I’m writing this from an airplane, 35,000 feet above the Midwest, as I fly back to Wellesley for the beginning of the spring semester. For years, I used to be afraid of flying, but after I decided to go to college in Boston two years ago I started flying at least six times each year on trips to and from school. It’s become so common that I’m rarely scared anymore. Or, at least, I don’t think about the fear anymore; sometimes when I remember that I’m floating above miles of open air, I do find myself gripping the armrests a bit harder.
It wasn’t because of the transatlantic flight that I was nervous – scared, even – to head off to Spain in August. I could (and did) rattle off a long list of fears to friends and family in the weeks leading up to my departure: that my Spanish wasn’t good enough, that I wouldn’t make friends, that I would struggle in my classes. (Strangely enough, thieves and locked academic buildings didn’t make the list.) Although some of my fears were eased once I arrived, made friends, and found that maybe my language skills weren’t as hopeless as I’d thought, throughout the whole semester I was still a little bit afraid a lot of the time.
It is because of that constant unease that the phrase sin miedo (“without fear”) caught my attention. I first heard it during my audition for the choir in Córdoba. It was the second or third week of classes and I was still very much in adjustment-mode. Despite years of choir experience, I’ve always been self-conscious of others hearing me sing. I was upset that the choir director spotted and pointed out my fear so quickly, only a few bars into the first warm-up. I left the audition discouraged and embarrassed, the phrase “sin miedo” ringing in my ears.
The next time I heard those words was during my first rehearsal in theater class. My role required me to yell at an offstage soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend as I angrily stuffed clothes into a suitcase. “More angry,” one of the teachers coached. “Más enfadada. Sin miedo.” Hearing the phrase made me burn with embarrassment again (although successfully me enfadó).
As the semester went on, I continued to hear the phrase, but in other contexts, not directed at me. I realized that the people who used it were not really pointing out a fear – as if those two words could actually take fear away – but were really try to say, “with confidence.” “Don’t let fear hold you back.”
And so I didn’t. Even though I was not at ease as I am on familiar turf, I still made the most of every opportunity and ended up having an unforgettable and amazing semester. I tried new foods and new things, some of which I ended up loving. I visited historical sites and archaeological sites, vibrant cities and the peaceful countryside, beautiful, ornate buildings and local cafés. I lived with a caring and fun family. My Spanish improved by leaps and bounds and I left with dear new friends and a new perspective on Spain, the U.S., the world, and my place in it.
Now as I’m returning to Wellesley, papers submitted, suitcase unpacked and packed again, bracing myself for this reverse culture shock that I keep hearing about, and separated by time and distance from those four months in Córdoba, I can think more clearly about the whole experience.
Much like my fear of airplanes, my fears of being abroad, living immersed in Spanish, and encountering newness every day never completely went away, but I didn’t let them hold me back. I learned to be comfortable with the discomfort and, by the end, had learned to live sin miedo.