I was just getting into the train on the Canada Line, the line I take all the time to get around town, taking my usual Sunday morning route into east Vancouver, when for some reason I felt far away. A person talking on a cellphone caught my attention, and as I glanced over at them, maybe it was the angle of observation, maybe they reminded me of something – whatever the reason, I thought, This is like Chicago, or no, maybe Washington, taking the train there, in a strange city unknown to me.
When you know your route, your routine, there’s a certain feeling that comes over you. Familiarity? Something. It’s different from being in a strange city, not being sure where you’re going.
On my familiar route the last thing I need is the calling out of stops and the intrusive announcements from the transit company. In a strange city, though, they can be a lifeline. Even I suppose in your own city if you are going somewhere different.
I remember in Athens once trying to get to the airport. I was going in a hurry. I was under stress. I was going without the person who’d usually guided me around, and I felt near to panic. Not only was this a strange city to me, but I couldn’t even read the language. Never mind the language, the very alphabet. And the people didn’t speak my language either. I was in despair. “Airport,” I said helplessly, hopelessly, or maybe hopefully. And somebody did understand and pointed me in the right direction, and I got to the airport after all, despite the foreignness of it all (not to mention my general lack of a sense of direction).
Such a bad sense of direction I have that when, the next day, having decided not to flee the country after all, I tried to make my way to my hotel, I decided to walk from the station – and walked and walked and walked – in the direction I thought my hotel was in, only to find after half an hour that I was back where I’d started, at the station. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Was it a Kafkaesque horror story or a cartoon? But I took a cab and got to the hotel.
The night before, at the airport, deciding whether to stay or leave, and stuck either way overnight, the airport began to become familiar to me. I got used to the regular announcements about not leaving my bags unattended. I found the McDonald’s and the Internet café. I was beginning to settle into a routine. It doesn’t take very long after all, but until it happens you’re lost at sea – and even after you get your sea legs and generally feel comfortable where you are, sometimes, inexplicably, you can feel the horror of being lost.