L’étranger

I’ve never been able to read maps.

You know that episode of Friends, where they’re in London, and the only way that Joey can navigate around the city is by “getting into the map”? That’s what I’m like. I have to turn it around so that the street on the map is facing the exact same direction as its real life equivalent in front of me. The words ‘north’ and ‘south’ mean absolutely nothing to me, and are more likely to make me look up and down rather than in any particular direction. It’s no wonder my geography teacher hated me.

Since arriving in Lyon, I’ve spent a significant amount of time aimlessly wandering the streets. I never intend to do this; there’s generally an aim when I start out, like “I want to go to the supermarket”, “I need to find the Métro station” or “I’m going to the internet café”. No, the aimlessness tends to creep in when I gradually realise that I’ve somehow misunderstood the map and have no idea how to get back to a place that I recognise.

It happened again today, as I started out very confidently towards the internet café that I’ve been to for four days in a row. Embarrassingly, I think my mistake was actually turning right instead of left when I stepped out of the apartment building. Whatever the reason, I ended up in a completely unfamiliar area, and could I find it on my map? Nor could I find anyone to ask for help, as apparently Lyon is even deader than Ballymena on a Sunday. Everywhere was closed, there was no one around, and the air was so hot and sticky that I was in desperate need of a drink. Abandoning all hope of finding myself on the map, I trotted down side street after side street in search of a tabac that was open for business.

After much sweating, and hopelessly lost, I ventured into the only building I could find that looked like it might sell me a drink. It was a little old man’s pub – you know, the dark, cramped kind with half a dozen oul’ boys slumped over their pints at the bar, watching the horse racing. They all looked up with interest as a red-faced twenty-something female stumbled in, clutching her map. “Err… bonjour!” I announced nervously, looking for a barman. There didn’t seem to be one, so I spoke to the room in general. “Puis-je avoir un Diet Coke s’il vous plaît?”

One little old man got off his bar stool and shuffled around to the other side of the bar. He began rummaging around behind it, with some creaking and groaning. I wondered when someone had last ordered a Diet Coke in this place, and suspected that should he succeed in finding some, the expiry date would be sometime in 1993. The little old men were all murmuring amongst themselves, sneaking furtive glances at the female in their midst. One of them said something to me, and I didn’t understand a single word of his gravelly-voiced, garbled question. They all looked expectantly at me. “Je ne parle pas français très bien,” I explained, hoping that it was in fact French that he’d been speaking.

That did it. They were fascinated now. I was beckoned towards the bar, and ushered on to a spare bar stool, where they gently but firmly demanded an account of my entire life story. A Diet Coke was triumphantly produced from the cobwebbed recesses of the bar, and poured into a carefully-wiped glass. I gulped it down gratefully, pushing a few coins across the bar. “Ahh, non, non!” chorused the little old men, and there was a great deal of murmuring once again, and fumbling for change. My drink was paid for, and with many nods and smiles I was urged to continue with the “About Me” section of my A-Level French oral exam, without the advantage of having rehearsed it in my bedroom many times throughout the week. A large golden retriever put its head on my knee and looked dolefully at me.

It was a long, long time before I made it to the internet café today.

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