Finding our way

I have a phenomenally good sense of direction.  Some people are visual learners, some are auditory learners . . . I’m a spatial learner (there are other options, too).  If I write something down, my best bet if I’m trying to recall it is to try to remember where on the page I wrote it down, or the shape of the words.  I can pack the back of a car (or a closet, or a refrigerator) with a minimum of both effort and wasted space.  This means, too, that I typically know exactly where I am — I have a rough sense of how far I’ve travelled (by foot or vehicle) and generally which direction.  I can tell you, almost anytime, which direction is north and in which direction any other landmark is to where I am.

But Vienna messes with me.  It’s partly because there was a map outside of our first apartment here that wasn’t oriented north/south (who does that?) so my initial explorations here were all “off” in terms of cardinal directions, and I often find myself snapping back into this odd (and false) coordinate system.  It’s also because I swear there isn’t a true right angle in this city (that’s also true in our house, which really takes some getting used to).  I’m accustomed to knowing where I am, and naturally knowing which direction to go, but I find that nearly half the time here, my instincts are off (not usually totally wrong, just tweaked a little).  It’s unnerving and it’s messing with my head.

It happened again this evening:  we went out for pizza and ice cream, very near where we first lived when we came to Vienna.  We took the train to get there, but since the evening was pleasant, we decided to walk home.  I got us there, but we came out somewhere completely different than I expected.  I’m just not used to it.

I’ve been discovering, however, that Benjamin seems to have inherited my sense of direction and space.  We were walking down the street where we lived when we moved here.  The building itself is not particularly noteworthy, but a block after we passed it, we crossed the Donaukanal, which is pretty hard to miss.  Benjamin wanted to stop and look at the water, and the boats and all the people down by the water, so we did, and then we continued across the bridge.  About 3/4 of the way across, he stopped, turned and looked over his shoulder and said, “Oh, that’s where we used to live” and pointed back down the street towards our old building.

I’m glad to see that one of us seems to know where we’re going.

Giving directions

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.