Getting lost the old-fashioned way

17th century drawing of center of Munich

Read by Brenda

The human brain is a fascinating thing. I have a college degree and speak several languages, but once managed to literally walk in a circle looking for a building in Berlin. But what I lack in general orientation I make up for with my inbuilt compass. This is not a given, even in people with a good sense of direction, something I discovered one day while describing to my husband where to find a particular store.

“It’s on the north side of the street.”

He looked at me as if I had just spoken ancient Greek.

“What do you mean – north – where is that?”

I couldn’t believe he didn’t know the points of the compass. He, in turn, couldn’t believe that I did. In classic husband style, he proceeded to test me whenever we exited a train station.

“So? Which way is west?” he’d sneer, fully confident I wouldn’t know.

I’d sniff the air and point. “That way.”

OK, I’m lying about the sniffing, but I did point. And I was always right.

It wasn’t until I read a passage in one of Bill Bryson’s hilarious books that I realized that giving directions using the points of the compass is a cultural thing. He claims you can identify who is American in Paris since they are the ones standing on the street corner arguing about which way is north.  

One must wonder, however, why anyone would bother determining which way is north in Paris, of all places. As magnificent as this city is, it is divided into 20 neighborhoods called arrondissements forming a concentric circle which are useless for navigating. Knowing the points of the compass will get you nowhere. You’re better off looking for the Eiffel Tower, lifting a wet thumb into the wind, and winging it. At least that’s what I do, and it only takes me a day or two to find my way back to my hotel.

And I suppose if you’re in Paris searching for the river without success, you wind up Seineseless.

Snail drawing
Getting lost the old-fashioned way 3

In the U.S., it is common to give directions using the points of the compass, and they are often indicated on street signs or even in the names of the streets themselves. I can still hear my father’s voice instructing me to do things like “Head north on 271, then west on I90…” etc.

American urban planners did not hesitate to demolish neighborhoods to make way for highways to render cities car friendly. This contrasts sharply with the city centers of old European cities or towns. In Germany, they were up to 90% destroyed in the war, but planners reconstructed most of the old buildings to preserve the city’s heritage.

When I lived within the limits of what used to be the old city wall of Munich, I would get stopped on the street by drivers of cars cruising slowly past, trying desperately to find their way around. Even though I knew the streets well, I still found it nearly impossible to give useful directions through this labyrinthine maze:

“Take a left at the next fork down a cobblestone road, but just before it ends, turn down the little side street. After that, you just have to…ah, well, I think there’s a sign.”

As they drove off, I would say three Hail Marys, hoping that a few holy words would make up for the complete lack of useful instructions I had given them.

No, I’m lying about the Hail Marys, too, but you get the point. It is dizzying to find your way through the tangle of one-way streets that twist, turn, and often simply disappear completely without warning. Points of the compass serve no purpose in such a setting.

Now that I live safely outside the old city, free from the burden of hapless motorists, the directions problem only comes up on vacation. Walking around Berlin once with my daughter, I squinted up at the sun to figure out which way we needed to walk. When she realized I was trying to use the sun for orientation, she was aghast.

“Mom, what are you, a Viking? Jeez, use your phone!”

A classic Gen Z-boomer clash.

Admittedly, it was a cloudy day, so I was struggling to even see the sun and was wondering just at that moment how the Vikings managed on cloudy days at sea. Did they play cards until the sun came out? Or maybe they used the downtime to create and memorize those famous Viking sagas.

I didn’t have an answer. So I gave up, turned away slightly, and tried peeking at my phone secretly, but my daughter caught me in the act.

At least we found our way. Just as well, since the sun didn’t come out for days afterward. No wonder old Viking stories go on forever.

Brenda Arnold

Photo – scan made by Tobias Volckmer from Munich City archives

Also interesting:
The new, improved me – courtesy of the EU-conform driver’s license
Catapulting the plague into Europe and other viral tales
Led astray by my naïve trust in a native speaker, but I should have known better

4 thoughts on “Getting lost the old-fashioned way

  1. Peter says:

    Hi Brenda, wonderful, I love this story! By the way, the vikings used a so-called “sun stone” (sólsteinn) which helped them see the sun thru clouds … maybe you get one for yourself, warmest regards, Peter

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