Published in The Christian Science Monitor, October 4, 2012
A few months after we moved to Tours, in France’s Loire Valley, I wanted to meet my husband, Stéphane, for lunch at the university where he worked. I got lost. I had to call him from roadside to find out how to get back to the university, which I’d far overshot. Stéphane’s officemate, a Brazilian well acclimated to French life, overheard the conversation and said, “How could she get lost? You just go straight.”
Well, no. That’s exactly the problem. You never “just go straight,” because France is the land of roundabouts. Highways, major streets, little village lanes — if you go straight long enough, you’ll end up going in circles. As if figuring out French life in general — the French language, the bureaucratic tangles, the French savoir vivre, what day to put out the garbage — weren’t enough, I had to find a new way to find my way. I wanted to go straight while everyone else was turning circles around me.
Even after a good year of living in Tours, I would get lost going to the grocery store, to the pediatrician, to the shoe store. Just about anywhere that wasn’t within a hundred yards of my house.
I admit I have a horrible sense of direction, am slightly agoraphobic, can’t read a map and am not such a hot driver. Plus I’ve been spoiled by living in American cities where the streets are more or less orderly and follow a logical gridlike pattern, such as New York, where they line up like good little soldiers, and are numbered and the numbers increase going northward or westward, except where they don’t. And then, yes, in Tribeca or the financial district, I’m likely to get lost.
In France the zones commerciales are my ultimate nightmare because they’re roundabouts within roundabouts. Ugly swaths of concrete and tar inhabited by big-box stores connected by a bewildering maze of alleys and byways. You may see your goal, a clothing store, off in the distance. But no matter how far you travel it seems to remain there — in the distance, shimmering like a desert mirage. You start off going in the right direction but because of all the roundabouts and one-way streets you end up going in exactly the opposite direction. Once you get to a roundabout, of course, you can turn around and go back the way you came from. But by that time you’ve wasted 20 minutes and a quarter tank of gas.
This, my husband says, is the advantage of roundabouts. Not the time and gas-wasting but the fact that you can always turn around. True. And he claims that you don’t really need a road map or to write down directions to get anywhere in France. You just need to know your destination and look at the signs in the traffic circles. And if you don’t see your sign the first time around, you can keep turning around and around until you spot your exit.
But as soon as I get into a roundabout I enter panic mode and rather than circling to survey my options with a cooler head, I exit somewhere, anywhere, just to keep from going round and round.
Six years into our French living experiment and having recently moved to the Paris region, I now have adopted the logical solution: a GPS program on my smartphone. I rely on it to get just about anywhere, even places I’ve been to before (anywhere I haven’t been to in the last couple weeks, I’ve likely forgotten how to get there — add encroaching memory loss to my list of way-finding handicaps).
But it does leave me feeling foolish, frustrated and helpless in the not infrequent instances when the program freaks out, loses its bearings, can’t find a GPS signal or isn’t updated to reflect recent road changes. A lonely blue arrow, representing my aging Peugot, appears onscreen, moving across apparently uncharted territories. Then I just have to just keep advancing in any direction until my GPS gets a grip again. Or else I use my old solution: I call my husband. And then I can get home.
This past winter we went to the Alps for a skiing vacation and a friend asked me where we went. The hell if I knew. Wasn’t “the Alps” precise enough? As far as I could figure, we just plugged in the address and drove. Was it the north Alps or south? Was it near Chamonix or closer to Italy? Who knew? (Luckily, my husband did actually know.) Are GPS devices just making us all dumber or are they acting as essential aids to people who might not venture outside of their gates without it? In my case, it’s probably both.
Maybe one day I’ll grow new brain cells where my sense of direction should be. And maybe one day I’ll figure out the French and their way of life. But in the meantime, you’ll find me in an Île-de-France roundabout, trying to figure out where to exit.