Having no sense of direction is like being bad at math. No matter how many times you see how a problem is solved, it still makes no sense. Directions are like that to me. By the time someone tells me to turn right at the corner, I've forgotten which way to turn and how to get to the corner. Truth is, whatever part of the brain governs sense of direction is missing from my head - and it has been that way my entire life.
I have gotten lost in my own apartment building, in the mall, on the way to work, and once, in a closed Swiss national forest, where I had to be helicoptered out after a night alone in the snow. Now you may think this brain problem is incompatible with traveling - and trust me, sometimes it is - but mostly, getting lost has meant someone had to find me, and on a few occasions, this has led to more than one memorable encounter.
For several years, I would spend at least part of my summer in Stockholm, Sweden. Flights were cheap, and accommodation even cheaper because a good friend of mine would loan me his flat and his bike. One day, I decided I would visit some of the islands outside the city and go for a swim. I could see bike paths running over and under bridges and along the waterways. This ride would be a breeze. Get onto the nearby bike path and for god’s sake: Do. Not. Leave. It. And, like so many of my previous cycling adventures, off I went, on my own, with a map I could not read or understand, to a place I had been to before, but realistically, wasn’t certain I could find it again. Situation normal.
Sixty minutes later, I was lost. I wound up across from the Globen – Stockholm’s giant egg-shaped stadium. I had no idea how I arrived at the egg when the goal was to dive into the sea. I stopped, pulled out the map and stared at it for a really long time. A fellow cyclist pulled up next me. He was a 20-something, slender Swede, with glasses and a soft-speaking voice. “Are you ok?” he said to me in English. “Well, yes and no,” I answered. “I am fine but I don’t know how to get home.” He asked me where home was, which was indeed a fair question. And, of course, I had no clue. We played 20 questions for a while: “Is it an apartment or a house?” “Can you see water?” Are you near a landmark?” and eventually, he figured out where I was staying.
“Follow me,” he said. And I did. We swerved right, we swerved left, we went under things and over things, bridges went up, boats went past. How did I get here? After about 30 minutes, he pointed to my street. And before I could thank him, he asked me if I’d like to come to his place later for a dinner party.
I can’t explain how I can tell crazy people from non-crazy people when I travel. I just can. This kind man took a half hour out of his day – probably his commute – to show a total stranger her way home.
He marked his address on my map and made a big red star over his home. Getting there would be fun. He didn’t live nearby. He was on an island, and I would have to succeed at night where I failed during the day. I went upstairs to change and an hour later, I was on my way to his house via army bike, holding flowers in one hand and my map in the other.
It took me about an hour to find his place. I parked the bike, walked up to his apartment and rang the bell. Inside were six dinner guests, each one friendly, bilingual, mostly academic artsy types. I spent close to five hours at his place that night. There was good food and wine, and some really bad eighties music, to which we all sang along. We talked about love and life and travel and politics. We argued over the impact of heavy tourism and the high cost of everything in town. No one cared where I went to school or what I did for a living. They didn’t ask who my mother was or what kind of car I drove. We were just a group of people who would meet for this one night and never see each other again. I knew it and they knew it and it didn’t matter one damn bit. I was the guest of honor at a dinner party where no one knew who I was, but we were having a good time.
I am lucky enough to have lived on, or traveled to, all continents where there are people. I have been lost a lot over the years. I can tell you that an evening with strangers can be more meaningful than a lifetime with old friends. All aspects of your life that you normally count on to relate to people mean nothing. At this party, no one cared about my job or what sports team I supported. You are on your own when you spend a night with strangers. You are a blank slate, free of judgment and free to design an entirely new you, even if it's just for a few hours. I highly recommend you get off the beaten path next time you travel, not for what you might see, but for who may find you along the way.