On reflection, London might not have been the best place for me to begin my adventures in international travel. It’s not because there aren’t a million things to see and do in London, or a thousand cultures to be exposed to, or because the Underground isn’t a small adventure by itself. It’s because of this:
This is Bedford Square. There is nothing wrong with Bedford Square. I’m sure it’s a lovely place to live. What is wrong with this picture is the fact that I have this picture. You see, I never meant to go to Bedford Square, and I certainly didn’t intend to go there three times. But I ended up there all the same. I was trying to go somewhere else, of course, and walked out of the wrong side of the Tottenham Court Road station. Or maybe I just turned the wrong direction. I don’t know. The point is, I found myself walking in entirely the wrong direction and ended up on Bedford Square. Three times. In two days. If I could have navigated to my intended destinations with such skill, I would have had no problems at all. Sadly, though, I have a breathtaking ability to get lost whilst walking about, and when the city you’re walking around in looks like this:
with streets and roads and footpaths going every which way, and roundabouts appearing out of nowhere, the chances of getting lost are high.
What else didn’t help matters? The River Thames. A famous river, the Thames, crossed by historic bridges with lovely walks and gardens along its banks. It snakes through London and makes a nearly ninety degree turn north of Parliament, thereby rendering it useless as a point of reference for my own navigation. What felt like north was usually south, unless it turned out to be west. One day, when I was walking down Charing Cross Road (going in the direction that felt like north), when I caught sight of the London Eye and realized I had been walking south for ten minutes. It felt like the entire world flipped around as I re-oriented myself.
It’s a strange thing, losing north. I can be in the middle of the prairie with nary a landmark for miles around, or surrounded by 14,000-foot mountains, and if you ask me “Which way is north?”, I can point it out in a second. Ask me that in London, though, and my answer might be, “Ummm…. Penguins?”
And yet, while I felt a lot of frustration at getting turned around so easily, there was a certain amount of excitement involved with it that I’ve never felt while lost before, and it was precisely because I was lost in London. It was London! I wasn’t lost in Chicago or Denver or Hot Springs, SD. It was London, and there was something amazing to see around every corner, whether it was some ancient little garden, a ruined monastery, or Tin Pan Alley. In the end, I only asked for directions once. I needed to find Haymarket Street, and a wonderful German woman working in a souvenir shop pointed out the way there.
So now, among other things, I can claim that I lost and found myself in London, and that it was not so frightening an experience as I would have thought.
But I’m going to bring a compass with me the next time I go to Europe.