I have a horrible sense of direction. It’s always been this way. Street names dissolve in my head, and on the downtown Manhattan street that I’ve worked on for years, I can be found staring down at the Google Maps in my hand, willing the blue dot to let me know which way I’m walking.
When I decided to embark on an eight-month-long trip abroad postpandemic, from Berlin to Taipei, the number of digital resources to help plot the way was a dizzying delight. I scoured Nick Kembel’s blog about Taiwan, scrolling through exact routes and the order in which to eat through Taipei’s Burma street; gathered friends’ Google pins for Berlin bars; scrolled through dozens of lists of MUST EAT places, UNDERRATED AND OFF THE BEATEN PATH places, places that would be SORE TO MISS, OR IT’S LIKE YOU NEVER WENT TO TAIPEI ANYWAY. I pictured myself in a digital orb, propelled by Wi-Fi, walking down the street, four- and five-star reviews blinking above restaurants and cafés.
In October, I touched down in Berlin. Because it would only be a few days before I headed to the German countryside for a writing residency, I decided to not buy a roaming data package. For a time, I made do with screenshots of subway maps and crossing the road when I spotted McDonald’s and Starbucks, bearers of free Wi-Fi. But one night, my luck changed. I’d been hoping to nab a last-minute ticket at the Gorki Theater to the show Drei Schwestern, but the waiting list was already six people long. As the crowd dissipated from the lobby, and a few people from the list were waved through, an emo-goth blonde girl and I were left side-eyeing each other until the woman behind the counter cast us out: “No tickets! No tickets!” I returned to the cold October darkness. It was 8:45 p.m. Not late enough to call it a night in Berlin. The COURTYARD_WI-FI connection kept dropping, but I managed to intercept a text from a friend: the Humboldt Forum Museum is nearby, he wrote, and open until 10 p.m. Big, flat buildings loomed like shadows all around me, unmarked, in the blackness. I walked toward the building and the Wi-Fi flickered off—I was outside its zone. And the blue dot on my phone was going in the opposite direction.
I was lost. For a moment I felt hopeless—and then I remembered that I could talk.
An older woman in a posh tan coat walked by me. I hesitated. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” she said, pausing.
“Is this the way to the Humboldt Forum?” I gestured over the bridge, to Museum Island.
“Ah,” she said. “This is the Humboldt Forum.” She pointed to the white building right in front of our faces. “But I heard it’s not very good. It’s not much.”
I almost laughed. She smiled—she wasn’t mean, just honest, in a wry, blunt way I would later understand as a German characteristic.
In New York, hell bent on being self-sufficient, I was almost embarrassed to need navigation help. But something about this encounter reminded me that asking for directions wasn’t emblematic of some weakness, that I didn’t have to be staring down at my phone the whole time. And as I found in my next few days in Berlin, asking for directions can also be a whole lot of fun.
On the train the next day, I slid next to a woman my age and asked her for transfer directions to a stop, and we ended up walking through the S Bahn to the U Bahn together, chatting about the differences between the New York City and Berlin subway stations. In a large German drugstore, sniffling, I asked the bearded worker for directions to the vitamin supplement aisle, and he cheerfully guided me while espousing his guaranteed “feel better by three days” concoction of 1/3 freshly squeezed orange juice, 2/3 hot water, and smashed ginger slices.
As 21st-century travelers, most of us would prefer to turn to our phones for directions, rather than to another. And why not? There’s risk of embarrassment at the other side. But one of my favorite writers, the late Lauren Berlant, propounded that humans have a drive to be inconvenienced by each other. To be an inconvenience is really to form attachment to other people, letting them affect you, and maybe reroute you. If we put down our phones, as I found, there’s a welcome culture shock: the lightness of giving up control and jumping into something better—the warmth of other humans, guiding the way.
A few months later, a friend and I were exasperated in Taipei’s Burma Street, as half the restaurants were closed. We approached a group of older men enjoying an array of dishes with beer. “Excuse me,” my friend said. “Do you know where we could get a good tea leaf salad?” For a second, the men stared at us blankly, and we stared back. But then, a young man, chubby cheeked, whom I hadn’t seen before, rose and said, “I’ll take you!” And we marched on, following our human guide, a night of hearty conversation before us, of hearing about the Taiwanese-Burmese diaspora, and his double life as a construction worker and college student, as the men clapped.