I once learned a valuable lesson about travelling in a foreign country – always know where you are and where you are going. Seems obvious, I know, but it can be surprisingly easy to get lost.
I was in my 20s when I went to Europe one October. My husband, Brian, had a business trip there and took me with him. It was my first time crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and we were to visit four countries in six days. I was beyond excited! I had to spend most of the trip alone while Brian was in meetings, but I didn’t care. It meant that I could explore anywhere I wanted at my own pace.
The most memorable part of the trip was the day I spent in Paris. We were staying in a hotel outside the city just far enough that I had to take the commuter train to get downtown. In spite of the fact that I knew very little French, I got on the right train and connected to the right subway line. When I came up out of the tunnel, I found myself at a foot bridge over the famous River Seine. As I crossed the bridge, I saw rising in front of me the back of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. “Piece of cake,” I thought. “I can find my way anywhere.”
I had an amazing day all by myself. I toured the Louvre, strolled down the Champs Elise, and did lots of window-shopping. At around 5:00, it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner with Brian and a couple of his European coworkers. That’s when it dawned on me. I had been so excited to see the city, that I hadn’t taken note of where I was staying. I knew nothing about it whatsoever, not the town, not the name of the hotel, nothing. To make matters worse, I had no way of getting in touch with my husband since cell phones were rare at the time.
Having always lived near the Atlantic Ocean, I had never been hopelessly lost before. I only needed to drive east until I hit water, and then I knew where I was. But Paris is not a coastal city. There were six different directions on the compass I could have gone (N, NW, W, you get the idea).
As the sun began to set, I could feel the panic taking hold of me. I really didn’t want to be stranded in Paris in the dark. Trying to act logically, I retraced my steps from the cathedral to the subway and from the subway to the train station. So far, so good. Now what? I searched for anyone working at the station who spoke English. “Parlez vous Englais?” I repeated over and over in vain.
Looking back on it, what I did next was incredibly foolish. Relying on any color or marking that looked familiar; I picked a train and got on it. As it pulled away from the station, however, my panic increased. I thought, “What have I done?”
The train could have been going anywhere. I had to get off before I made matters worse by ending up in the countryside far from any police station, so I got off the train at the next stop. By this time, it was pitch black outside and my panic was replaced with despair. I began to cry. Inside the station was a man behind a counter looking busy. I went up to him. “Parlez vous Englais?” I asked through tears.
Although I couldn’t translate his answer, I understood enough from his mannerism and a couple of familiar words that he coldly demanded I speak French instead. Utterly defeated, I walked outside and saw through my tears the only business that looked open. It was a bar.
I went in and glanced around. The bar was dark and filled with strangers (mostly men) who no doubt didn’t speak English. I went straight to the bartender and pleaded, “Parlez vous Englais?”
He apologetically shook his head ‘no’ and then called out to his patrons for someone who did. Almost immediately, a handsome man stepped toward me with a gentle smile. His dark eyes had a kind, sincere expression. “I speak English,” he said softly.
“I’m lost,” I blurted out. “I don’t know the name of the hotel where I’m staying.”
I felt embarrassed telling him. How could I have gotten myself into this mess, and how was I going to get out? I felt like a child, and I knew I wasn’t doing anything to improve the image of Americans abroad.
With a look of guarded concern, he opened the phone book and showed me the name of a chain hotel with several addresses and numbers listed. “That might be it,” I said doubtfully.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“The room is under Brian Lee.” I told him.
He made a call to the first number, had a brief conversation with the clerk and hung up. Miraculously, he told me that was my hotel. He then called a cab for me. I thanked him profusely and offered to buy him a drink, which he politely refused. To this day, I wish I’d had a name to go with the face, but the thought didn’t occur to me to ask him. He was simply my guardian angel.
The cab ride to the hotel took only a few minutes, and I realized how lucky I was. I somehow chose a train that was headed roughly in the right direction. I got off at a station not too far from my hotel and walked into a bar with a guardian angel. The first thing I did when I walked into the lobby was grab a business card with the hotel’s name and address. “Never again,” I promised myself.
I know that sense of panic you described so well. Makes me think of an experience of my own of a similar nature. Thanks for sharing.
I had a VERY similar experience in Paris. I guess I'll have to write about my experience as soon as I have an opportunity!
I think you were incredibly brave just setting off by yourself on your first trip to Europe. I always say if you've never been lost, you've got no spirit of adventure. Great writing!