I have no sense of direction. None. I make no mental maps. The streets outside never really arrange themselves into any kind of pattern in my head. I learn how to get from A to B by memorizing the colours and the shapes of things around. It’s a bad system. Even something as simple as a change of time of day affects my perception. It is perfectly possible for me to fail to recognize a familiar spot if I normally see it by daylight but one time find myself there by night. Things look different in a different light. Or if I’m used to going to a certain place, but not back from it (like if I take a bus that drops me off at a different spot on its return route), again, things look different from a different angle. As I said, it’s a bad system. But it’s the only one I’ve got. Well, that’s not true anymore, my life has gotten a lot easier since Google Maps. I can read maps, I’m fine with 2D stuff. It’s that third dimension that is tripping me up.
Although even with maps… Imagine I’m going from south to north, so on a map I’m going up, the west is on my left, the east is on my right, all fine. But when I’m coming back, north to south, down on a map, I’m already confused and if I can’t turn the map around for some reason it all becomes extremely difficult to navigate.
It’s funny, people laugh, and rightly so. Or they get exasperated sometimes. Like, surely, if only I payed more attention to my surroundings, I would figure it out. It’s true to an extent. If I do pay close attention, I am more likely to pick up on visual cues I rely on to get about. But not always. And if I’m tired, or stressed out, or distracted (which is my natural state), I miss them all the time. Or my vision gets… wonky and even the familiar landmarks look… off somehow. Again, thank goodness for the Google Maps.
I both love and hate walking around big cities. On one hand, there are plenty of individual markers I can navigate by – characteristic buildings, statues, graffiti, shops, names of the streets prominently displayed, rivers, parks, canals – it makes it easy to create the strings of cues I need. But on the other hand, it’s all a bit too much, visual overload, it’s so easy to get turned around, there are multiple routes to reach any given destination and if I’m not walking precisely the one I’ve memorized, or I get distracted for a moment and miss a particular marker, I’ve no idea where I am. You wouldn’t believe how many times, for example, I would find myself by the major river that runs through the very city centre and have no idea which side of it I’m on.
I used to think that this is how everyone operates. Apparently not. Most people I know make mental maps, they don’t get lost in a familiar city because it gets dark, they can navigate an unknown route solely based on their sense of direction, they seem to just know where the north, south, east and west are a lot of the time and apply that knowledge to their surroundings. If I know the time of day and look at the sky, I can figure out where cardinal directions are. But as soon as I stop looking up, I get turned around again, I get lost in the visual noise of the city. There’s some disconnect in there, something that doesn’t translate quite right.
I’m not writing this post to complain about this quality of my brain. Not at all. Yes, there have been times when I would find myself close to desperation: out in the city, perhaps coming back from a pub a little tipsy, which does not make matters easier, when my phone would die and I would miss a cue, get turned around and suddenly, I look around and don’t know how to make my way home. It’s a very exasperating feeling, to know you’re somewhere you should recognize, close to home, but you still have no idea how to get there. Luckily, I’d always remember in time, that:
- I indeed can’t be that far from home;
- if I keep walking in any direction I’m likely to come across something I’ll recognize;
- worst case scenario, I can always get a taxi back.
It is annoying sometimes, it can get frustrating, but frankly, this is just how things are, so what exactly would be the use in complaining?
I’m back in Dublin after four years’ absence. I’d lived here for quite a while before. Back then I had many routes memorized. Now that I’m back I’m trying to re-familiarize myself with the city and I’m discovering that it might take a bit more time than I initially thought. Some routes have barely changed, I can still, albeit tentatively, make my way to my favourite spots. Others though, originally less taken, are gone. I can recall some markers I’d picked, and recognize them when I see them, but they don’t connect anymore. A uniquely shaped building here and there, a shop, a statue, or a specific tree – they’re separate in my mind, I can’t place them anywhere, they’re no longer landscape clues but just discrete entities floating through my mind and the city.
Today’s writing prompt is surreal. I could write any number of posts on that subject. But this is what came to me first. Just because I’m used to the way my brain works, it doesn’t mean it does not feel frequently surreal. My cities are not static, they don’t exist firmly in one place, they don’t stay put, they don’t obey the rules. Blink, and the streets around me dance, and turn and twirl. My cities do not take directions, I make my way by purple sheen on cobblestones, by planes of colour, shop displays, different doors and weirdly shaped branch on a tree. The rivers have a lot more banks than just the left and right, the buildings grow or disappear during the night. Just because something is in its place most of the time, it doesn’t mean that it can’t move to a different spot for just one day. It’s perfectly possible to get turned around while walking in one direction in a straight line. There are abundant magic portals and if I accidentally walk through one things can no longer make any sense. Or opposite, I can be utterly confused, then take two steps and the world calms and I am back in some familiar space. Every so often I am both at once, lost and found, I look around and the world shifts between two states: one instant I know precisely where I am but then, without me moving an inch, things change, become unrecognizable, and then oscillate to familiarity again. I’d like to be able to take you all, who have your maps and understand that left is left and right is right, for a quick trip around the city in my head. Would you enjoy it? Or would the constant state of flux of the surroundings make you uncomfortable? I wonder.