One of the first things I did when I got to London was buy an “A to Z” Atlas — the “Z” is pronounced “Zed,” I should mention — because that’s what people told me is the normal thing to do. Each page provides a map of a different part of the city. I suppose this is supposed to be helpful, but staring at the pages all I can see are a bunch of meaningless lines.
Even with a map, I have gotten lost about twice a day in the two weeks since arriving. I’m not that great with directions, having grown up in a town that had only one street. You could see from one end of the downtown area to the other from ground-level. If you were lost, you could just keep walking until you weren’t lost anymore.
New York City — where I spent the last two and a half years — is slightly harder. I can still remember the feeling of disorientation the first time I went around Union Square to eat at Pret, a swell first college meal. Fortunately, the grid system is one of the best things ever devised. Going from point A to point B is simple, and the Empire State Building acts as the North Star; it’s the “South Star” if you’re above 34th Street, I suppose, but why would you ever go that far up? In general, I could easily find my way by looking to the sky(scrapers).
When walking around London, there is almost no guidance. There are maps all over the place, but like the “A to Z,” they aren’t very helpful. Almost everywhere you go, there are no visible buildings, and the streets are entwined as though they’re part of a web spun by a drunk, angry spider.
I have walked a lot in the city — nearly hobbling myself with foot pain — and have so far met dead ends, accidentally joined walking protests and traveled in the wrong direction for long periods of time because of subtle bends in the road. The only thing I have discovered that has helped me so far is that you can find almost anything in relation to the River Thames. But I should take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who has asked me for directions. I hope you found your way eventually.
To really learn the city, I’ve discovered that just trying to memorize street names isn’t enough. In New York I walk around and know the buildings, all associated with moments in my life — the benches I’ve sat on, the restaurants where I’ve eaten. Now, I’m starting all over in London.
Email Thomas Devlin at [email protected]