Yesterday my French family asked me if I wanted to join them on a trip to the countryside to go climbing. I, of course, said yes and was happy see beyond the city limits. After a wonderful picnic, they told me that the girl from last year had found an easy hour-long hike to the train station. They mentioned that the train ride home is picturesque and I was more than welcome to go if I wanted. I thought, “Well if she could do it I sure can…” and took off on my merry way.
That assumption was wrong. So wrong.
The thing about moving to another country is that one anticipates getting lost. If you wanted safe and easy, you would stay within the comfortable confines of your home. The silly thing that most travelers do, myself included, is think is that they can somehow manage (or micromanage) this “getting lost” thing. As if bringing along enough gadgets and doing a lot of preplanning will stop the inevitable. This misconception, too, is wrong. I now have two strikeouts in one day.
As I start along the path, I thought to myself that the previous girl must have been more fit than me because I am pathetically huffing and puffing up this hill. If it is like this the whole way, how in God’s name am I to make it in under an hour? When I finally reach a plateau I believe I’ve made good progress! Only 40 minutes to go. I almost give myself a congratulatory slap on the back if I wasn’t so distracted by the flies. I’m one of those people who enjoys nature…. without insects. One might intelligently ask, how does one enjoy the outdoors without bugs? I have yet to find out. But as I’m hiking faster and faster trying to avoid these pestering things, I hope someone figures this conundrum out quickly because they’re driving me crazy.
In my rush I almost miss all this beautiful scenery to my left. For a moment I forget about the flies and enjoy the view. It’s a gorgeous day, there are vineyards to my right, and I am thankful to see a new side of France.
And all is well, until I get to a very clear split in the road. Looking back, this was probably my error, but who was I to know. I go left.
An hour goes by and I’m starting to think France looks more and more like Nevada. This trail is full of uneven rocky pits; there’s this orange dusky haze that seems to resemble Las Vegas; these plants look more than parched, and I swear to gosh I just saw a tumbleweed.
My anxious mind is asking, am I in a French desert? Then a mild panic attack sets in, Oh my gosh, should I start rationing my water? I’ve seen 127 Hours with James Franco. I am nothing like that man who cut off his arm and survived five days in the desert. I cannot last five days; I am too delicate. I’m wearing cute neon hiking gear for gosh sakes. Plus, my Texas family will kill me if I die. At this point I’ve gone too far to turn back now and catch the French family in time. Maybe this bright shirt can function as some kind of flare…?
Finally I remember my phone functions as more than camera. Phewh, I’ll just Google Map my way out of this.
Maps has many benefits. Telling you how to get from point A to point B is one of them. Fixing a hiking error, is not. Google Maps told me that I was way off the hiking path and that it was now best to follow the main roads to the closest station. Great, now I look like a hitchhiker in cute, yet out of place, workout cloths in freaking France. When I bought this outfit, I thought I’d sport it running… in an air-conditioned gym – not lost in the French countryside.
I ask a friendly-looking gentleman and his wife, “Excuse me, how far is the train station?” He replies, “The what?”
Please baby Jesus, let it be that my French is just so terribly bad that he cannot understand me, and NOT that there is, in fact, zero train station around here. “Le gare”, I repeat. I even tried a weak “choo choo”.
Finally he gets it and tells me the station is five kilometers away. As I say thank you and walk in that direction, I do the math. That’s three freaking miles. Gah. But what is a lost traveller to do? I will tell you: be an optimist and pump yourself up. I tell myself, I’ve run more than that before, and here I’m only walking! No big! Plus I have half a baguette and delicious Camembert cheese in my bag. I’m good! No need to complain!
Then my phone blinks. Low battery. And I’ve already been walking/wandering for two hours. I start walking faster.
A kilometer or so down the road, the residential street has turned into more of a busy highway. I bump into a family taking a driving break with their children and and stop to double check that I’m still on the correct path.
They say that the station is not particularly in walking distance (well if only I’d had that foresight when I started) and kindly offer to drive me there. At this point I felt like the heavens just split up and sent this family and their comfortable Peugeot as my hiking failure savior. Taaaddaaaah. I get into the car spouting “merci”s all over the place.
I arrive at the station with enough time to catch the next train to Marseille, but lo and behold, the machine wouldn’t accept my card to buy a ticket. The line behind me is piling up – I turn around to give an apologetic smile and shoulder shrug. I’m thinking, I don’t care how many people are behind me, I’m catching this train! Then someone politely tells me I can purchase a ticket on the train and I give up trying to stuff my money into the dang machine. When I finally take my seat inside the cabin, I could almost laugh at myself. Not the normal laugh. More like a crazy grateful laugh. The one where your eyes still look a little frazzled and you’re smiling too big. Yeah, that one.
But by the time I get off in Marseille and walk down the steps towards home, I’ve calmed down. I actually have a little pep in my step. I’m kind of impressed with myself. Yes, I got terribly lost. But I didn’t break down in sobs in the French desert. I didn’t break my ankle on Vegas gravel. And after two and a half hours of wandering I found my way back home, completely in French.
In the end, I’m here. Safe and sound. I even arrived home before the family. Even skirted paying for train fare, as no one asked for my ticket. My mother (and father, and grandfather and grandmother) will give me the proper amount of grief for not being safe enough. I know this, so let this serve as my apology now, with the assurance that I will be more cautious next time. But this story was too good to pass up and not tell y’all about it.
Part of exploring and/or being in a new country is getting lost. I knew that when I signed up. It’s not all roses and lazy mornings at calm French patisseries. Whether it’s verbally/culturally lost-in-translation or being physically lost-in-reality, it’s part of the package. I make light of it here because…. well this is actually what I say in my head. But truthfully, in some way, shape, form or fashion, I’m lost everyday. I just hope that the uncomfortability of it all means that I’m growing as a person and learning as a French speaker. The best things I’ve found so far are to stay calm, trust your gut… and charge your phone. You never know when Google Maps or Google Translate will come in handy.