Getting Lost

Chelsea Thomeer
November 27, 2015

            The sky was very gray on the morning I got lost in Vienna. The wind was bitter, sharp, pulled at the thin blue shirt I’d put on earlier that day before leaving my hotel for a run through the city. Now, hours after that run, I wished for a sweater, shivered slightly as I made my way through the streets.

             It wasn’t on the run itself that I had lost my sense of all directions. On that outing, I’d been accompanied by the friend I’d come to Austria to see, a girl from my college back home who was studying music at IES Abroad Vienna for the semester. She’d taken me on a run through a park by her apartment and then through the Schönbrunn Palace Gardens (Vienna is one of those cities, apparently, where it is possible to stumble upon a castle while on your morning jog). The wind, as I’ve said, was quite strong that day, and it spun the autumn leaves in the air above us as we ran up the slopes in and a little beyond the palace grounds. We stopped at the top of an incline, just outside of a little breakfast place, to look at the city below us. There was the Schönbrunn, in all its regal rectangularity, its yellow exterior walls and ornate white columns, and behind it, the city, Vienna, a sea of red roofs, a stone church far off in the distance, its steeple stabbing the empty air. There was something that felt distinctly unmodern about the city, as though when I’d traveled from Dublin I’d gone back several decades rather than jumping forward into the next time zone.

            But maybe I simply saw it this way because I don’t really know it. Perhaps Vienna seemed so picturesquely out of place to me in the contemporary moment because, until the day before, I’d never seen a city in continental Europe before except for Amsterdam and Den Hague and those two long ago, back on a family trip I’d taken during the summer before eighth grade.

            Indeed, the extent to which I did not know or understand the city was proven to me within a few hours of the time I stood on the top of that hill with my friend. After we'd finished looking at the city, we entered the small breakfast place. We were then quickly ushered out of it due to (a) our lack of a reservation and (b) our lack of appropriate attire. (We were in running clothes. Everyone else was in the kind of thing my grandmothers would wear for church.)

            My friend had to get back for a music rehearsal, so we parted after touring the inside of the palace. “Do you know how to get back to your hotel?” she asked me, as the two of us stood underneath a gilded ceiling depicting royalty enthroned, angels in majesty. (Again, I suppose this is the sort of thing that can only happen in a place like Vienna – a casual conversation about location under a ceiling that, when I first saw it, made me gasp).

            “Sure,” I said, thinking I could certainly find my way to the tram station again. It was just a matter of retracing our steps. I could do that.

            Or, well, I couldn’t. I made a wrong turn straight off and had to be redirected by a woman who, helpfully, spoke English. It had started to rain by then, and so there I was, in a thin blue shirt and black running leggings, jogging down the streets of a city where I knew almost no one and certainly no one who was nearby. I’d left my wallet at the hotel, too, so I didn’t have a lot of room for error. A single return tram ticket and a phone that was consistently failing to find a Wi-Fi connection were my only major assets.

            I found the tram station without too much difficulty, though, after I’d been redirected the first time. And then, I thought, it would be easy: my hotel was right down the main shopping street from the station. But perhaps I went out of a different exit or maybe I just got turned around, but when I left the tram station, I had no clue where I was. In fact, I felt as if I’d emerged into an alien universe: one clearly populated by humans but a place I’d certainly never been before. Or maybe I had? The buildings sort of looked familiar?

            I tried to ask for directions, but felt slightly awkward about doing so in a language and with an accent that so clearly marked me as a tourist. Also, I didn’t actually know what I was looking for. I finally asked one man whether he could direct me toward the “really big church,” because there was a massive one right about the corner from my hotel.

            He just looked at me, and said, in German-inflected English, “Which one?”

            I eventually did find my way back – partially because I recognized the Concert Hall we’d seen an opera at the previous night and partially because I made the miraculous realization that if you’d put in a location on Google Maps while on Wi-Fi, you can still see your little blue dot even after you leave Wi-Fi. But that day in Vienna wasn’t the last time that I would get lost in Europe. The next weekend, while seeing Amsterdam with the same friend I’d been visiting in Vienna, the two of us got lost in the maze of canals and cobbled streets that make up that city, trying to find the little bike shop we’d rented bikes from earlier that afternoon.

            This was, I’m convinced, not completely our own fault. The thing about Amsterdam is that even though it consists of a multitude of waterways that crisscross like the lattices of apple pie crust, you can never sort of shake the feeling that this isn’t just the same canal over again, that you aren’t just going in circles. The buildings are all tall and brick and sort of uniform – or at least, they are when you have only seen them once (or is it twice?) before.

            So we got lost, and then un-lost. We found the narrow alley where the bike shop was located exactly five minutes before it was going to close and celebrated this minor victory by having dinner at a place we stumbled on a few blocks away, a place we found not through recommendation or Google mapping, but just by walking through the dim streets of the city, peering inside the windows of any restaurants we passed. It was a lovely dinner. The whole afternoon was one of my favorite parts of being in Amsterdam.

           There’s something sort of magical about not knowing where exactly you are, about not knowing where exactly you are going. There’s an intensity with which you have to look at your surroundings when you’re lost, so that you don’t wander further afield. There's a a way you have to examine things that you might look past ordinarily, when you’re lost and seeking anything that might point you back to where you belong. It's unsettling, to not know where you are. It's unsettling, to be in a place where the sky is gray or grim or dark or dim but most of all unknown, seeming to stretch infinitely around you, shrouding you in your own lostness. But it can also be oddly invigorating, oddly inspiring.

            That night in Amsterdam, looking for the bike shop, wasn’t the last time I would be lost, either. The very next night, trying to meet up again with the same friend, I found myself mired once more in the unknown, staring at a closed, locked door in the space where she and our other friend were supposed to be.

            It was raining, again. It rains a lot in Europe. The sky was dark, because it’s late autumn now, and the sun sinks under the earth earlier each night. I found my way that time, too, though. That’s the thing about stories about getting lost. Most of the time, they’re also about getting found.  

           This time, I had to walk, half-soaked, into an Asian restaurant and ask the waitress for the Wi-Fi password. I must have looked very desperate, because she seemed to feel very bad for me. But as I’ve said, I found where I was headed at last, and I found other things, too, things, answers, for which I had not even been aware I had been looking.

            A few weeks ago, the blogging coordinator for IES Abroad sent an email that asked us to consider, in one of our final blogs, what we wished we would have known before studying abroad. There’s a lot I didn’t know before I came here, some of which is very mundane. It would have been useful to know, I suppose, that the weather turns chilly in Dublin before it even gets to be the second week of September. I could have used a few more pairs of sweat pants and a few less T-shirts. I found a coffee shop tucked inside the underbelly of a book shop only last week that I wish I’d found far earlier in the semester.

            But I’m not sure that I would go back and tell myself any of that. In fact, I’m not sure I would go back and tell myself anything at all, even if it was possible, even if I could. Studying here wouldn't have been the same if I’d known exactly where to go from the beginning. I’m grateful for having gotten the chance to simply muddle through, to experience a place that neither I nor any of my close friends or family knew. I would have missed a lot, if the paths I took through Dublin and Ireland and Europe had been straighter.

            It’s okay to be lost, I think. I never really realized that before coming to Ireland. I’ve spent a lot of my time at college pretending I knew what I was doing, bluffing my way through conversations in which I felt everyone else knew one other better, nodding into the faces of professors who were speaking what sounded at least half like gibberish.

            Maybe I don’t need to know everything. Maybe I don’t need to always be sure. I’ve never really actually been sure, after all. I’ve just been spending a lot of time trying to be. Mostly, I've worried a lot. But worry doesn't get you anywhere. It doesn't help you find where you are going. It stops you from seeing the place where you are, from understanding where you might want to be.

            The rainy night that I got lost and found was also the last time I will see my friend from school until we return to the U.S. in January. When we said goodbye to one another that night, we tossed around ideas for the things we might do then, the places we might go. And I realized the single thing I hope I remember, above all else, when I go back to the States: that it’s good to venture into the strange, into the unknown, and that the unknown is everywhere, not just in Vienna or Amsterdam or Ireland, but everywhere, in my hometown of Williamsville and my college town of Williamstown, in every yet-unuttered truth and every yet-unopened book.

            I’d like to keep getting lost. And found, too, but always lost again, so that I am constantly pushing myself beyond the places I know, beyond the places in which I am comfortable, beyond the places in which I am sure.

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Chelsea Thomeer

<p>I&#39;m a rising junior at Williams College majoring in English and political science. I love reading and running, Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling, pumpkin bread and pretzels, The Grapes of Wrath and green tea. I&#39;m spending a semester in Ireland to study Irish literature and to work on my own writing.</p>

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