I was so far out of my comfort zone that things could hardly have been worse! Here I was, a rather shy nineteen year old student travelling a long distance by train in Northern Spain alone, when disaster struck!
I ought to have flown out from England with the two friends who, like me, were going to the Universidad de Zaragoza summer course. As it happened, Spanish friends had already invited me to spend the previous week with them in Barcelona, where we had had the time of our lives together. For that reason, I found myself travelling the three hundred or so miles to the summer course in the cool of Aragon’s Pyrenees on my own. There was just one vital rail connection to be sure not to miss.
Well, you’ve guessed it! When the train ground to a halt, the station master told me I had missed my connection. He didn’t accept the timetable I had been given in Barcelona, retorting, “¡En Barcelona no saben nada!” (“They don’t know a thing in Barcelona!”). To my relief, as the next day was Sunday there was an early excursion train into the mountains leaving at 5.30. It suited me perfectly.
Taking a quick look at the station master, I knew that the very last thing I should do was to spend a night on his station! My suitcase was quickly stowed safely away in a luggage locker and, clutching my overnight bag, I headed for a hostel he had recommended. With my auburn hair and freckled sunburnt face I attracted attention wherever I went in Spain. I was the object of close scrutiny as I tried to enjoy my evening meal. I could not get out of that restaurant quickly enough! A pleasant young woman showed me to my room.
For the first time ever, I found myself having to convince the person who showed me to my room that I was capable of locking the door! First she locked it herself, then unlocked it and, removing the key, handed it to me saying, “Now let me see you lock it!” I began to hear warning bells.
Exhausted by the events of the day I soon went to bed. I was hoping for a good night’s sleep in view of my very early start the following morning. I had carefully locked the door, of course, and had also taken the precaution of wedging a chair firmly underneath the door handle.
A sudden commotion directly below my open bedroom window caused me to freeze in horror. I heard excited voices and understood every word. Men were piling chairs on top of tables in an effort to break into my room that way! I gathered my wits about me just in time, and leapt out of bed, firmly closing the window despite the stifling heat.
My anxiety intensified further when two men took up residence in the room next door to mine. Through the paper thin wall I could hear them planning to break in. They were relishing the fact that I was alone. I knew, of course, that it had not been a good idea for me to travel alone like that but, in the circumstances, I had no alternative. Those men obviously thought that I was not a force to be reckoned with. What they failed to realise, however, was that — despite appearances — I was not alone.
I was still a baby Christian. In fact, it was only a few months since I had asked Jesus to come and live in my heart, trusting Him to be my Saviour. I knew for certain that Jesus loved me deeply and that He would never leave my side. Jesus was well able to help me find my way out of dire straits such as these. I prayed with all my heart that night to be kept safe from the very real danger of those men breaking down my door. Their arrival was now imminent according to what I was overhearing. By then I was fully dressed and had hidden my passport and money under the mattress. Suddenly, the men’s door opened. Within seconds, there they were: banging on my door and shouting as they rattled the door handle. Fortunately my door withstood the onslaught and, muttering and cursing in frustration, after a few minutes they gave up and went back to their own room.
Was my terrifying ordeal over yet? Apparently not! The next words that I overheard caused me immense consternation. The men were talking about making a second attempt to break down my door at 2.00 a.m. Naturally I thought that this time they would surely bring with them something with which to break the lock… and then I would be totally at their mercy. It was at this point that I was strongly tempted to dwell on my circumstances rather than looking to the Lord for help. All sorts of thoughts raced through my mind in quick succession. To be honest, my mind was in turmoil. However, I pulled myself together as I remembered the promise of Jesus to be with us all the time.
I kept a close eye on my watch. Sure enough, as the hands showed that two o’clock had arrived, the men opened their door yet again and made a beeline for mine. This time I really was scared out of my wits. I felt utterly helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was simply panic stricken. I could barely think straight. Yet if ever clear thinking was called for it was now — right now! With my heart in my mouth, and summoning up every ounce of faith I could muster, I committed myself into the hands of the Lord. He has never let me down, even when my faith was wavering. The men were banging repeatedly on my door, shaking it furiously and rattling the handle as they cursed. Their every effort proved to be in vain and they were eventually obliged to give up — and this time it was for good. Jesus was THERE for me, of course!
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink all night. Three times those men had attempted to break into my room and I was emotionally drained. In view of my very early Sunday morning train — the only one of the day — I continued to keep an eye on the time. I retrieved my passport and money from the hiding place under the mattress, and quietly opened the door to make for the bar and a much-needed coffee before heading off to the station. To my disgust, the men had heard my movements and had the audacity to lie in wait for me, positioning themselves one on either side of my door. At the top of their voices they shouted “¡Criatura!” (“You baby!”) as, deliberately ignoring them, I passed quickly between them and reached the comparative safety of the bar. There I enjoyed a strong coffee and settled my account.
Dawn was breaking as I left that awful hostel, shaking the dust from off my feet. The headlights of an occasional vehicle lit up the way ahead from time to time as I hurried to the station. Under no circumstances must I miss that one and only train! I was uncomfortably aware of the fact that I was still potentially in danger as I walked alone down that country road at such an hour. Railways came late to Spain and many stations were built a distance from the towns. During the working day a frequent nation-wide *RENFE bus service transported the passengers between stations and towns. As I walked briskly in the light of the breaking dawn, the air was filled with the shrill sound of crickets. It was surreal.
* Red Nacional de Ferrocarriles Españoles
The Sunday excursion train arrived at the station on time, full of happy normal people enjoying their one free day. I found myself able to relax at long last and began chatting to those sitting near me. As soon as I reached Jaca, where the University of Saragossa Summer School was being held in the pleasant cool of the Pyrenees, I had a long soak in a warm bath. That did me a power of good because, to add insult to injury, I had acquired no fewer than nineteen mosquito bites in that frightful place on that fateful night!
Out of the frying pan into the fire?
What an experience the Summer School proved to be! Our Spanish had improved by leaps and bounds. We had great fun together and learned some simply hilarious folk songs. We went on a number of fascinating full-day excursions and learned some very interesting Spanish history. Those weeks went by only too quickly and soon my two friends and I were travelling by train to Barcelona where we had to spend a night before catching our return flight. We booked into economically priced accommodation for one night and, as we were unable to get a room for three, I found myself alone, while the other two shared.
When the lady of the house showed me my room, to my horror I noticed straightaway that not only did the door have no lock, but it wouldn’t even shut — it was going to be permanently ajar! My heart sank… but there was nowhere else. This was even worse than my previous experience because at least the door there had a lock! I went to bed, pushing a chair up against my door to prevent the bright light from the hallway keeping me awake. After a while, the front doorbell rang. To my unspeakable horror, I heard a man asking the lady of the house who was staying there! She unwisely told him that there were three English señoritas, two together in one room and the third one right there, near the front door. What she said next sent shudders down my spine: “¡Que no le pase nada!” (“Don’t let anything happen to her!”). I wondered for the second time that summer what sort of place I had landed in!
Note from So Greatly Loved
This is exactly what happened to me in the summer of 1962, after my first year at Leeds. In those days, students of Modern Languages could choose whether to spend one term or four terms abroad from Easter of their second year. I badly wanted to spend a whole year in Spain, after a term in France. I asked my parents whether they would be happy for me to choose the longer option; I would get work in Spain but would still need some financial help from them. To be fair to them, I first told my parents the full story that you have just read. To my enormous relief, they said I was well able to look after myself, and I could feel free to go abroad for four terms with their blessing. (Things are different now. In those days, I was one of the fortunate ones).
My Testimony is that without the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus, it could all so easily have ended in disaster, and even have brought the completion of my studies and my career prospects to an abrupt end. I am so grateful to Him.