Are you one of those people with ‘a good sense of direction’? Have you ever been out with friends, looking for a place, a restaurant, a particular street and quietly thought to yourself knowingly, “if we’d just turn right and go two blocks we’d be there”? Or are you the confident navigator who knows that he could be dropped anywhere in the country and find his way home? Could I spin you around, place you in the middle of a city, tell you to meet me at 4th and Vine in 20 minutes and see you there?
I used to be one of those. But then something happened. I moved to a new country where a new equilibrium is needed for sense of direction. I sometimes wonder if a compass would even work here. As we ride around with friends, or attempt to follow some directions, or walk the streets of our town, we quickly feel completely out of whack and can’t remember which way is east, west, up, down, forwards, backwards. What happened?!
France is a country where American road network norms do not apply. You know how there are square city structures in the USA with straight roads intersecting at perpendicular angles? And one road may be one way, but the next one down will go the other way? And if you miss your turn, you can make the next turn and get right back to where you want to go? And you know how most cities will have a major road or two coming through them, with multiple ramps to get on and off from either direction, and often a bypass that circles the city, also with ramps to enter and exit as you please? And have you ever had it happen where you miss an exit, so you go down to the next one, take it, get back on the interstate the other way and then come back to your exit? Have you ever followed directions to a friend’s house, knowing full well that you’d simply invert them to get back home? Yeah... all of those things: you can’t do here.
Cities and towns are not in block format. Major roads have ramps on and off, but often not the option to go either way or to return to the autoroute. Roundabouts are everywhere (after a few of those, directionality gets tossed out the window). One-way streets are the norm and rarely have a mirrored options nearby. You need totally different routes for getting to your destination and returning. There’s a sports complex in our town that’s just a little bit far to walk to, so it’s one of the few usual drives I make. I’ve memorized the route to and from, but I still can’t understand how 2 lefts and a right gets me there, but only 1 left brings me home.
Last night we went to visit some friends on the other side of the city. We used directions to get there, and all were amazed that on our first attempt at navigating alone we actually arrived (without a gps). We were a little surprised at ourselves too. I didn’t look up directions for the trip home though. Our drive home was a little more eventful. After making a few wrong turns and attempting to find our way back to the start, we gave up and just tried following signs. After some strange twists, turns, tunnels, and bridges, we eventually ended up at home, but still not entirely sure how we got there.
I know that there’s a logic to the network here. There has to be. We’re logical creatures. It’s just a different kind that I haven’t figured out yet...