The where and how
I realise it’s all the go to use GPS navigation systems and Google Maps. Travellers load apps of this sort to find their way across the world, from near neighbourhoods to remote reaches. So there they are in, say, the middle of Venice staring at their devices and efficiently plotting their paths to restaurants, bars, galleries, whatever.
This is no way to meet an Italian. Surely one of the greatest pleasures of travel is to get happily, and momentarily, lost and ask directions from a local.
What fun to clutch phrasebooks and practise set phrases and, in my case, startle passers-by with my imperfect grasp of a variety of languages. Where is the busstop? I desire a cafe! I have need of a bath! My dog is thirsty! All are wonderful conversation starters and can lead to an adventure.
Italians, even the superior Florentines, are good at helping foreigners find their way. “Follow me!” is often the reply. If you’re lucky, such escorts will be full of information about where to go and what to see, the perfect ambassadors for their city.
Or you could just stand still and open a paper map and look lost — works a treat.
In Ireland’s County Kerry more than a decade ago, language wasn’t an issue but things came unstuck when I asked for directions to a nearby town and the farmer looked me up and down with some distrust and grunted, “Well, I wouldn’t be starting from here.” Which reminds me of the joke about the nuns facing each other across a stream. “Sister, how do I get to the other side? “one calls out. “But you’re on the other side,” comes the reply.
In rural Japan, after interviewing a famous potter for hours longer than intended, I was taken home by a passing postman to meet his wife, and all because I asked the time of the last train. He understood the question, delivered in the slow and phonetic Japanese of my phrasebook, but his reply was wrong. The book insisted the answer would be, “The last train departs at six o’clock.” He told me the last train was at five and I’d missed it.
His wife was a teacher of English but was nervous about her pronunciation, so reverted to language texts as we conversed. I soon realised Japanese students were also stuck with incorrect information about railway timetables and the locations of bus-stops and cafes. She showed me a page. “To reach the cafe, turn right and then left and look for the green door.”
I asked her if there was a cafe in town with a green door and if foreigners were often looking for it. No, she said. She inquired if there was such a place in Sydney and if Japanese tourists wanted to find it. Um. She snapped shut the book and set about producing tea and, later, supper and a futon. I had been invited to stay the night.
Next morning she took me to her class to converse with the students in English. A hand shot up immediately. “I am Mariko. I am 10 years old. Is your cat hungry?” You don’t get to have these kind of encounters with a GPS thingy or an app.
The farmer looked me up and down with some distrust and grunted, ‘Well, I wouldn’t be starting from here’