I am constantly being asked for directions. Without exaggerating, I’m probably stopped and asked for directions 30-40% of the times I walk out of my front door. I think it’s because I live in a very touristy area, I kind of look like I could be Austrian, and I don’t look intimidating (usually). But it really happens all the time.
It started the first night I was ever in Vienna (back when I was visiting Dan here in 2010 for the weekend). I was asked for directions to hotel where we were staying, so I actually managed that, even though they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak whatever they were speaking. I’ve been asked directions in German, English, French and even what I think was Japanese. One group of women, who only spoke German, was not put off when I explained I only spoke English, nor when I couldn’t understand what they were asking to find. I eventually managed to figure it out with the help of the map on my phone. I think I’ve managed to point everyone who asked in at least the general direction of what they were looking for.
It happened again today — twice in the same hour. Benjamin, Liam & I were out for our morning walk, and we stopped to get donuts (it is, after all, National Donut Day in the US, apparently). The customer ahead of us in line was asking (in German) how to find a particular grocery store. The woman behind the counter of the bakery said (in German) that there wasn’t one around, but pointed him in the direction of another one. I understood what they were saying, but couldn’t explain in German, so I added, in English, that I actually knew where that store was. He turned to me and asked in perfect English where it was, I explained, and he thanked me and headed off. Then, on our way home, we were stopped by two women, who asked in excellent German, about the location of a shop on the same block where we live. I understood, but couldn’t explain in German — I tried to gesticulate it, and said (in mild frustration), “I don’t know how to say it in German, but I can show you!” To which one of the women replied, “Oh, wonderful! You speak English! I’m from New York!” (I know how to get there, too, but can’t explain that in German, either.) Her companion was actually Parisian, and we walked the block or so together and talked about Vienna.
It’s funny — I guess I just have one of those faces: I look friendly and helpful which equates to very approachable. Most Austrians that I’ve encountered are really quite helpful and friendly, as well, but they often don’t look it. Every person that has asked me for directions, and who I’ve been able to communicate with in English, has expressed surprise that I’m an American — the woman today said she picked me out particularly because I looked like a local. I should have asked why. (I think it might be the stroller. I don’t think very many people would take on a European vacation with two little ones, let alone moving here, so I think the stroller gives me extra credibility.)
So, I wonder: is it really that I’m being singled out so often as a good person to ask for directions, or are that many people wandering lost around Vienna? Either way, it feels really good to be able to help — I spend a lot of my time here feeling awkward and out of place, so it’s nice to have something to offer. It’s also really fascinating to watch the flow of language around me. Even I, of relatively limited linguistic ability, participated in conversations in English, French and German today. And I helped some people. Pretty cool.