When I lived in Paris in my first year as a real adult (read: freshly graduated and thus not actually much of an adult at all but feeling intoxicated by my freedom), I got terribly sick. I don’t get sick a lot, but that year I picked up one bug after another from the elementary schools where I worked in the suburbs. One morning, I was showering before work, and all the sudden I realized: I am going to vomit. I had approximately 2 seconds to consider if I could make it out of the shower and down the hallway to the shared toilet (no), or if I could jump out of the shower and find somewhere to vomit in my shoebox sized studio (also no) or if I should just vomit all over myself in the shower (yes). It wasn’t pretty, and as I stood there doing the post-vomit ugly cry, it hit me.
No one else was going to clean this up.
No one was going to hold back my hair while I was sick the rest of the day.
No one was going to bring me tissue and tea and sympathy while I reclined on a pile of pillows.
There were no roommates, no friends near enough to walk over, no parents, no boyfriend.
It was just newly adult me in a shower of vomit. And so, I stopped crying, finished washing the shampoo out of my hair, and then cleaned up myself and my shower.
Why am I sharing a 7 year-old story about vomit on the blog today?
Because it is a lesson I have thought about over and over the past couple weeks. Luckily, many of us live lives surrounded by people who help us, who shoulder burdens alongside of us and who lend wisdom and assistance to problems. But that is not always the case, and in the moments when you are surrounded by [literal or figurative] vomit and you realize that YOU are the only person who is around to take care of it, do you know what happens?
You do it. You don’t waste time debating what to do, as you would when you have people around to help and give you the luxury of reflection. You just do it. It is surprisingly freeing to realize that you are the only one who is going to do something, and then doing it.
While the reality of traveling around southern France with 12 students has been ridiculously fun and deeply rewarding, the logistics were not always easy. And because France is France, there were so many times where I desperately needed help, and no one would help me. The place we were going wouldn’t have a website, or the number would be outdated. The tourism office would insist that they had no clue how to reach any of the local tourist sites. The people I called at the actual sites would declare that they don’t know how people get there. The bus schedules were like a secret code of random hours and special days of no service. Every time that it looked like nothing was going to work out for one of our outings, I was tempted to just wait for someone to magically show up and help, and then I would remember.
No one else is going to clean this up.
And I would get up, start calling afresh, start beating down doors, start demanding answers, and make it happen. It helps that my students were the most flexible bunch ever, always game for adventures and very understanding when I announced that I wasn’t totally sure how we were going to make it from point A to point B. I gave my vomit pep talk to a group of girls who went on an adventure of their own to Marseille and they remembered it when almost everything in their trip went wrong, and they had to clean it up themselves, hours away from me or anyone else who could help. I thought about it when my friend Jackie came to visit, and her delayed flight meant a missed train, a night in the train station, and jumping a train the next morning without a ticket because no one was there to sell one. International travel is full of moments where you realize that you can’t wait around for help. You have to act.
And the result? Adventures, beautiful adventures like the ones in the pictures above. This past week my students and I explored Arles, where Vincent Van Gough painted over 300 paintings, the bright colors of the city explaining his impulse towards colors in his works. We climbed up into the hills and gorges around Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, a village unlike anywhere I have ever been. We celebrated the end of our trip with a five-course dinner in Montpellier, the city we have all come to love. We laughed and cried, and took a million pictures. I am so proud of every last one of them.
But I’m pretty sure the vomit pep talk applies far beyond travel. Life is full of moments where things are going wrong and we don’t know what to do. I’m not bashing seeking good advice or help at all, as those are amazing things. But sometimes, stressing about what to do is so much more painful than just deciding that YOU are the one who needs to do whatever it is, and then doing it. Sometimes it is strangely easier to decide that no one else is going to clean this up, and then doing hopping to it.
My students all went home this weekend, and I was back in Paris last night. Today, it is off to Italy where I will meet James and we will go on our own adventure. I can admit – I’m looking forward to seeing him not just because I have the biggest crush, but also because it is fun to travel with a buddy who makes it so I don’t have to fix everything by myself. That’s kind of one of the points of getting married.
But still, these past couple weeks have been a good reminder that you would miss a lot if you wait around for others to fix things, for them to help clean up messes, for adventure to come to you. Sometimes, you just have to go after it.