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Get Lost!!

Marsha Caplan (caplanco)

Surrender to it! Getting lost while traveling can be most rewarding. After the first moments of panic, allow yourself to have a new adventure.

One of the most frustrating parts of the "lost" experience is realizing that, while you've got the phrasebook and can ask or point to the right questions, you can't understand the answers. When the responder tries to give you the entire itinerary from where you are to where you want to go, just listen and confirm step one. We've learned to take it one piece or direction at a time and, once we've gotten to just the next point, ask someone else for the next part. It is fascinating to see how people who do not speak the same language can find ways to communicate. This has made me much more sensitive when trying to help visitors from abroad in my city.

Another valuable lesson learned from getting lost is how one copes in stressful situations. My husband, who has the sense of a homing pigeon for places he's been to even once, almost lost it in Toledo, Spain. It was evening and we were trying to get back to our pensione. We had gone in circles to the point of no longer knowing which direction we were headed. A kind person tried to help - and that's when we learned the value of the one-step-at-a-time method. Finally, after stopping about five people along the way, we made it back to our room. In talking about what had happened that evening we agreed that the best thing to do in similar situations was to take deep breaths, stay calm, always carry a card with the destination address, and swallow directions in smaller pieces rather than big chunks.

Here are vignettes from some of our favorite "get lost" adventures.


It was our first night in Portugal. We had driven in from France and were staying in Coimbra. We had been told about a wonderful restaurant there which specialized in wild boar. We do not speak Portuguese, but we did have the restaurant's address written on a card.

After hunting unsuccessfully for awhile, we went into a grocery store and asked the man there for directions. He did not speak English, so we showed him the card. He began to rattle off directions in Portuguese and we apologized with head and hand gestures for not understanding. Finally, with a smile on his face, he took each of us by the hand and walked us the three blocks to the restaurant. We mimed wanting to buy him a drink, but he refused. Before he left, he asked the restaurant owner, who did speak some English, to call a cab for us when we were finished. And the wild boar was delicious!

Moral: Most people will help you if you let them.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Our son lived in New Zealand for several years and we made many friends during our visits there. One friend, Ross, is a veterinarian living in Christchurch. My husband, Michael, was there on business and stayed with Ross. One afternoon Ross invited Michael to go on a hike with him, and Michael jumped at the chance. As the day wore on and they trampled through the brush ("Trust me," urged Ross in the inimitable Kiwi fashion) light grew dimmer. As darkness approached, Ross admitted to being quite lost. He did have one flashlight with him, and some sense of direction, so they carried on, and on, and on in the dark.

Michael admitted to me later that he was a bit concerned and was beginning to see the headlines about two great guys who perished in the wilderness. Finally, after six hours of tramping, for what had begun as a two hour hike, they arrived at the car. Michael and Ross cemented their friendship that day, to say the least.

Moral: Kiwi persistence pays off!

Outside of Torita, Chianti, Italy

We had rented an agritourismo outside of Torita. Prior to our arrival, the owner had given us what we thought were specific written driving directions for how to find the place. We arrived in Torita early evening, as it was growing dark. We tried several times to follow the directions, but they did not take us where we were supposed to be. Trying one last alternate route, in the by now pitch dark of the countryside, we found ourselves on a somewhat rough road. When we realized we had to stop, we found ourselves in the middle of an olive grove. We were growing desperate, and frightened. How long could we live on olives alone?

I had rented a cell phone before leaving the US and was not too familiar with how it worked. But I tried the number the owner had given to us. At first, the call was answered by someone who did not speak English. I tried to explain our plight in English and very poor Italian, but did not succeed in being understood and finally hung up in frustration. I called again and I kept saying the owner's name, unsuccessfully. On the third call, a different person answered, who was the owner, and it was finally understood that we were quite lost and that someone would have to come and get us.

The owner told us that we were very close to Torita, gave us specific directions for backing up out of the olive grove, turning around, and getting back to town. We agreed to meet in front of the easily distinguished police station. We began to laugh as we realized that we'd only been a few blocks from the center of town. By the time the owner's father, whom she'd sent to find us, connected with us, we were somewhat giddy. Poppa did not speak English, but motioned us to follow him, which we did. As these things go, it turned out to be very easy to get to the house; we never lost our way back again in the week we stayed there.

Moral: Stay calm, follow directions and, if you get lost, find the nearest police station.

Siena, Italy

Each contrada (neighborhood) in Siena has its own symbol and it seems that every ceramic store has its own version of the various contrada symbols on plates of all sizes. In 1999 we stayed in Siena for ten days and walked through of the neighborhoods. We wanted to buy some contrada plates and went into every ceramic store on our hunt.

Just when we were beginning to think we'd never find a pattern we really liked, we found the perfect shop. The owners are a husband and wife. She paints the designs and he fires them. We had a lovely conversation with them, and spent over an hour chatting and choosing the symbols we wanted to buy. Their designs are simpler and have a less formal feel that most that we'd seen so we bought eight of the salad plate size, each with a different contrada symbol, and had them shipped home.

We enjoyed using those plates and I regretted not having bought 12 instead of eight. As we planned our next trip to Italy in 2003, we decided to include at least a day trip to Siena to buy more plates. We were staying in Pienza and drove to Siena for the day. Of course, we had forgotten to take the name of the shop with us, but Michael - he of the homing pigeon sensibility - was pretty certain he could find it. Using the piazza as our base, we methodically walked down every street in the area in which we thought we remembered the shop being located. We'd walk about six blocks from the piazza (because we were both certain it hadn't been any further out than that), move over one block to the next street and walk it back to the piazza. Then we'd start the pattern again on a different street.

I was feeling very sad because I really wanted those plates. We were about ready to give up when, as happens so often, we looked up and there was the shop. The owners were there, just as they had been three years earlier, and they remembered us! Again we had a wonderful visit, chose new designs to supplement those we already had, and shipped them home.

Moral: If you want something badly enough, you will find it.

Venice, Italy

What more is there to say. Getting lost in Venice is the best part of being there. Sometimes, though, it is important to find the place you need to get to - like if you have dinner reservations at Fiaschetteria Toscana and don't want to be late.

Toward the end of our stay, a shop owner explained that it is the street number that is important, not so much the street name. For example, if you ask someone where Dorsoduro 5432 is, they will be able to point you in the right direction, much more easily than if you ask how to get to a certain street.

While getting lost in Venice one rainy day we wandered into a shop selling lovely silk scarves and had a lengthy conversation with the owner. That conversation led to planning our next trip to Italy, to the Friuli-Giulia region, because Vittorio told us that that's where he and many other Venetians go on their vacations.

Moral: Numbers count.

Marsha and her husband, Michael, slow travel to various places for six to nine weeks about every three years. Their next trip, back to Italy for the third extended time, will be September - October 2006.

© Marsha Caplan , 2005

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