People--in New York, where I grew up, and wherever I’ve traveled--are forever stopping me to ask how to get to the post office, a museum, the zoo, or wherever, and I’ve often wondered why.
I first became conscious of this phenomenon riding the New York subways, when in addition to the usual inquires in English about whether the train stops at a particular station or where to change trains to get to, say, Astoria, I was asked for directions by a woman speaking Puerto Rican Spanish. As my Spanish is muy primitivo, an improvised linguistic hybrid did the trick. Why me, I wondered? I don’t look especially Hispanic.
When I was an exchange student in Bern, Switzerland, one chilly morning on my way to the university, I was accosted by a beaming middle-aged man in a tweed jacket and touring cap who asked, in weirdly pronounced German, how to get to Mövinpick, a popular café. Assuming he was a Scott, I answered in English. “Yer a Yahnk,” he concluded after thanking me for the directions. “Ay c’d tell bi yer aksent!” Did I just happen to be passing by when he realized he had no idea how to get to Mövinpick?
Once in Amsterdam a young couple stopped me to ask for directions to one of the canals that circle the inner city. I told them it was straight ahead--in Bavarian dialect, which worked. “Gerade oous,” I said, pointing. Because my German is functional, I could manage some Dutch, but I instinctively had replied in German. I’ve noticed that people when addressed in a language they don’t readily understand will respond in any foreign language they know. I recall an American in the Paris Metro who replied to an onslaught of French with a barrage of Mandarin Chinese.
As I was walking along a road heading for a park in Munster, Germany, a Mercedes pulled over, and the driver asked me for directions to the zoo, where I’d been the day before. Not only did I give him directions in the best Prussian I could muster but suggested they go for a boat ride as well. They had pulled over and parked the car just to ask me directions? It was as if I carried a sign that said Tourist Information.
The piece de resistance took place on a fashionable street in Rome. Hitchhiking during the semester break, I had just arrived in the Eternal City from France. With three-days growth of beard and wearing a ratty black raincoat with yesterday’s Le Monde sticking out of a side pocket, I looked as if I had slept under a bridge. An old man, dressed as raggedly as I, approached tentatively and asked for directions to the nearest post office. Though I didn’t know much more Italian than to count, order a beer, and find the WC, I understood his question, happened to know where a post office was, and somehow managed to give him directions in Italian. This time I understood why I had been selected: like him, I was a shabby sojourner among the elegant and nattily attired.
But why am I always being asked directions? After considerable thought I have concluded that I look exceptionally intelligent and well informed. Since my daughter also is always being asked how to get to this or that place, there may be a gene for being knowledgeable. My wife has an alternate explanation. She says I have a transparent Celtic countenance, an amiable expression, and a totally unthreatening demeanor. Though I prefer my explanation, she may have a point.