Everyone is Lost

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?”

A.

10 thoughts on “Everyone is Lost

  1. mellowjohn says:

    on our first trip to italy, my wife and i made a decision to spend at least one day in each city wandering until we didn’t hear any english.
    we had a great time, met some interesting people, and ate some great food.

  2. Escariot says:

    Oh.
    I am a catastrophist. Diagnosed in 1983. Much better now. But I still do not go on roller coasters as they are going to collapse when I am riding them. And don’t get me started about how this morning I thought “See!? I just knew that curve was dangeroous” in the Bronx.
    As far as being willing to Be Lost. I was lost several times In China on business. I could not help listening Really REALLY hard because I just Knew I would be able to figure out what people were saying around me on the street.
    No. It is CHINESE! Not even a latin thingy. They use different face muscles and everything when they talk and forget about trying to find your way around the city with chinese characters and no friggin letters. But, my mind just would not accept that I couldn’t figure it out if I just listened really hard. I was exhausted. But I am better. I didn’t “know” they were talking about me. That’s a different diagnosis LOL

  3. Athenae says:

    Escariot, I’ve had friends who’ve gone to various parts of Asia and did group trips with interpreters, and while ordinarily I’d turn up my nose at a whole “bus tour” experience, I think I’d at least want to be meeting somebody who knew their way around, for exactly the reasons you specify. My kitchen-related Italian, French and Spanish would be of no use to me there.
    I went to Jordan knowing not much more Arabic than, “Please excuse me, I do not speak any Arabic” but that was for work, which is different.
    A.

  4. MichaelF says:

    Am fully capable of serious flop sweat; but somehow I’ve managed to keep relatively cool the few times I’ve been up the creek travel-wise: first trip to NYC in 1982, the bus my friends told me to take from JFK to East Side Air Terminal was on strike…which I found out only after landing. That said, I found New Yorkers weren’t nearly as ugly when it came to asking directions, as long as you didn’t waste their time.
    Managed to get from Casablanca to Rabat in Morocco after getting word, again upon landing, that my ride couldn’t make it to the airport. So it goes. I do remember being thirsty as all hell at the Casablanca train station, and realizing I had no idea how much a soda cost. I kept dropping coins until the kid smiled. Probably paid 5 bucks for a 25 cent can of Schwepps.
    Another um, interesting trip involved taking someone’s advice and crossing from Idaho to Oregon on the Kleinschmidt Grade…in retrospect I’m glad I did it, but at the time I can’t say I wasn’t questioning my sanity.

  5. filkertom says:

    Awesome essay, A.

  6. pansypoo says:

    jeez, i hae been doing things all wrong. i am always looking for map thingies + doing it by myself. i need to find random boy scout males.

  7. racymind says:

    Got lost quite a bit in Europe while walking around… the one time I was a little worried was in Brussels because the weather was turning wet and dark. I did have a trick up my sleeve (besides flagging a taxi): Go into the Marriott for a map and reorientation. Seemed like a very safe place to be a helpless American.

  8. aimai says:

    I’m so sorry I didn’t know you were going! I would have recommended my two favorite books on Paris: Andrew Hussey’s Secret Paris and Ina Caro’s “Paris to the Past” which shows you how to take the metro and the trains back through France’s Medieval history. Sounds like you had a marvellous time. I love Paris and you are quite right–not only is everyone lost but people are pretty nice about it.

  9. mothra says:

    Here’s what screws you up in Europe: streets often change names right in the middle. Seriously confusing.

  10. BlackSheep0ne says:

    Don’t even have to leave the States for streets changing. Heckfire, you get that right here in Texas.
    But.
    NOLA’s French Quarter, before the Federal Flood, had an amazing art gallery with these exquisite masks that looked like Japanese cats on the wall from about 12′ up to about 22′ or 23 (in a space that was probably originally 3 stories). It’s probably not still there; it was on the same block with a Cajun grocery, but faced the other side …
    I’d love to see that again. Someday. Along with the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium.

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