European countries before Africa, and I didn’t end up having to change homes again. Though my second host left to walk the camino before my intended departure from Valencia, I hit it off well enough with her roommate that she let me stay there two more nights.

One night, my host’s housemate shared her dinner with me: a simple meal of salad and simply cooked mussels.

One night, my host’s housemate shared her dinner with me: a simple meal of salad and simply cooked mussels.

Looking back, part of me still thinks I should have planned ahead better — been more responsible, for goodness sake! But then I think of that spring-break trip two decades ago, in Paris.

One night, I went to a swing dance club with a college friend there for a semester abroad to study French. Unlike her, I could barely even say, “I’m a photographer” to explain all the random pictures I took. (The more accurate, “I am studying photography and especially like street photographers,” would have exhausted my powers to attempt a third language.)

In those pre-Google days, smartphones and translation apps were yet but a twinkling in the eyes of their future developers. But when my friend had to leave for the night, I decided to test my miming skills and stay on for a few more dances.

The basement club had only just started to hum with the dancing that had drawn me there, and I’d met a friendly group of locals whose English seemed to match my French.

I don’t recall how late we stayed, but when things finally broke up for the night, I discovered a fact my friend had vaguely mentioned: even the vaunted Paris metro stopped part of the night. And its sleeping hour had come.

In some form or fashion, my new French friends offered me a lift to my hostel — if only I could direct them there.

To this day, I’m still not sure how I remembered enough geographic detail to get them there, but what I knew, I managed to put into German.

Yes, German. You see, though neither my French nor their English could handle much more than hello and thank you, it turned out one woman among them taught German. And since I’d had a few years of that in high school, we both knew just enough to communicate … and to get me safely “home” that night.

That night, I made a thrilling discovery about some of life’s possibilities. At 21, I had never before cast myself out into life that way — risked something without knowing what would rise to meet my feet or whether it would break them.

Some might say that I jumped and found the universe in a kindly mood; as a Christian, I credit a merciful God.

By no means does everything work that way, but now and then life has showed me that sometimes provision does not appear until you leap; sometimes you have to allow the space, the void, the emptiness of not knowing how things will work out in order for something new and often good to enter your life. If you play things safe, that change may never come.

By God’s grace, the kindness of those Spanish churches filled my need for both housing and people to interview. After 10 days in Valencia, I left southern Europe for Africa.