Like riding a bicycle, or learning a language, putting in contacts is something you can learn at a young age and—once you learn it—you’ll never forget. It’s the kind of thing that can be maddeningly frustrating to master, but then seems laughably easy once it becomes habit. When I got contacts for the first time in May, when I was finally sick of waving at people I thought I knew only to find a stranger several steps too late, I was wildly frustrated with learning how to use them.
Blood vessels were popped. Corneas were (probably) scratched. Mascara was smudged. I was late for everything each morning for a week. Somehow, I just couldn’t bring myself to hold open the eye long enough to pop that little disc in without blinking. I asked everyone I knew for help. How did they do it? What was their strategy? Everyone had the same answer: they just do it. They learned once, and now it’s second nature. My mom was endearingly unhelpful in her efforts to show me– “It’s so easy! Look—you just pop it in!” Holding her own eye open in front of the bathroom mirror, she tapped the contact in with ease.
“I don’t think I can do it,” I told her. “My eyes just can’t work like that.”
What I didn’t know was that it would take something more than a visual aid, or a helping hand, or a voice guiding me through it to be able to put my contacts in in the morning. It would take complete and total immersion into an unfamiliar world, thrown headfirst and startlingly solo into a situation unlike anything I’d ever been in before.
It would take Porto, Portugal. When I landed in Lisbon before the connection to Porto, I knew I had an hour to make the connecting flight. Clutching my e-Ticket in my hand, I double and then triple-checked the boarding time: 12:20pm. I was in a country I’d never been in, farther away from everything familiar than I’d ever been alone, and this was my first test. Just get to Gate 30 by 12:20pm. Imagine, then, how independent, capable, and smooth I felt when I found myself dripping sweat, full-out sprinting carrying a 46-liter backpack and several loose items, at 12:19pm.
I arrived at the gate, triumphant and proud at 12:21… only to find it empty. There’s no way they boarded the entire plane in a minute. Did they leave early? Did they actually leave without me? How could I have already messed up this badly? The staff working the Gate 30 desk laughed at me. “That time means nothing… Your flight is in 40 minutes. Sit down.” As it turns out, Portuguese airlines put especially early boarding times on their tickets so no one shows up too late for the flight, and I was the first one to arrive. Yikes.
The first week saw more fumbles, more stress, more wondering if I’d already messed up more than I should have. I struggled to communicate in the meager Portuguese I’d looked up at the airport. I left the table without paying while eating solo and had to be chased down—twice. I took wrong turn after wrong turn. I thought I’d found Porto’s legendary São Bento station four different times before I actually located it. I didn’t know how to make friends in a hostel. I rehearsed an opener in my head for five minutes before giving up and just talking to the staff. I was anxious and overwhelmed with the amount of writing I had in front of me. I was scared, alone, and out of my comfort zone in a way I never had before.
But no blunder ended in disaster. There was no catastrophe because I righted each wrong turn— I literally had no other choice. No one was going to right it for me. Being completely on my own meant that each mess-up was completely my own, as was each triumph. Every question I had I worked out myself, and my instinct quickly morphed to speedy problem-solving. Orient yourself on the map, ask the cab driver for directions, don’t be scared to say hello, a smile goes a long way, stay organized but leave yourself wiggle room.
As days passed and I made fewer and fewer wrong turns (don’t get me wrong—I’m still making many wrong turns), something miraculous changed in my morning routine. Hold the eye open, stare straight ahead, don’t blink. Pop. The contact goes in. Blink, blink, blink. Done. Onto the next thing. This was just another challenge I had to figure out, and when I was lost and confused and scared in the middle of a world in which I couldn’t speak the language, figuring it out became second nature.