You don’t know the meaning of the word “terrified” until you’re lost in a foreign country by yourself at 1AM and you can’t speak the language. One night in the spring of my senior year of high school, I found myself in this predicament; lost and alone and very, very panicky. Getting lost in a foreign country was actually pretty radical and I would recommend it.
In high school, I took two semesters of french classes–I could introduce myself, ask about the toilet, and politely say “excuse me” to everyone I saw. My minimal speaking skills somehow qualified me to go on a school trip to Switzerland, so my bad French and I packed our bags and flew off to Geneva.
One night, the host high school we were attending was throwing a party and our school group was invited to go. My host students couldn’t attend, but I still went. I got a ride to the school from my host mother and assured her I would get a ride back with another American student. As promised, when the party ended, I got a ride with an American student and her host family. I told the woman driving to drop me off at the tram stop–I could easily walk home from there. I got out of the car at Con Fignon, a tram station barely visible in the glow of the street lights. It was midnight. I thanked the driver, said goodbye to the others in the car, and watched them drive off.
I felt so independent. I was in a foreign country by myself and I had it all under control. Hell yeah. Fuck yeah. Good for me. I am a grown-ass-man doing grown-ass-man things. I started walking towards the side street that would bring me to my host home. I walked for a while and didn’t see it, but I didn’t worry too much. I had things under control. After a while, I still hadn’t seen it, so I looped back. I must have passed it. I won’t tell anyone I got a little lost. I made my way back to where I started and still didn’t seen the street. I kept moving forward farther and farther. The farther I went, the more my thoughts ran wild. I’m never going to find this street. Fuck–I’m a blonde white boy and I’m gonna get mugged. I must look so American right now. God damnit. I pushed on, repeating to myself “Look European. Look European.” I’m a blonde haired, blue-eyed dude wearing sensible shoes, I told myself. Sensible goddamn shoes. I clung to these facts for comfort. Maybe if I looked like a native who knew what he was doing, I’d be less likely to be murdered. Logical. Right? Right.
I knew I’d passed the street somewhere, but not knowing what else to do, I walked on. My thoughts changed between steps, ranging from Look European to You’re not lost. But the underlying voice in my head had only one thing to say: Fuuuuuuuck. I walked among the streetlights, not daring to leave their reassuring orange glow. As I passed one streetlamp, I saw a homeless man urinating into the pavement. Limp penis in hand, he turned around and looked at me. This homeless guy’s dick is going to be the last thing I see. I’m going to die looking at another man’s flaccid penis. I tried to stay steady. I kept my pace, and walked past the man, hoping that he was drunk enough not to worry about me. Fuck the street, fuck the host family, just get me outta here.
In the distance I could see illuminated signs advertising stuff in French. I couldn’t read any of the signs. “Fluent in French,” my ass. I wasn’t anywhere near home, but it was better than the side of the road. I walked into one of the restaurants and found my way to the hostess podium. I spoke to an employee and explained my situation in my Very-Best-French. I thought I did a pretty good job. The hostess didn’t understand anything I said. I repeated my Very-Best-French to another employee. Luckily, he understood some of what I was saying. He pointed to the telephone and then back to me. I nodded. I can call my host family! Then he spoke French at me, like a lot of it. He spoke so quickly, so I just nodded until he left. Once he walked away, I picked up the phone and tried to dial my host family but the phone didn’t work. I can only assume that the cook was explaining how to use the phone and my dumbass non-French self was too polite and anxious to ask for clarification. Good going. I pretended to have a conversation, hung up, and walked out. It was 12:45am.
I was still lost and alone with no idea which way to go. What if I don’t find my way home? I can stay up all night and find it in the morning. Hell, I can sleep in the grass until morning. I’ll still be alive in the morning. The moment this thought passed through my mind, it all clicked–I’ll still be alive. I felt a new grasp on life. I could do nearly anything I wanted and I would still survive. Sleeping on the ground wasn’t my first choice, but I’d accept it–welcome it, even. But still, I would rather sleep in a bed. With this new found acceptance I continued walking, completely terrified–but more prepared.
0-I kept walking, following the tram tracks. I’d passed a few other stations along my walk, only reassuring me that I was getting farther and farther from where I’d meant to be. I made my way to a tram station to figure out where I was. There was one other person on the platform, a woman only a few years older than me. She sat, clutching an e-cigarette. She tried to smoke it, but it wouldn’t work. She grew more and more frustrated until she finally growled and spoke to me. Not understanding anything, I muttered, “Je ne parle pas français (I don’t speak French).” She looked at me and said, “That sounded pretty good. My English is poor.” Her English was fine. She introduced herself as Esma (“It’s like Emma, but with an S”) and asked if I had a cigarette. I didn’t. “These stupid e-cigarettes never work. I’m trying to quit.”
She wore a red hat–the stereotypical French people-hat, and a black coat. Her brown hair peaked out from under her hat. She looked kind enough, so I sat down and explained my situation, hoping she would take some pity on me. “You’re supposed to be on Con Fignon?” Esma laughed.
Trying to hold back her laughter, she told me I had walked over 4 miles. Oops. With a big toothy grin, she told me to take the tram and get off at the third stop–that would get me back to Con Fignon. While we waited for the tram, we talked about our lives. Esma was on her way to a friends house where a party was being held. I told her about the United States and about home. She said she wanted to travel to California someday. When the tram arrived, I got on, but Esma remained on the platform. She said she had decided to walk instead. I waved goodbye as the door closed.
I should have followed her to the party. I should have slept in the grass.