Getting lost in a foreign country is never a good idea.
It happened to me all the time before I started traveling with Shawn. I’d be somewhere by myself, in a country where I didn’t speak the language, and I’d realize that I was lost. I always managed to find my way home, though sometimes this meant that I lost a whole day of traveling or, worse, made some dubious decisions like getting in cars with strangers.
But once I met Shawn we never got lost. On our first big trip we went to Vietnam (which wasn’t actually that far, as we were living in Japan) and there was a point in time when we were in Hanoi, I think, and we couldn’t find our way. This was in 2002, before smartphones, so Shawn took out a paper map and a compass (a compass!), set them down on the ground and figured out which direction we needed to go.
At the time, we’d only been dating a few months and I remember thinking, “wow, that’s sexy!”
I never really learned good navigation skills because I always had Shawn by my side. I mean, I can get around DC, but if you put me in a strange place and ask me which way is north, I’ll probably get it wrong.
This all means that my trip to Europe with my kids could have been a real disaster. Yes, we have Google maps now, but the chances we might get lost were decently high. Still, we’d be on a tour for the first part, so I didn’t worry much. But when we arrived in Spain with no plan I knew it might not go well.
The first full day we were in Barcelona, I decided to take my kids to the beach. “It’s a short walk,” said the owner of the apartment where we were staying. So I set off in the European heat wave with all three kids, determined to make it there.
I walked in the opposite direction from the beach for about 5 blocks before realizing what I’d done.
At one point during this first wrong turn, Austin looked at me and said, “are you sure the beach is this way?”
I was carrying Tommy by then, so once I realized we had gone the wrong direction, I gave the phone to Austin and Claire, who navigated us toward the beach. As we passed various stores and other markers, they’d compare them to the map. I never did that, but as I watched them navigate the streets, I thought, “wow, Shawn used to do that.”
We made it to the beach and all three kids bounded all over the place. The boys built a sand sculpture and Claire sat with me on a towel, pointing out all of the people who’d decided to go topless that day. (“It’s a cultural experience!” I told her. She rolled her eyes at that comment.)
Eventually, we left. It was really hot and the kids wanted to swim in the apartment pool with all of the other kids from the neighborhood. Tommy decided he could walk back so I took the phone to navigate us there.
Almost immediately, we seemed to be on the wrong path.
“Are we lost?” Claire asked.
“No,” I said, “the map says we need to go this way.”
“But, we passed that store over there before, and we’re walking away from it,” Austin said. “I think we need to go back that way by the store.”
I looked at the store. I hadn’t noticed it before, but both Claire and Austin insisted we’d walked by it on the way to the beach.
“Well,” I said, “maybe the map is just taking us a different way this time.”
They followed me. I heard one of them mutter, “I think we need to go the other way,” but they are good kids who (usually) listen to their mom, so they came with me. I tried to appear confident.
“Okay, kids,” I said after a while, “the map says our apartment is around the corner!”
“Mom,” Claire said, “this doesn’t look at all like the area where our apartment is.”
She was right. And as we turned the corner I realized that we were totally lost.
I’m not sure how it happened. I think I may have made a typo on the directions or something. As I entered the address again in my phone, Claire looked at the map and said, “See mom? We told you we should have gone the other way!”
The map was not clear, and kept turning around in that annoying way that Google maps can do. Austin came over. “Can I look?”
I gave him the phone, and he held it out in his hand. “Mom, we need to go that way,” he said, and pointed down the street.
“Yes,” Claire said. “Right back to where we told you to go the first time.”
I took a step back and looked at my kids. They were sure about this, I could tell. And in that moment, I felt like I was back on that street in Vietnam with Shawn. Like their father, both of my big kids knew where we needed to go. They had mapped our way down to the beach and knew how to find our way back.
I think sometimes when we look at our kids, we see the shape of their noses or the way that they laugh and we think, “oh, my kid is exactly like his dad (or mom).” It’s those specific looks and mannerisms of my kids that often remind me of Shawn. But in this moment, I couldn’t help but think how similar my kids were to their dad in the way that they approached the world.
They were curious about it. They wanted to figure it out. And when they did, they were sure about the direction our family needed to go.
“Okay, kids,” I said to them, “let’s go your way.”
So we did. And you know what? We found our way home.