Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The girl with the map in her hand

London is a wonderful, but misunderstood city. When you hear its name, you might automatically think of things like Big Ben and Parliament, the London Eye or Tower Bridge. Certainly, the image conjured up has something to do with traveling. That's how we are with all places foreign to us.

But London isn't just a city for tourists. The longer you spend here, the more abundantly clear this becomes.

I think I must have been blind to it before. I always had my dad to help me navigate through the twisting roads of the city. If he took a break to consult a map, I'd look at him with disdain and confusion. How could he not know exactly where he was going? He's a navigation guru - the kind of guy who borrows travel books from the library just so he can look at maps of the cities they describe. If you're lost in Los Angeles, on the freeway or finding a landmark, he is the person you go to for advice and reassurance.

This applies until you're in a foreign country, stranded without the ability to call Dad whenever you should need to. This is where I am now.

My first venture in London cartography came when I chose to visit a Marks & Spencer last week soon after moving into a hotel in the city. Without access to Google Maps (Wi-fi was not free in the hotel), I used my London A-Z book and searched desperately for street numbers that could help me locate the place that held my lunch.

After a few wrong turns, I found Tottenham Court Road and noticed that the numbers on the businesses had no rhyme or reason. There didn't seem to be an odd side or an even side of the street as there is in the United States. The numbers also didn't seem to match up with each other depending on which side of the street you were on. Some businesses didn't even have numbers on them, which made the process of searching even more difficult.

Finally, I found the place I was searching for, but not before I'd walked past a ton of other businesses. Unwittingly, I'd cemented both my knowledge of the location of Marks and Spencer as well as the crazy conversion scale between a London A-Z map booklet and the actual London streets. What I thought would be a short journey was actually a long expedition all for the sake of a Ploughman's Lunch sandwich.

A few days passed in between, and I'll forget about mentioning them because for a great majority of my week my dad was in town and doing the navigating once again. Once he left, though, I was back to utilizing my own sub-par knowledge of the London tube system and the compass rose to make my way around the city without getting lost at every twist and turn.

While my dad was in town, I learned that street names are not unique items in this country. Gordon Square merges into Gordon Street, and similar situations occur throughout the city. So depending on where you are, you must always be aware of the type of street your own, the part of the city your in, etc. etc. Simplicity goes out the window sooner than you might think.

In the period after my dad left, I learned a lot about how London functions for its residents - and why if I had come here alone the first few times, I probably would've bawled my eyes out more than enjoyed the experience due to the incredible wackadoodliness (I just made that word up) of the city.

When you go onto the London Underground, you are not simply a passenger on a train (tube) system. You are part of a sea. And in being part of a sea, you do not have the power as one particle of water to fight against the tide. You roll along with it and hope things go according to plan.

I've made it a point to consult a map before I ever enter a tube station in London. Without knowing where you're going in this city, you will get lost simply because you want to keep moving. Everyone else is moving, that must mean you need to move too. That's the bandwagon complex talking, not your conscience. And you should always let your conscience be your guide.

The bandwagon complex does not only apply to London Underground travels, but travels all through the city. Walking along a street, you may be tempted to cross simply because everyone else is. Or alternatively, you may choose to keep walking just because that's how the flow of pedestrian traffic seems to be moving. But not everyone is going where you're going. If you need your dad to tell you that, then you have a serious problem.

So I have a serious problem.

Over the past few days, I've had to train myself not to wander. Being from the suburbs and being a fancy smartphone user, this has never been a high priority for me. Wherever I am, I have access to information about my whereabouts. I have my dad a quick phone call away. I will never be unsalvageably lost.

Being alone in London changes all that. And aside from making you self-aware of your own appearance as a tourist, it teaches you how to nonchalantly pretend to be a local even when you barely know right from left (or which direction the cars will be going on any particular side of the street).

For the past few days and the next few, I have and will put myself into awkward navigational experiences. Just for the exercise of learning where I am in a new city. Because from now on, London is not just a place I'm visiting. London is a place I'm living. And as a living, breathing Londoner, it is my duty to learn it street by street, no matter the twists and turns and shared names.

So that's what I'm doing. And if you plan to visit me, be prepared for some roundabout travels. No matter which way you go, though, London is a beautiful city. You will not be disappointed.

No comments:

Post a Comment