Getting lost while traveling can ruin your day or even your whole trip. You can lose hours of time and miss out on seeing things on your travel agenda. If you have a very limited amount of time, like one weekend, it can add even more stress to an already stressful and packed vacation.
Anyone who knows me well knows that not only can I not find my way out of a paper bag, I could also get incredibly lost inside it. That being said, I typically rely on a wonderful invention called… Google Maps! Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi on my cell-phone did not work in Belgium, so I probably should have printed out some maps. However, since my travel buddy, N, and I were spending time with an old friend and our awesome host, another N, I figured we wouldn’t need to navigate anything. Belgium is a small country, right? Everyone will speak English, right? I won’t get lost, right?
On our first day, we were very lucky. We agreed to meet an old friend of mine, V, at Manneken Pis, one of the easiest things to find in Brussels. We found each other within 15 minutes of arriving and set off to explore the city. Later on, V helped us find our host, N. We didn’t get lost at all.
The second day, we weren’t so lucky.
We woke up early on the second day to visit Bruges, which was about 2 hours by train from where our host lived, Mons. We planned on catching the 9am train, so we left N’s house around 8:15am, convinced that we had plenty of time to make the 20-minute walk to the train station.
Kind enough to get out of bed at 7am on Saturday for his crazy guests, N accompanied us to one of the main streets that go through Mons.
“Just follow this street for about fifteen minutes until you see a laundromat. Then, turn right and keep going until you see a roundabout. Follow the roundabout and you’ll see the train station.”
Okay. Easy enough.
We said our “thank you’s” and “good-bye’s” and took off for the train station, excitedly planning our activities for the day: a quick stop in Brussels for coffee, the mid-morning and afternoon in Bruges, and back to Brussels at night for more waffles and to the see famed Atomium!
About twelve minutes into our walk, we started looking for the laundromat.
He said fifteen minutes, right? I started to wonder if he meant a “GoogleMaps fifteen minutes” or a “real one”…
We had been walking for over twenty minutes when I realized neither one of us even knew the French word for laundromat.
N suggested we turn around and retrace our steps. Maybe we just hadn’t noticed the laundromat.
“No, I have a feeling it’s this way.” I insisted as I spotted the bell tower we had seen the previous night. We kept walking in the same direction. I was convinced we would find the train station within minutes.
The road ahead of us was about to turn into a mini-highway that was leading away from the city and thus away from the train station! A half-hour had already passed, so we started to panic a little.
“Don’t worry. I’ll just ask for directions”. I said, convinced that my low-novice French skills would save the day.
The streets were almost completely empty, save for a little hunchbacked woman with a cane who had to be at least 70 years-old. I approached the woman slowly.
“Excusez-moi! Parlez-vous anglais?”
The woman shook her head and, slowly, told me she in fact did not.
I quickly racked my brain for French word for train station. I remembered seeing the word, gare, on signs and assumed that must be it.
The woman looked slightly confused, but started giving me directions nonetheless:
” [insert random French words I don’t know here] ‘à gauche’ (to the left)
[more unknown words] ‘à droite,’ (to the right) [total gibberish]
‘tout droit’ ‘tout droit’ ‘tout droit’ “
I smiled and nodded my head, “D’accord. Merci beaucoup!”
Going off of nothing more than the woman’s hand gestures and her few “to the left’s, “to the right’s,” and “straight’s,” we tried our best to follow her directions. Unsurprisingly, we did not find the train station.
We got ourselves even more lost.
With no phones, internet cafe’s or people in sight, we decided to continue walking in the direction that the elderly woman had pointed us. We planned on asking the next person we saw for directions. Hopefully they would know some English or Spanish…
We were about to lose hope, when we saw a young, bearded man in his thirties walking around in casual clothes.
“Excusez-moi!!” I shouted, almost frantically.
The man appeared to be startled, but approached us anyway. We established that he did not know English, so I proceeded with my usual question:
“Où est la guerre?” I asked
The man looked extremely confused. “La guerre?”
“Oui, oui! La guerre!” I repeated.
He still looked confused, so I modified my pronunciation a little, “La guirre! La gare!”
“OH! La gare!”
The man proceeded to slowly give us directions.
I later found out I had been asking where the war (la guerre) was instead of the train station (la gare). Oh what a difference the pronunciation of a vowel can make! Luckily, this man eventually understood me and was able to help us out. The poor elderly woman was probably terrified. Belgium is such a peaceful country!
The young bearded man’s directions led us to a divided highway, which we proceeded to cross, and then to the train station. An hour later, about an one and half hours behind schedule, we made it to Brussels for coffee.
Although we did have a wonderful day and we were able to accomplish almost everything on our Belgium agenda, I would be lying if I said getting lost in Mons wasn’t a setback. We lost almost an hour of our already jam-packed day. It was very cold and rainy outside and I had been trying to recover from a bad cold. We missed the train we were going to take and ended up waiting almost 30 minutes for an even later one. Not to mention, we were both very stressed out.
With only two full days and two nights in Belgium, I realized that we had planned too much for such a short period of time. We did not leave room for unexpected setbacks, like missing a train, looking for a place to eat or even getting lost. It is always tempting to cram as much as humanly possible into trips because we don’t know when we’ll be back or if we will ever return. During this trip, however, I learned that I prefer to take my time to experience new places in the least stressful way possible. Getting lost is bound to happen anywhere and, looking back, I wish we had left more time in our schedule for it. The whole time we were lost, we kept thinking about the multiple activities we had planned for our day and which one(s) we might have to nix. If we hadn’t planned so much, we wouldn’t have been so stressed out and we would have been able to think more clearly. In the end, it would have caused less anxiety.
Despite the negative effects of getting lost in Mons, I feel that I learned a lot about myself as a traveler. I now know that I prefer taking things at a slower pace and splitting the navigating with others. I also know that I need to write down directions or follow maps instead of just relying on the kindness of strangers. I already knew that my sense of direction was terrible, but now, I know the steps I need to take in order to feel less stressed-out while navigating.