We weren’t in the terminal two minutes before Mr. A found his first lost soul.
I don’t know what it is about my husband, but he seems to collect people who need help, wherever he goes. Maybe it’s his confidence; he always looks like he knows where he’s going, even when he’s more lost than I am, and he never seems panicked or nervous no matter where he is. This is, after all, the fellow who went to Brazil for a week and came back with a sunburn, speaking more or less fluent Portuguese, and had a dozen epic stories of adventures with strangers. He’s not a nervous traveler.
I, on the other hand, was jittery about going to a country where the alphabet is the same and the language is one I studied for four and a half years, whose literature and music and art I’ve loved since my father took me to see Impressionist paintings at the age of 10, where they sell hot mulled wine on the street and everything comes with butter and cheese.
By the time we arrived in Paris we’d been trains-planes-automobiles-ing it for 20 hours and I wanted to lie down on the floor and nap. Mr. A, on the other hand, strode confidently into Charles de Gaulle airport, which looks like a giant habitrail, and within a few moments had collected a group of utterly befuddled tourists behind him. We were all looking for the same train pickup, him and me and this kind-of-drunk Scottish fellow from the plane and a woman FROM FRANCE who nevertheless trailed along after my American husband like he was her guardian angel.
I learned a word a week before this trip: catastrophizing. A therapist explained to me that it means spiraling out from not being able to find a parking space to EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE AND WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE. I was astonished to find out that there was a diagnosis for what I generally called being alive.
So I catastrophize: We are never getting out of this weird airport with its weird tunnels and its escalator ramp things and how did we think we were going to be able to do this. (I did this in Ireland on our honeymoon, when a flight got diverted and it took us three hours to find our bags; I had vivid nightmares of spending the whole week in Dublin sleeping next to the baggage claim.) Meanwhile, Mr. A found us a map, found us the tram, found us the train, and got us all the way to another train station and made sure the Scottish fellow was upright enough at least to read the markers for his next destination.
Throughout the week, as we rode the Metro through tunnels from monument to monument and bookstore to bookstore, I looked for signs of others who were as lost as we were. An American couple with their four children, like a flock of ducks, pausing in the street to ask a heavily armed policeman which way the Eiffel Tower was: They could see it, but couldn’t manage to get to it. We had the same problem looking for a restaurant the following night, knowing it was right behind Notre Dame but getting turned around in the dark. A few Australians got as flummoxed as we did when we took what we thought was the right train to Versailles only to find out we had to go back, pick up another branch of the same line, and take that to a connecting train instead. Added an hour to the trip, but got us there all the same.
Our turn-arounds always led to something amazing; being on the wrong side of the Seine from the place we were trying to reach led us to booksellers with old maps of Paris, and to a bridge where lovers leave padlocks and throw away the keys. Getting trapped in the Galleries de Lafayette looking for a bathroom found us in front of a display by a candlemaker that has been in business since 1643, whose shop I’d read about but despaired of ever finding.
I started to realize, and relax as I did so around day 3, that everybody was lost. Everybody was looking at signs, everybody was looking at maps, or guidebooks, or a phone app, or stopping at the edge of the staircase to double-check if they should go back up or keep going down. Every tourist center of every city is like this, to some degree, and in every place there’s someone new, who doesn’t know the way.
And if you refuse to be lost, even for a second, you won’t find anything. I’m not an idiot, okay, I don’t tell people I’m traveling alone if I am and I don’t tell anyone where I’m staying and a couple of times last week I physically dragged Mr. A away from interesting conversations with people who set off my advanced, journalism-honed creep-dar, but I’m trying to be less afraid to be out of my depth because that’s where the really great fishing is.
I need to ask that therapist what the equal opposite of catastrophizing is. Rhapsodizing, maybe? It might just be standing in an intersection on the Ile-Saint-Louis, saying, “There are only like six streets on this whole island, how hard can it be to find one goddamn café?”