The where and how

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION TRAVEL - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

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’

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