I helped two Americans with directions the other day. They embodied the role of lost tourists with full force. I spotted them when I jumped on the escalator and had surmised their confusion by the time my descent was complete. When I saw one of them rotating the map 360 degrees, staring blankly, I removed my headphones and said, ‘Do you want a hand?’
I do this predominantly out of kindness, but I won’t pretend there isn’t a part of me that enjoys the reaffirmation of my feeling like a Londoner when I do know the way.
The one without the map laughed and said, ‘Yes! We need all the help we can get.’ Meanwhile, the other continued to rotate the map silently, his face screwed up in confusion, as if willing it to somehow make sense. I asked where they were going and they told me the British Museum. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think what tube stop was closest, so without a second thought I pulled out my phone and typed the destination into CityMapper.
The man without map laughed again. Throughout this conversation he remained jolly in a way that only the person who isn’t feeling responsible for getting the two of them to the destination could be. “Don’t be such an old man, this young chap has it right here on his phone already,” he said to his stressed out companion. The intention of course was to gently mock his friend but instead it sent heat to my cheeks. I was mortified.
I sent them off in the right direction and they were thankful, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what the man said. About how quick I was, how quick we all are, to rely so readily on our phones for directions. Of course technology has changed the game from getting you to a – b. 8 times out of 10 I’m in too much of a rush to stop and think about where I’m going – I just need to get there as fast as possible. But what those gents reminded me of is that there is such wonderful freedom and vulnerability in being, quite simply, a bit lost. You’re forced into one of three options:
- Take a chance and follow your gut, for better or for worse.
- Remain exactly where you are.
- Admit defeat & ask for help.
It’s a luxury – for want of a better word – that can only be afforded to those on holiday or not on their way to work or something important. In those cases being lost is misery, stress and often in my case, tears. The circumstances which require you to get from one place to another are directly correlated to your emotional reaction regarding how easy the journey is to make.
I’m proud of the way I’ve come to know this city I’ve been wandering and roaming for two years now, yet so often it’s far easier to just plug in the destination and follow a step by step guide on how to get there. It’s travelling by numbers. I can’t think of the last time I asked someone for directions, because why would I need to? The knowledge we obtain of the streets we roam is rendered useless half of the time because it’s easier to be told than to work it out. It’s a resistance to finding your way as opposed to following. An often unnecessary dependency, like holding on to your script when you really already know your lines, or continuing to ride your bike with the stabilisers you no longer need. I want to try and take off the stabilisers more often. I want to get lost.
We have been blessed of late with some beautiful weather, so it’s become a regular habit of mine to take long walks and also to walk when I can in place of the bus or the tube. The other day I met my friend at the South Bank and I decided to walk all the way back to my flat. I live by the river so it was surely as simple as following it home, I thought. The sun was shining, I had podcasts galore queued up, I had been feeling decidedly anxious and nothing calms me down like the repetitive, monotonous, gloriously simple act of walking.
When I got about half way, there was lots of construction work going on, diverting my simple, follow the river route back home. My iPhone battery was running dangerously low, so I was inclined to find my way, without the stabilisers. I followed signs and my instinct, before long ending up in an almost obnoxiously beautiful park. Endlessly green and picturesque, I had no idea it existed, let alone that it was so close to where I live. After I’d walked through the park I made my way back to the river, just as the sun was setting. The sky was surreal. What is it about a sunset over a cityscape that gets me every time? The contrast of the soft pastel hues against the harsh metal of the metropolis. The light peaked round the corners of the buildings, like someone sneaking out of a party without wanting to say goodbye, knowing everyone would beg them to stay if they did. I had to catch my breath. It was perfect. Cinematic. In that moment I couldn’t have been more grateful for my low iPhone battery forcing me to not rely on the crutch of an app to ‘get me home’ – for I know a quicker route exists, but I was in no hurry and now I know the beauty of what I might have missed.