Come to me for direction

Biarritz, Solothurn, Montreux, Dax, Seignosse, Munich, Bonn, Siena, Rome, Venice.

No, I’m not about to embark on a bragfest; this list includes just some of the many places where people have come up to me asking for directions to a local spot.

At first I figured that it was simply a matter of odds and that every person probably gets asked for help by strangers a certain number of times over their lifetime. Being all scientific-like I therefore conducted a small survey of my friends – “Hey, do you get people coming up asking you for directions much?” Without exception everyone paused to concentrate on recall, then came back with the reply “No, actually. Hardly ever.”

These results shocked me. I have been approached for directions and local information since I was a teenager and it continues to this day, the last time being while I was in Santa Cruz in fact. What prompted me to sit up and give some thought to this queer phenomenon was when a day or two after arriving in Solothurn (Switzerland) for the first time ever I was asked for the way to the primary school by a non-local Swiss woman, in Swiss German naturally; and then on each of the next two days after that I was asked for navigational help again by other people (I think one day was another Swiss and the other was a foreigner). That’s three consecutive days, after having just got into town. At the time I certainly felt like a clear foreigner – I understood bare snippets of the language, was still hard but happily at work developing my own conception of the area’s layout, and I was yet to have any feeling for what Swiss society and interpersonal interactions were like. So, why go for me?

The frequency of this occurrence combined with my inadequacy as a local guidebook/map for multiple cities that are new to me as well have given me the enduring wish that “God“, or the general all-knowing of the name of your choice, would give me the answer to each question the very moment that it was required. And you know what, I wouldn’t have to keep it for myself. Just beam it in and out of my head. Use me, use me! I just feel like so many people ask me for help and information, I should be able to do better for them.

(**Come on G… you know you want to!**)

If I use my imagining powers real hard and do my best to visualise what other people see when they see me walking down the street, I come up with a few observations to explain why they decide to make contact with me. For one, I’m apparently entirely non-threatening – even the cute, fat little murmeli didn’t run away when I took a solitary hike around them in the Swiss National Park. For another, given my ease with travelling and my enjoyment of wandering around, exploring places on foot, I must look pretty relaxed and probably walk much slower than I realise. This means that people don’t have to chase me and that they don’t have to feel guilty for having bothered me. Finally it is also possible that because I do tend to actively enjoy the atmosphere and environment around me and am not often preoccupied by the “must dos” of normally productive everyday life (especially when travelling), I end up giving off this air of being totally comfortable and in my element. I probably look very secure in my movements.

All the same, I am still always amused that they pick the most foreign-looking person around. Do I look Swiss? German? French or Spanish? It amuses me that not only am I not an immigrant or “diverse by birth” member of these countries, most of the time I don’t even speak their language.

Honestly though…… they pick the right person in terms of willingness to respond. I will always try to help someone out. Something that I’ve been surprised to learn is that there are people who find it wholly disagreeable to be asked for help. Or even that they are simply kind of reticent about it…

Once on a drive with some French friends across the border to Spain in search of the little village of Mundaka, we had to stop for directions as it wasn’t even marked on the map. The minutes of aimless driving had been steadily building up so as the only Spanish-speaker in the car I offered to get out and use my fairly basic language skills to ask someone. The guy who got out of the car to help me with this task made the first attempt, approaching a woman who was listening to music through earphones as she was walking. As soon as she saw him making his way to her with a map cradled in his hands, she quickly distanced herself and held up her palm to face him, being sure to stay on a trajectory that would keep her well away from us. Wow, I was amazed at the strong rejection, but it was also pretty funny. (Obviously that was a strange choice of target considering she had already demonstrated a desire to shut out the external world with insulating earphones.)

I approached an older couple next and at the very beginning they seemed hesitant about helping, but I think my Spanish did in fact help things along. And they turned out to be quite lovely, suggesting scenic routes and going as far as to recommend alternative destinations: “Oh, if you decide not to stay at Mundaka, there’s a precioso (one of my favourite, truly authentic Spanish adjectives of all time) village just 15 minutes away from there…”

So people pick correctly in picking me because I won’t in general run away. Perhaps it does make sense that this would be the foremost feature that people in need of assistance would try to detect, after all it doesn’t matter if a person has perfect knowledge and fluency in the language if they don’t want to look at you or spend even a few minutes on you. Even though I consider my success rate inadequate because I cannot be helpful to everyone who asks, I’d say that I’ve been able to help about 65% of the time. One stroke of helper genius I think fondly upon was when I managed to help a cute elderly couple on holiday in France get a hold of some nappies for their grandson and locate the public baths they were desperately searching for in one swoop. The nappies were obtained at the little grocery store called Casino, and when I got to the checkout I asked the woman working there if she knew where these public baths were. Originally I wasn’t sure that I was able to help the couple out, but I’d said to them: “There’s a Casino over there; I’m heading there to buy some stuff too, maybe they’ll have some nappies?” To which the woman responded as if she had been silly for not seeing the obvious: “Ohh! Do you think they sell nappies at the casino? I didn’t think of that!” Hehehe. That was amusing 🙂

Yup, I have to admit it, I am very happy when I can be a good facilitator. Even when I don’t know the answer, I’ve often been able to ask people who do know and then translate the answer for others, or direct people to an English-speaking enclave nearby. It’s great. Harkens back to my days volunteering with student advocacy at university.

But the persistent question is: Are people actually able to detect that I am such an earnest do-gooder? Is it just that I am so relaxed and unhurried that makes them come to me; or can they also tell that I want to help far more than I want to turn away?

Can people so clearly read that sort of thing?


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