Right before my 20th birthday, I traveled with a friend to Barcelona.
We were living in Luxembourg through our university’s study abroad program and decided to treat ourselves to a long weekend in Spain over midterm break.
(I believe we flew Ryanair, so I think our plane tickets were cheaper than train tickets – which was critical for me because I’d moved to Europe with a whopping $700 to cover all of my costs for just over five months.)
We were warned against staying in a specific youth hostel located in La Ramblas – and so, that’s exactly where we stayed.
I loved it.
We met smart, curious and adventurous teenagers and twenty-somethings from all over the world and somehow ended up at a dinner party at a local restaurant where fried plantains, homemade wine and multiple kinds of simmered meats dressed the table and filled our bellies until the owners insisted it was time to close.
Everyone was stuffed and drunk and as we started for “home,” (the hostel) we crossed paths with an American serviceman who was also staying where we were, and stumbling even more so.
“Someone should really stay back with,” I told my friend. And then, (under the influence) decided that someone should be me. Afterall, I wasn’t legless.
The rest of the group went ahead and the serviceman and I walked very, very slowly. So, slowly in fact that two local (younger) teenagers, after passing us, turned back around.
Even as drunk as he was, the serviceman seemed to catch on to what was happening before I did.
“I’m gonna put my arm around you,” he slurred. “I promise I’m just trying to help.”
Then he started shouting as the teens came closer. “It’s cool, it’s cool. No problem. No problem.”
Before he could get out any other assurances one of the teens knocked him out. It didn’t take much. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone really hit someone in the face in real life.
I was stunned. Too stunned to run.
I wouldn’t have gotten very far anyway, because the other teen had me down and on the cobblestones before I could fully process – anything.
He was on top of me. Grabbing at my shirt. All I could do was swat back and think: “Fuck no, no, no, no, no. I’m a virgin. I’m a virgin. Fuck, no, no, no. Not like this. Not like this.”
Then, for whatever reason, it occurred to me that my purse was hanging across my chest. Maybe he wasn’t grabbing my shirt. I stopped fighting. Put my hands up. Looked at my bag. Looked at him. And nodded.
He unhooked my bag from its strap and they both took off.
The police showed up shortly after. Helped the guy who’d been punched out – asked me what happened (I didn’t speak Spanish, but did speak French and so did one of the officers) – and then took me around in their car to find the two that jumped us.
We found them. They put them in the back of one car. Me in another, and when I got dropped off at the hostel I asked what would happen next.
They gave me some paper – told me to show up in court the next day. Told me if I didn’t, the two we’d just caught, would be let go.
I told them I’d be there – and then at the crack of dawn convinced my friend to bail on our cheap airfare and catch the first train back to Luxembourg.
As scared and naive and sad as the whole experience made me feel, I’d looked that kid in the face. We saw each other, and I just couldn’t fully believe that anyone involved (from the the drunk serviceman, to the drunk student tourist (me), to the very sober kids who did and didn’t throw punches) actually wanted to hurt anyone.
Yes, bad things happened. Yes, rules were broken. And, more punishment didn’t make any of it feel any better.
A less scared (more grown) woman likely would’ve stuck around to ensure that the kids got off, and then would’ve gone on to enjoy the rest of her vacation. But, I wasn’t her yet…and I can’t punish me for that, either.