The Joy of Getting Lost

The Joy of Getting Lost

James Steinberg
James Steinberg
Seven experts examine the joy of getting lost, from Maine to Tuscany.

My Other Left

I have always gotten lost. My geographic survival instincts are low. I stare at things for way too long with my mouth hanging open, ignoring my father’s Russian advice to “Shut your mouth; a crow will fly in.” As a five-year-old, I stood in front of a train station in Crimea transfixed, trying to read an enormous Socialist slogan that began with the words glory to the great … while my mother circled the station like a dervish, looking for me. She was worried that I had been kidnapped by gypsies, a common concern of the times.

I never learned my left from my right. It would be nice if the GPS woman’s voice would insist: “Please turn to your other left.”

I don’t understand the compass. Why is true north not directly up? Why does Manhattan tilt in a certain direction when the avenues run north-south? (I believe the island tilts to the right, but I’m not an expert.) Shouldn’t they fix that?

My father blew my mind when he explained to me at the advanced age of nine or 10 how the earth wasn’t flat. I had a childhood book on Australia that clearly showed kangaroos hanging upside down. What was that supposed to be, a joke? Sex education went down a lot easier than the whole round-earth-rotates-on-an-axis-while-orbiting-the-sun motif. You don’t need a compass to figure that one out.

But being lost has been good for me. I doubt two of my last three novels would have happened without my getting lost. Here is a partial list of places in which I have been hopelessly disoriented: Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Israel, Brazil, Korea, Thailand, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Spain, Italy, Germany (East and West), the United Kingdom, Texas.

When you get lost there is a look on your face, a humble, peaceful, dreamy, let-that-crow-fly-in-your-mouth look that invites commentary as you slowly float past some strange men playing dominoes or roasting an animal. “Hey, mister, do you like girls?” “Hey, mister, I want to sell you a goose.” “Excuse me, mister, are you Jewish?” “Do you want to see my goose?” “I wouldn’t turn left if I were you!” “Are you Sephardic?” “It’s right behind my house [the goose].” “That is not a toilet.” “That is not a towel.” “Lake Balaton is not in this country.” “No! Your other left!”

The best dumpling you will ever find is slowly broiling in some laundry woman’s hut off a blasted alleyway. A small, local fish crusted in chili peppers and swaddled in lemongrass is being stuffed into a plastic bag for sale near an unmapped canal. If you end up on the wrong side of the mountain around dinnertime, the setting sun won’t just illuminate the twin porticoes of that hilltop church, it will set fire to them with godlike intensity. But you will have to get lost to find these things.

Getting lost is getting harder. The world has been mapped and remapped to the point where it just might be flat by now. We no longer travel to “destinations” but to a series of preset coordinates. Our smart phones are bursting with information. It is possible to stroll confidently down Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, knowing just which soi to turn on, which SkyTrain stations to use, which little agglomerations of humanity—the malls; the neighborhoods; the little conclaves of fashion and style—are the most up-to-date, the best ranked. And it’s possible to do so in real time.

But the best gadget for the iPhone ever is the new Plane Finder AR, which allows you to identify planes passing overhead with the built-in camera (I imagine this is also handy for the budding terrorist). And so on a cold blue day in New York, I can see the tailwind propel good old N706JB, a JetBlue Airbus, toward the golden skies of Aruba. And I can dream of being on that plane, without anywhere particular to be, without anything to prepare or judge or rank, with no exit strategies to be planned. I would just stand somewhere beautiful in my bathing suit, zero gadgets in my pockets or hands, my mouth dangling open, the crow flying in. —Gary Shteyngart

Dot on the Map

These days, when I leave home for a while, I pretty much always know where I’m going, and, thank you Google Maps and GPS, I know how to get there. You will not see me on the road less traveled. How different from the catch-as-catch-can style of my salad days. When I was in graduate school in England, I hitchhiked to Holland, half surprised not to find Copenhagen there. One winter I went to France to spend the holidays with an old friend, and I arrived in town Christmas Eve to discover that the address she had given me did not exist and the phone number did not work. I checked in to the cheapest fleabag I could find on the Left Bank.

The most extreme example of my youthful abandon and get-up-and-go behavior involved a blindfold and a map of Maine. Late one March night, my college roommate informed me that the next morning she planned to drive north until she happened upon a site sufficiently scenic for photographing rocks. We were in Massachusetts and she was aiming for a spot somewhere near the Maine/Canada border. Did I want to be dropped off somewhere along the way? she asked. Why not? It’s not as if I had anything to do other than, well, go to school. Besides, I had been taking a course in oral history and was looking for a subject for my end-of-semester project. I covered my eyes with a towel and, with a dramatic flourish, circled my hand over the map and then plopped my finger down on ….

… a dot at the tip of a peninsula located midway up the Maine coast. Port Clyde, I was to learn very soon, was a picturesque lobstering village with a population so small or perhaps so bored that word of a newcomer showing up in town in the middle of the night would be headline news the next morning. I awoke to a sound of someone whistling—or was it yodeling?—outside my window at the Seaside Inn, a bed-and-breakfast across from the general store and the Atlantic Ocean.

Forrest A. Wall, a lanky, cowboy-hat-wearing farmer and local wit and wise man in his seventies, had come to take me on a tour of Port Clyde in his pickup truck. As we drove around the village, past a wharf stacked with lobster traps, down roads dotted with houses of weathered white shingle, through fields of unmowed grass, groves of pine trees, and bleak thickets of runty trees and shrubbery, something struck me. “This reminds me of an Andrew Wyeth painting,” I said. It was not a coincidence. As a child, Wyeth spent summers in Port Clyde. Later, he would buy a vacation home in nearby Cushing and, over the years, set many of his paintings in the area, including not only Christina’s World but also Man from Maine, a portrait of a fellow, mostly seen from the back, as he pensively gazes out a window. Who do you think that man was? Yes, it was Forrest A. Wall.

A few days later, I went back to college, but that summer I returned to Port Clyde for many weeks, followed by a series of shorter stays in the fall. I was so enamored with the place that I sincerely considered dropping out of school to live in Maine and do God-knows-what, because practical was something I was not then. (I didn’t tell my parents about the plan: I may have been starry-eyed, but I wasn’t crazy.) Instead, my end-of-semester oral history project became my senior thesis. My so-called research was made up of going lobstering and clamming with fishermen, attending wild parties with local teenagers, eating homemade doughnuts in the Dip Net seafood shack, and hitchhiking aimlessly for “material.” I amassed hundreds of hours of taped interviews, all laboriously transcribed. Everything is in a carton somewhere.

“Things Have Changed Since Hannah Died” was the title of my thesis. It referred to an old saying in Port Clyde (and, for all I know, elsewhere) connoting that life is not what it used to be. Trite perhaps, but apt, don’t you think? —Patricia Marx

On Jersey Shore

Can you be lost and, at the same time, know exactly where you are? Like that nightmare of returning home from school one afternoon and finding a strange family in your house?

It’s a sultry day on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. I give the girls (my 10-year-old daughter and her 10-year-old cousin/BFF) some money and tell them to hang out in the arcade (located between a shop that sells sunscreen and shovels and pails and hermit crabs and a Kohr’s frozen custard stand) while I go ascertain the hours at the aquarium. I promise them orange/vanilla twists on waffle cones when I return. I escort them in, make a cursory inventory (claw-drop games with stuffed Green Lanterns and Angry Birds; a Lost World: Jurassic Park shooter game, Twilight Zone pinball, Basket Fever Skee-Ball, a Wheels & Reels one-armed bandit; prizes including a SaladShooter, a Snuggie blanket, a George Foreman grill for 105,000 points, a baseball autographed by CC Sabathia for 112,000 points), and depart.

I’m halfway to the aquarium when, having qualms about leaving the girls alone, I decide to turn around and go back for them. There’s the arcade, between the shop that sells the sunscreen and the shovels and pails and the hermit crabs and ... a tiki bar. Hmm, I think, that’s odd. Where’s the Kohr’s frozen custard stand? I enter the arcade. But the girls are nowhere to be found. And I get an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. This seems like the exact same arcade, except that I don’t recall a claw-drop game with stuffed Rastaman Bananas or an Addams Family pinball machine or a coin-operated Popeye-in-a-dinghy ride or, for that matter, a baseball autographed by Omar Vizquel for 54,000 points. I walk outside to get my bearings. There’s the shop that sells the sunscreen and the shovels and pails and the hermit crabs (I’m squinting through my sweat in the blazing sun) … and a Frog Bog game that requires catapulting rubber frogs onto lily pads. Now where’s the tiki bar?

The thought of actually being lost on a boardwalk in Point Pleasant is mind-boggling to me. I summered on the Jersey Shore throughout my entire childhood and adolescence. I know every briny inch, from Long Branch to Bay Head. But, straddling where I thought I was and where I think I am, I fall in between—into some ontological crevasse, some abyss of undifferentiated familiarity.

Panicking, I plunge back into the arcade, desperate to locate some distinguishing element, but it’s all more of the same—the Terminator Salvation shooter games, the Simpsons Kooky Carnival, the Whac-a-Mole, the Skee-Ball X-treme, the 777 Blazing one-armed bandit, the Fast & the Furious Tokyo Drift driving game, the Hamilton Beach Pizza Oven for 111,225 points. And the decibel level is rising higher and higher—the cacophony of electronic gongs and sirens; the revving engines of Nascar simulations; fusillades of gunfire from first-person shooters; the grunts of a virtual ninja bludgeoned in his solar plexus; the mumbled glossolalia of adolescent girls smoking weed and drinking Four Loko in the middle of the day, and the unremittingly scatological and belligerent trash-talk of their tattooed, steroid-swollen boyfriends; the hacking coughs of leather-skinned, chain-smoking gargoyles and the demented gibbering of their grandchildren. The cresting din of accusatory voices in my head now includes Nancy Grace and Judge Judy.

And then, suddenly, I’m outside.

I gasp. There are the girls. The beautiful discrepancy of the girls. The girls, who are the only thing that distinguishes this part of the boardwalk from any other part, the only thing that distinguishes this boardwalk from the florid monotony of any other boardwalk.

There are the girls, seated imperturbably on a bench, smiling at me with the bemused indulgence of … girls. They’d been sitting there the whole time. They’d been bored. “All arcades are the same,” they say.

Do I tell them about my Gethsemane, my dissociative fugue, how I’d suffered an acute existential crisis of harrowing, Hitchcockian proportions, lost in the terra cognita, in an irruption of duplicate universes, in a teeming surfeit of familiarity?

No. I buy them their orange/vanilla twists on waffle cones. Which they both agree are quite delicious. And well worth the wait. “As usual.” —Mark Leyner

Boars of Tuscany

On taking a wrong turn while driving in the Tuscan countryside, I ended up in an oak forest so dense and dark that the wild boar crossing the road was barely visible—a long, shadowy mass speeding before my fender and then vanishing. I remembered that a German woman who had bought an estate in the region had irked local hunters by launching an appeal for the protection of wild boars. Her efforts, and those of other like-minded citizens, had been so effective that boars had become rife, scampering and uprooting their way through vineyards and olive groves. After pausing to catch my breath, I continued up the winding, unpaved road, sealing the windows of the Mini Cooper against the dust, and just when it seemed the road might never end, reached a clearing at the top of a hill. The forest gave way to open vineyards and, just below me, in a valley, was one of the most moving sights in all of Chianti: the abbey of Badia a Passignano, a medieval fortress with a tall bell tower and three other graceful turrets, set in a clump of tall cypresses. I’d had no idea it was there, and didn’t recall having seen any signs leading to it. The monk at the abbey, a young and forbidding Spaniard who appeared after I’d rung the bell twice, allowed me to have a furtive look at Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper, in which the only man sitting with his back to the viewer at a long, narrow table is Judas. The monk was in charge of its restoration but showed it as a special favor only, he said, since the last thing he wanted was for the abbey to start attracting visitors. (His wish was not fulfilled in the long run as the site, at least its exterior, soon became a popular attraction in that part of Tuscany.)

Right across the street was a place so simple and unpretentious you couldn’t call it a restaurant or a café: it served salami, pecorino, and prosciutto on thick slices of unsalted Tuscan bread. I wondered at the fate of the wild boars, destined, perhaps, to be made into prosciutto and salami “di cinghiale,” and ordered another glass of wine. —Gini Alhadeff


Mekong Zen

It takes me a long time to find a bike in Luang Prabang. When I do, it’s because a tall young American woman with unwashed hair is shouting at an old Laotian man by the gutter.

“I won’t pay. Do you hear me? I won’t pay it! This might be a bad bike. Do you understand? Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

As far as I can tell, Luang Prabang—and all of Laos—is a fairly serene place. This rant, while perhaps routine in midtown Manhattan, seems almost violent here.

The old man hunches over a little further and fills the bicycle’s tire from an ancient foot pump. I cross the street.

“Can I rent a bike here?” I ask gingerly. The old man looks up, then lowers his watery eyes and continues pumping.

The woman spins to face me. “Make sure he gives you a good one. I went through hell in Vientiane with a bad bike. He’s not charging me 5,000 kip when I don’t know what I’m getting.” I do the calculation: 5,000 kip is about 60 cents.

The old man finishes filling the tire. The woman starts in again. “Just take it,” he says. Triumphant, she throws her leg over and rides away.

“She talk too much.”

“Do you have another bike?”

“Come.” We go inside, through a kitchen where a young woman is preparing lunch. The air smells of garlic. Meat simmers. We enter a room filled with broken furniture, clothes, an old sewing machine. Several bikes hang from hooks. “Which you want?”

They all look the same. I shrug. His stringy arms lift a red bike.

For three days I pedal around town. I eat a wonderful watercress soup. I watch the sunset from atop Mount Phousi. At Wat Xieng Thong, I meet a monk with a long scar down the side of his face. When no one is near, he whispers about his friend who can take me up the Mekong River.

Down by the water I find the man with a wiry mustache beside a wooden plank canoe powered by a lawn-mower engine strapped to a long stick. It’s the slowest boat on the river.

I’ve not always had the gift to realize when I’m happy, but grinding upriver, it’s easy to know I am.

A few days later I’m at the airport, waiting for my plane to arrive. The only other passenger, an Englishwoman, eventually speaks. “I saw a most extraordinary young woman. At the Royal Palace Museum. She was shouting. Can you imagine? Shouting! In Laos?”

“What was she saying?”

“She was shouting—‘I want five minutes! Five minutes! I’m leaving tomorrow! Don’t you understand? Don’t you understand what I’m saying?’ They threw her out and she rode away on a bicycle, still shouting.”

I look out across the valley into the Annamese Cordillera, the shadows long. The arriving plane barely clears a high peak and it dawns on me—wherever you go, there you are. —Andrew McCarthy

End of the Affair

My girlfriend and I were on a trip through Spain and Portugal. The plan was to see some sights and maybe find a reason not to break up. We’d been foundering, and it was nobody’s fault. We just had different needs. She needed to be away from me and I needed to be away from her.

But we were stuck together, at least for this trip. We had some good times, but the sadness had seeped in. We began to travel more like buddies than lovers. That took some pressure off, but it gave everything a strange taste. We had been passionate once. Or at least I thought we had. We spent a week in Lisbon, a few weeks in a tiny fishing village, and arrived in Seville in a rather numb state. We walked around, looking at stuff and people, but taking nothing in. I think we were planning for the singlehood that lay ahead of us when we got home. Then, for a few hours, everything changed. Strolling along a festively lit street, we noticed some bars down an alley. We had no plans and no connections in the city, so we turned. We walked past some people lounging at plastic tables, and as we did, one of them called my name.

I wheeled around and saw a guy I’d known in college. We hadn’t really been friends; in fact, I’d always gotten a sense that he didn’t like me that much, but we’d had some funny, drunken conversations and I’d always thought he had real charisma and cool, so I never minded the mildly hostile undertones. But none of that came to mind now. Here was the strange charge of being in a foreign city and randomly meeting somebody you know. We had a beer and caught up, and then he offered to take us to see the “real flamenco,” not the tourist stuff. Ed led us down a few more alleys into a tiny bar with a stage and there, for the next few hours, everything was bliss. We drank and cheered the dancers and I could tell my girlfriend was elated and suddenly, so was I. We looked at each other and we were happy and happy together. Maybe the spark was still there. Maybe we could work it out. Everything was so joyful and sexy in this bar, why couldn’t we carry that feeling with us? I looked over at Ed and he was grinning. Maybe the odd vibes had always only been in my head. He had delivered us here. He had brought us to the place of love and freedom.

Of course, the night had to end, and it did. There was no exchange of numbers or addresses. We would honor the marvelous coincidence of this evening. But even as we started to walk away I could feel the mood cracking apart. By the next morning my girlfriend and I would be back snug in our breakup spiral. And the last words Ed spoke to me that night would echo in my ears.

“You know, Lipsyte,” he said, “it’s no coincidence I saw you here tonight.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because of all the friends and acquaintances I had in college, you’re the only person I’ve never thought of once.” —Sam Lipsyte

Armchairs in Tel Aviv

I am not sure there is such a thing as getting lost. Sometimes it just takes more time to get someplace. And along the way, what marvels you behold. If I had not turned down the wrong street in Tel Aviv, I would not have seen the two perfect pink armchairs on the sidewalk with a dog named Krupnik stitting nearby. Then I really would have been lost. —Maira Kalman

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