This was my second trip to Paris in the space of a month, only this time I didn’t have the comforting bubble of friends around me, fellow study abroad students who’d been to Paris before. This time I was in the enviable position of staying with my father’s French cousins – cousins who had an enormous parquet-floored apartment just down the street from the Arc de Triomphe. I was being very well taken care of, but was fighting a fear of the unknown that was keeping me in their gorgeous apartment and away from the city outside.
When I’d visited Paris earlier in my trip, I had happily followed my friends around, only vaguely paying attention as they surveyed the metro map to plan a travel route. I sort of understood how to read the map, but I hadn’t put that to the test. When I returned to Paris to stay with my cousins, I was by myself. My friends had set off, armed with Eurail passes, to spend the two-week break between our semesters in Nottingham seeing Europe. I had chosen to spend that two-week break with relatives in Zurich and Paris – and even as I sat in my cousins’ apartment, nervous about going out alone, I didn’t regret that choice. It was just going to take a polite bit of mothering from my cousin Françoise to get me out of my shell.
One morning before she left to work at one of her new quiche shops that had just opened across town, Françoise said to me, “Why don’t you come by the shop for lunch? I can feed you there.” It was settled. I couldn’t disappoint Françoise, so I told her I’d meet her at the shop. She drew a speck on my Paris map that I was to aim for, and then she was gone.
I’m not exaggerating when I say it took me all morning to work up the gumption to walk out the door of that apartment.
I had studied my metro map and found the nearest station to that speck Françoise had drawn. Following my friends around had apparently done more good for me than I’d realized, because the metro map – a potentially confusing mess of colorful spaghetti haphazardly dropped on the floor – seemed to make sense to me. I picked my route and successfully navigated my way to the station I’d been aiming for, without having to even glance at the map in my pocket.
I was feeling smug when I got off the metro train, which is probably why I was presented with that humbling, awful 50-50 choice, and probably why I chose poorly.
As anyone who’s gotten off a subway train anywhere in the world knows, there’s often an array of signs pointing you in various directions to different station exits. These signs are incredibly helpful, but only if those street names mean something to you. If you only know a general direction you’re heading, or you only know a street name a few blocks away that you’re trying to reach, or you don’t even know those things, those signs just end up being too many choices when you don’t want any.
What I was faced with at that metro station in Paris was only a 50-50 choice – two signs, pointing in opposite directions – but rather than look at my map, thereby looking lost or confused, I just picked one direction as soon as I saw the signs. I didn’t break stride. I probably looked like I’d made that trip a hundred times.
I looked the part of the Girl Who Knows Where She’s Going. And I knew instantly I’d chosen the wrong way.
The tunnel I was in kept going and going and going and I thought I would end up at the previous metro station, when finally there were stairs leading up to ground level. I walked out into the September sunlight and – once again – picked a direction and walked that way. I thumbed the edges of the map in my pocket, but refused to consult it. I walked with purpose. In completely the wrong direction, mind you, but with purpose.
I kept walking until I happened upon another metro station. Without hesitating I marched down the steps into that station, punched another ticket, consulted the map in the station (not the one in my pocket) to see exactly where I was in relation to the station I’d walked from, and figured out the route back to where I wanted to be.
I probably don’t need to say this, but when I was faced with that 50-50 choice again, I chose differently the second time.
Within five minutes of my second trip to that metro station, I was taking my coat off in a newly-opened Tarte Julie shop in a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of central Paris, being served a lovely quiche and salad prepared by Françoise. I never said anything to her about my wrong turns (thankfully we hadn’t established a specific time I’d be there). When I left lunch that day, I navigated my way back to the apartment without incident, and my Paris map remained in my pocket the entire time.
I still look back on that trip to Paris – and, specifically, that day – as the point when I realized there’s no such thing as being lost. You can always get where you’re going from where you are, it just might take a little longer than you’d intended. I love maps, and they wallpaper my office, but when I’m walking around a city I would rather make a dozen foolish wrong turns or walk in circles than destroy the illusion that I know what I’m doing. I’ve taken more wrong turns in my life since that point than I can count, but I know I can always get there from here.
I may not always be the Girl Who Knows Where She’s Going, but I still like to pretend.