In which I learn to read maps, to trust people more, and to always have a loaded Oyster card.
On the first night of Hanukkah, when I opened a gift from my mother, I wanted to cry. And not tears of joy, mind you, but rather tears of fear and bewilderment and anger.
The gift was a map of Central London compacted into seven doubled-sided panels. It is incredibly detailed, filled with all the streets and landmarks, and it is also functional (it comes laminated, an essential feature when one must battle that force known as the London rain).
Why, then, did I want to cry? Because, for the first time, I realized that London is not NYC. I had been excited to explore a new city, but I’d assumed there would be security to my explorations. I did not think I would ever find my way back home without the comfort of that logical grid pattern.
A month later, when I had been in London for a little over a week, I wanted to cry again. And this time, they were
tears of joy.
My laminated map had become, and continues to be, among my dearest possessions. It is something that I pack with me everywhere I go, as automatically as I pack up my wallet. Never before have I understood the importance of maps. As someone weaned off MapQuest and GPSs, I didn’t find them necessary. It was easier to ask Google, so why would I plot out a route myself? I realize now that, due to this map aversion, I never grasped the interconnections of a place. It is one thing to know by heart a certain route to destination A and another for destination B; it is entirely another to know how to get between the two without returning to your original departure point. For the first time, I am starting to do the latter, and it’s thrilling.
All that said, while it is not impossible to teach an old dog new tricks, it is – without question – difficult. Getting lost is not always a time of proudly navigating the streets with my friend the map. Sometimes, I really just want to get home and yet I cannot.
Last Thursday, because of a tube strike, I had to take a bus home from the National Theatre. Fine. I wanted to get better at the bus system, anyhow. Unfortunately, due to a series of miscalculations, I ended up taking several buses that were either the wrong route or direction. By the time the clock struck midnight and I’d been riding buses for over ninety minutes, I was near tears. I could not find where I was on my trusty map, and I did not have enough money left on my transportation card to catch another bus home (buses do not accept cash).
When I finally confided in my current bus driver how lost I was, I felt ridiculed when he exclaimed that where I wanted to go was in the opposite direction. Gee, thanks for the novel information. I clearly already knew I was lost, given that I had a useless smart phone in one hand and an equally useless map in the other, not to mention the rising tears in my eyes that I was trying to prevent from falling – did he have to rub it in that I was totally pathetic?
So I was completely surprised when he stopped his bus, marched into the road, and hailed another bus for me. I think I thanked him, but I was so floored that I honestly don’t remember if I did. This other bus driver, when I (tearfully) asked if I could pay in cash, said yes.
And so, more than two hours later for what should have been a twenty minute journey, I finally made it home thanks purely to the kindness of strangers.
As a pessimist, that is a surprising thing to find myself typing. Yet I am glad to be typing it. Because a place – any place, every place – is more than a single route from point A to point B. And while there’s nothing wrong with having that route, it never hurts to learn the many other possible routes, or to meet the people who dwell alongside them.
[image of my friend the map, taken by me. And yes, I probably should give him a proper name.]