Sunday, October 9, 2011

I’m Sorry, I’m Not From Here. No, Really.

So K and I are walking down the street in Selfoss, Iceland, looking for the post office, and this guy driving by slows down, rolls down the window, and asks us, in Icelandic, if we can tell him how to get to wherever he’s going. 
The Icelandic grocery store pig is not lost.

My Icelandic is nonexistent, but I have been stopped and asked this question in almost every country I’ve visited, so I’ve come to recognize the international symbols for “Excuse me, can you give me directions to….”
This happens to me often when I’m alone, and also often when I’m with K. I assume it’s because we look harmless, native to the area, and knowledgeable. Only the first is fully true. We are harmless.
The last is partially true. K is knowledgeable. I, on the other hand, am always pathetically willing to help, but usually ill-equipped to do so. Not being…you know…a native. The only time I was generally successful in my desire to give people directions was when we lived in Paris. I carried a pocket map of Paris with me everywhere, did often know where I was and where I was going, and when I was stopped on the street or in the Métro with a request for directions, I would take out my pocket map and show my lost compatriot how to get to his destination.  
On rare occasions I would venture out without my map, and invariably someone would ask me for directions. I would have to tell them that sorry, I didn’t know; I wasn’t from the neighborhood. I joked with K that I should get a t-shirt made with, “Don’t ask me, I’m not from around here,” in every modern language, to wear when we travel.
Before we lived in Paris, we lived in Tours, which is in the Loire Valley—and if you would like to know how to get there, I can give you directions. 
People asked me for directions there, too, and I could help them, if it was something in our immediate neighborhood. One night at about 10 p.m., K and I were walking the dog when we were approached by a small group of Japanese tourists. They were looking for a grocery store, and I was overjoyed, because I could help them. There was a 7j (like a convenience store, but with somewhat more in the way of groceries) that was still open, and it was just a block and a half away.
Because the group’s leader had addressed us in French, I replied in French, telling him he just had to go a block and half and it was right there on the same side of the street as we were on, and look, you could even see the sign from here. See, the one that said 7j?
Polite but total noncomprehension. Obviously his French was a little shaky and I was speaking too quickly. So I tried again, more slowly. Just go up this street, cross the street—I was blinded by a flash as a member of the group immortalized the moment on film. It took me a minute to get the flash afterimages out of my eyes, and in that minute, K, who had been watching this entire episode with much amusement, said to the Japanese gentleman who was so valiantly trying to understand my directions in French, “Do you speak English?” 
Turns out he did. I let K tell him where the store was.

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