I was going to something new. A new group, a new activity and a new location. I left the house 15 minutes earlier than required, checked the email with google maps one last time, and wrote the address in my notes on my phone. I’d already been lost once this week so I wasn’t willing to risk it again. On that occasion I’d been running late, I was sure I knew where it was. It wasn’t. After 20 minutes of driving in circles and being given directions which began with “You know Beverly Hills 15? It’s not near there, don’t go there”. I gave up. Angry that I wasted time when I could have been working on something else while simultaneously being disappointed I’d missed out.

My new adventure began badly, caught in traffic with a long line of trucks which appeared to make their way to the horizon – I changed tack, took another route. When I got closer to where I needed to be the usual nerves took hold. This is new, I don’t know anyone in the group, what if I’m the only one who doesn’t know anyone? I drove to where I thought I needed to be, went into the wrong compound and made a 27 point turn to get back out on the street. I tried another street, and another. I rang to say I was lost – no answer. For the next fifteen minutes I discovered hidden mosques, new schools, outlandish houses and compounds I never knew existed. I looked across at the clock in my car and realised I was now so late it wasn’t worth going. I pulled over to the side of the street, made one last futile look at my phone and let out the most self serving heavy hearted sigh that I could muster.

On the verge of tears I looked up to see a man with a broom sweeping sand from the street to the curb. He had a shirt wrapped around his head to protect him from the heat. A twinge of guilt provided the slightest wince.

On our first move, from one state in Australia to another I spent the first few months permanently lost. I asked questions which provided answers that meant nothing. “Where do you live?” I’d ask knowing that unless it was in my suburb the answer meant nothing. I didn’t understand the conversation about which side of the river you lived. The intonation which came when speaking of which school you went to, or the favoured football team. I was lost – a South Australian fish in Western Australian waters.

In Jakarta getting lost meant never being alone. My driver Ramli  originally from Bandah Aceh, had come to the city for a job and found himself with minimal English driving an Australian with minimal Indonesian. Together we muddled our way through the day, often heading home with nothing to show for our troubles. Ramli refusing to lose face and me trying to learn enough Bahasa to ask what it was with men and not being able to stop and ask for directions.

In Kuala Lumpur I sat and cried by the side of the road with a map in my lap and a screaming baby in the back seat. In Libya I held hand drawn maps looking for “the palm tree after the green fence with the tyres out the front”.  In Canada I spent hours trying to make my way free of suburban cul-de-sacs. The suburb of Signal Hill had Signal Hill Drive, Signal Hill Close, Signal Hill View, Signal Hill Court, Signal Hill you’re never getting out of here.

While I sat this morning on the verge of tears it was the man with the broom which had me asking myself why getting lost or not being able to find something can feel like the end of the world. Stronger women than me have threatened to go home after being lost three times in a week. So what if I didn’t find it, I knew I’d find it next time. I’d get better directions, I’d have a look over the weekend. Why did I let it upset me so much?

It all goes back to the same thing. It’s not about being lost, it’s about being new and unsure of your surroundings. What if I’m the only one? What if I say something stupid? What if I’m not meant to be there? What if I stand in the corner and not one person says hello? The outsider, the level of comfort wearisome, the confidence low. Fifteen years on and it still catches me when I least expect it.

I have no answers, just the knowledge that I’m not alone.

We’ve all had our days of feeling lost.

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  1. Sarah-Jane says

    I give you 10 points for at least trying to get there – thats very brave to me. I took a year to drive on Highway 59 in Houston and its been over a year and I have still not attempted to drive into the Centre of Moscow….one day, when I know for SURE how to get there I’ll give it a go….or maybe not 😉

  2. Oh my God! You still get lost and cry!? I’m doing a happy dance in the nicest possible way as it’s wonderful to know that this still happens to someone who has been an expat as long as you! It makes me feel less alone. x

  3. Angel Mossberg says

    Yup yup yup. I can relate. Thanks for your honesty.

  4. I get lost regularly in Dubai. The roads change so often that the usual way of getting somewhere can suddenly be blocked off with roadworks or traffic jams or else just missed when you have your mind somewhere else for a split second. I use it as a way to find new roads and ways to get to places and try not to get too stressed about it. I did however shed tears of frustration today after driving an hour to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, walked 20 minutes in the heat and queued to get in to get a document legalised, only to be told that they would not let me in because they could see my ankles at the bottom of my almost floor length black dress (basically a slightly shorter abaya) and this was unacceptable attire! Tears. Of. Frustration!

  5. 24 years an expat and still getting lost. Many tears shed….but many new places found along the way. Amazing how good it feels to pull over and have good cry.

  6. Love this…so true- our reactions to getting lost are in reality not about being lost but about having a thousand different emotions bubbling a bit too close to the surface and its the getting lost that allows us to finally let go.

  7. somersetness says

    Oh yes – sobbing by the side of the road many years ago in Munich with 2 screaming toddlers, no map and a serious lack of internal GPS. GPS in the car has changed my life…….when the satellite can be found and it’s not sending you down imaginary roads or the wrong way up one way streets! It’s the indignation of feeling so utterly incompetent that brings me down I think!

  8. Sharon Loper says

    OMG. What was the most enraging for me was that I swear (heartily denied by my husband) that I normally have a good sense of direction! I do most of the driving and I can generally head in the right direction and tweak things as I go. In the first few weeks in Doha I had NO IDEA! It was like that game where you spin around looking at the top of a broom then stumble off in a random, completely warped direction. The second time trying to find Education City from home and ending up IN THE DESERT looking at signs saying “Doha this way” (where the hell was I if I wasn’t in Doha!!!) was the catalyst for my first big sit and cry moment! AND my googles maps wouldn’t work…..AND I had no credit to call my husband. Was in my 5th or so minute of a good blubber when a voice pipes up from the back seat (yep, also forgot I had my 7 yr old in the car…mother of the year) “Mum, don’t worry. I learned in school that we can stay for 3 days out in a desert without water before we’ll die”. Oh well that’s okay then……

  9. Best advice I’ve got in Libya from a friend when I asked her how I get to the other camp: Turn left where the old woman is standing.

  10. Debbie Newton Jeffrey says

    No. I get lost & cry whether or not I’m going to meet new people.

  11. Our first week in Abu Dhabi, Mr D was working out near the airport, 6 1/2 years ago there was no such thing as Yas Island like there is now. I had never driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, much less with cars zooming up behind me and beeping at me. I took a wrong turn, saw signs to Oman, pulled over and promptly burst into tears while having a momentous tantrum. I called my Husband, I was yelling abuse at him, screaming I was moving back home without him. It was not my proudest moment by far, we laugh about it today. You’re right though, it’s the feeling of the unknown of perhaps not feeling like you belong. I had the same thing happen to me here in Doha when I was taking Miss S to a new group, I got so lost and so frustrated, screaming to myself in the car. It actually wasn’t being lost that was making me so angry. It was that I had a nervous energy all pent up because I was going to be the new girl…the new girl who was late!

  12. Jo Carroll says

    And some of the very best things happen when we’re lost. I was standing on a corner in Hue, Vietnam, studying my map. It was the Chinese New Year and the streets were quiet and I was beginning to wonder how safe it all was. Then a man came out of his house, family standing behind him, and invited me in. I spent the day with them – ‘talking’, playing with the children, sharing their food. I’ll never forget them.

  13. My worst was when I first arrived in China, and was catching the bus to the city (a two bus 1.5hour thing) to meet up with someone I didn’t know. The bus route had changed since the first time I’d caught the bus a few days earlier so the landmarks had too (with a student to help!), it was snowing, you couldn’t see out the windows, I ended up at the last stop with a whole lot of Chinese people trying to help me, none of us speaking the other language. I had a 3 way phone conversation with my new friend and the driver and thankfully the driver dropped me off at the right stop on her return journey. God, I cried and cried. That weeks email back to my mates got a lot of “oh dear” responses!
    It’s awful enough getting lost in your own city, in your own country. Add all those other variables and errrggh.

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