You Are Here

Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life; those maps of our private world we use every day; here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth, things of that sort, our personal memories, that make the private tapestry of our lives.
— from Love Over Scotland, by Alexander McCall Smith

Today’s Writing Group prompt: Show us a specific Google map location and tell us about its significance to you.

I have a good one:

That’s the Praça do Comércio in Lisbon, Portugal. Go ahead, zoom in.  I’ll wait.  See that statue of the guy on the horse?  The base of that is where I ended what I laughingly refer to as the worst day of my life.

When I studied in Salamanca, Spain, during my junior year of college, we had a 10-day mid-fall break.  My dad had colleagues in Lisbon, and they were kind enough to let me stay with them for part of the break.  I took the train from Madrid. (On the train on the way back, in the middle of the night, I met some Spaniards on their way to Paris to work in restaurants.  They told me they loved me and asked me to come with them.  God, I love Europe.)  I arrived on a weekend, but my first weekday there, my hosts had to work.  Manuela dropped me off near the water, not far from that statue, and I commenced my adventure.

At first I wandered around near the water, looking in shops and people watching.  Around lunchtime, like any good American abroad, I found a Burger King.  In my defense, I don’t speak Portuguese, which is shockingly unlike Spanish, and the Portuguese are big on seafood, which I don’t eat.  I figured, on my own, BK was a safe bet.  I had a Whopper with cheese, fries, and a drink, just like I would have if I’d been home.  Afterwards, I hopped on a bus.  I don’t remember my destination now, but it doesn’t matter anyway.  I’d never make it there.

As I was riding the bus, my stomach began to rumble.  Clearly, Portuguese Burger King did not agree with me.  I thought about trying to get off the bus, but it was so crowded and I didn’t really know where I was.  I concentrated on taking deep breaths and trying not to think about what must have been in my burger.  Um, that didn’t work.  I threw up on the bus.  I was in a window seat, and I vomited on the floor by the wall.  I don’t know if anyone noticed, at least at first.  At any rate, no one asked if I was ok.  I kept my head down, too embarrassed to look at anyone or get up to get off the bus for fear of being discovered.  I can’t remember, but I’m sure I was crying hot tears of shame, too.

Stop after stop after stop, and no one helped me.  Finally, the bus stopped for good.  We’d reached the end of the line.  After everyone else got off the bus, the driver announced more loudly that it was the end, so I looked up, looked out the window, and realized I had no idea where I was or how far we’d come from where I’d gotten on.  I was utterly and completely lost.  I got off the bus and tried to get my bearings.

I started walking in what seemed like the direction of the water, but I really had no idea.  No one I ran in to seemed to speak English, and I didn’t even know the name of the location I was trying to reach and I didn’t have the Portuguese words to describe it.  I had no map of the city and no Portuguese-English (or even Portuguese-Spanish) dictionary.  I kept walking, but I was in a totally residential neighborhood and there weren’t very many people out.  At one point, I ran into some police officers and asked them for help, but we just had a complete language barrier.  It was comical in its inefficiency.

By this time, it was starting to get dark and I was starting to get worried.  This was, of course, in the days before ubiquitous cell phones (1996), and even if I’d had one, I couldn’t have told Manuela where I was.  After what seemed like forever, I finally stumbled into an area that seemed familiar from my visit to the city the previous day.  It was a street lined with shops and restaurants.  I went into several and mimed a phone with my thumb and pinky.  The first couple of people all shook their heads no, but the last one nodded and pointed to the back.  I nearly collapsed in relief as I put a coin into the slot and dialed Manuela’s number.

She picked up, worried because she hadn’t heard from me.  I told her I had been lost all day and didn’t really know where I was but that I thought we were close to where we’d been the day before.  She told me to ask the waiter for directions to the Praça do Comércio and wait there and she would come find me.  I managed to make out the directions, which turned out to basically be, “Go straight down the street til you see the guy on the horse.  You can’t miss it.”  I sat at the base of the statue, resting, catching my figurative breath, and scanning the cars that passed for Manuela’s.

All of a sudden, a tall, young African guy sidled up to me and sat down.  He started making conversation, asking me where I was from and what I was doing in Lisbon.  Then, out of the blue, he asked, “Would you like to come back to my apartment and smoke pot?”  You could have knocked me over with a feather.  Before I could think of how to Just Say No, Manuela pulled up in front of us.

“That’s my ride.”


4 thoughts on “You Are Here

  1. Oh, gosh, it is funny now. It actually became funny to me pretty soon after it happened, but by the end of that day, I was just not having it.

  2. Oh my. You make me laugh. When I was in Paris by myself (1985) I had the name of my hotel written down in French in my pocket all the time…so I could give it to a cab driver if I got lost. I got lost plenty…but always was able to find a metro stop. So I was never as scared as you must have been. But I can imagine.

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