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I was only lost in the Zurich airport for a few minutes. But it was long enough to make me miss a connecting flight, setting off a cascade of travel troubles. Lost luggage. Trains to rebook. Half a day at my first destination, gone.
None of this would have happened if I had been with my human GPS: my husband, Tom.
But I was alone, finally travelling overseas by myself for the first time – at the age of 39.
I’m Kelly Grant, a health reporter at The Globe and Mail. I recently took a solo trip to Germany, and the adventure got me thinking about one of the unfortunate side effects of meeting my husband when I was barely out of my teens. I never developed a sense of direction.
Navigation has always been my weak suit. My earliest memory is of my little sister and me getting lost after we sneaked into a copse of trees at the back of an uncle’s yard and wandered into the field beyond his suburban home. I remember climbing fence after fence, certain I was making my way back to my uncle’s street. I wound up blocks away.
Today, if I walk into a store in an unfamiliar mall, I can’t figure out which direction I came from when I walk back out again. Wayfinding feels like speaking in my rudimentary French: I can do it if I really concentrate, but it’s so much easier to ask a native speaker to translate.
That’s why, for nearly 20 years, I’ve relied on Tom to translate the language of maps and transit schedules and which-way-is-north? for me. Navigating is as natural as breathing to him, so I’ve been happy to bliss out and let him lead me through Paris (where he proposed) and Egypt (where we honeymooned) and Italy (where we celebrated our 10th anniversary) and even on to the deck of a Star Wars Disney cruise (where we took our three sons when all were under the age of six).
Still, I didn’t realize how much I’d come to rely on Tom’s innate navigational skills until I traveled to Germany on my own. I was there to write a travel story about the country’s Baltic Sea coast and to attend a medical investigative reporting conference in Berlin.
True to form, I got lost in the Zurich airport, missed my connection to Berlin and wound up scrambling to rebook a series of train rides to the Baltic Sea. I felt like I was attempting the navigational Olympics with all the training of a kindergarten athlete on no sleep.
That’s one of the things about marrying, or starting to date the person you’ll marry, at the age of 20, as I did. If you don’t spend your formative years as a single person, you’re not necessarily forced to confront your shortcomings and fix them. If you’re me, you never learn how to barbecue a steak or start a proper blaze in your fireplace or find your way around a strange city.
I realize this makes me sound inept (and makes my husband sound like some sort of a caveman). I don’t feel that way at all in my day-to-day life as a full-time journalist raising three sons who are, so far anyway, growing into great little humans. I think of myself as a hyper-competent woman.
Navigating my way around Germany made me painfully aware of how much I’d allowed myself to lean on my husband while travelling. I couldn’t even sleep on the plane without his actual shoulder to lean on.
The embarrassing truth is that if Tom had been there when I missed my connection in Zurich, I would have plunked myself on a bench while he made all the arrangements to get our trip back on track.
Without him, I figured it out myself. Case in point: When I could not interpret the photocopied Berlin airport map that was supposed to direct me to the lost baggage centre (because, of course, the airline lost my luggage) I thrust the paper at four different security guards along my route to check and recheck that I was heading in the right direction. I was, and I got my suitcase back.
As the trip wore on, I grew more capable of finding my way around. I managed to explore Berlin on foot, on the S-bahn, on the U-Bahn and on a hop-on, hop-off tourist bus, all without getting lost.
Once I got my bearings, I felt incredibly free. If I’d had a hat, I would have tossed it in the air. I relished being by myself, as I knew I would. That part didn’t surprise me. I’ve always felt that museums are best experienced alone and that novels make excellent dinner dates.
But I was surprised about how good it felt to find my own way on the trains and streets of Germany. The little thrill made me wonder: What else was I missing out on? What else had I not learned to do for myself during my long and very good marriage? And could I pick up some of the skills that I’d failed to acquire in my 20s in my 40s or 50s?
My trip to Germany was, in itself, a positive answer to that question.
What else we’re thinking about:
Earlier this fall, I stumbled on an episode of the Slate Money podcast that brought together my two favourite cultural products of 2019 in an absolutely delightful way. The episode was the last in a series recapping season two of Succession, the bitingly funny (and just plain biting) HBO series about Logan Roy, a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul, and his terrible children. The guests were J. Smith-Cameron, who delivered a breakout performance in season two as Gerri, Waystar Royco’s general counsel and the object of youngest Roy son Roman’s twisted lust, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the New York Times profile writer who penned my favourite novel of the year, Fleishman is in Trouble. If you think Brodesser-Akner is fun on the page, wait until you hear her in person, yukking it up with Smith-Cameron over the backstory of Gerri’s signature put down/come on to Roman. None of you little slime puppies will want to miss it.
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