Toward the end of 2011, I was reviewing my journals, thinking about the “best and worst” moments of my travels from the year. I ran across this one, which was not the worst, but certainly the most awkward and uncomfortable. This is the first of what I hope will be more travel stories I post here on SoloFriendly. Let me know what you think.
I exited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and wandered out to the narrow street, looking around. There was a piece of Gaudi-style tiled art hanging over a nearby shop that caught my eye, and I pulled out my camera to take a picture. Just then, a short but brash American woman with flamboyant red hair and lipstick and bright clothing walked up to me, and began talking to me in English as if she knew me. I was a little startled, but listened to what she had to say.
“I can’t believe that woman over there,” she said loudly with a tone of disgust. “She’s just yelling at that poor little girl in front of everyone. Poor thing looks like she’s going to cry. There’s no excuse for that!” I looked in the direction she indicated.
There was a youngish couple standing ten feet away with a little girl of no more than four or five. The mother was bent forward as she yelled at her daughter. Her ponytail twitched like an angry cat’s tail as she jerked her head between explosive phrases in Spanish. The girl looked like she was going to burst into tears any moment. The father was looking around nonchalantly as if he couldn’t hear or see what was going on right in front of him.
The American woman went on. “I want to just go right over there and give her a piece of my mind. But I know I can’t.”
“No,” I agreed, “you really can’t.”
“Still, that’s just shameful to yell at a child like that.”
Part of me was embarrassed to be part of this woman’s loud commentary on a domestic situation that was really none of our business. By now, the young mother had turned her attention away from her daughter and was glowering in our direction. She may have been Spanish, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t understand what the American woman was saying in English and her voice was certainly loud enough for everyone around us to hear her. I cringed at the thought that the woman next to me was perpetuating the “ugly American” stereotype–and that I, by association, was also being lumped into that category. I tried to signal with my body language “I’m not with her.”
But there was another part of me that agreed with the American woman. I felt for the little girl with the sad eyes holding her hands in front of her mouth as if she could hold back her sobs. Could there really be any excuse for a mother to be yelling that angrily at such a small child, let alone in a public place? If there’s anything that triggers my hot button it’s seeing someone abuse anyone who is weaker than they are. As I felt my own sense of injustice rise, I forced myself to rein it in. Don’t jump to conclusions, I told myself.
In the past, I’ve seen parents who were frantically scared yell at their children for doing something that put themselves in harm’s way. Maybe that was the case here. Perhaps the little girl had wandered off and gotten lost for awhile; perhaps she had stepped in front of a car and her mother was trying to make her understand not do it again. With my limited Spanish skills, I had no way of knowing. I didn’t understand the context.
It frustrated me. Should I be outraged? Or should I be understanding? Was this a one-off occurrence, or was the little girl subject to tirades like this all the time? And even if the worst were true, what could I, a tourist to this country, do about it?
The five of us just stood there for the longest time, frozen like a tableau. The angry mother with her arms folded in front of her chest; the nonchalant father whose eyes never met anyone else’s; the outraged American woman with her fists on her hips; the little girl with the quivering lip; and me.
Finally, I broke the moment. I excused myself, turned, and walked away from the scene and down the street. Was I a coward to walk away from the situation? Perhaps. But I just couldn’t bear standing in that space any more, between two women who were equally uncomfortable to be around and a situation I couldn’t change.
Have you ever encountered an uncomfortable situation like this while traveling in a foreign country? What did you do about it?