French Friday #41: Show me the way to go home

(All photos are mine. Map is from

Growing up, my dad used to tell people that Hansel and Gretel had a better sense of direction than I did. I couldn’t get offended or argue because it really was  true. During driver’s ed, the instructor once told me to drive to my bank. I had to admit that I had no idea how to get to the bank or even where we currently were; if I were lucky, I might be able to get myself back home, but it wouldn’t be pretty. And, despite an extensive unit in second grade on how to read maps, I have a hard time translating a map into real life. Part of the problem is that I navigate by landmark and not by street names. That’s fine until somebody builds a new building or chops down a tree or moves that rusty car. Then I’m screwed. Knowing this about me, I’m sure my parents were a little concerned when they shipped me off to do a semester-long study abroad in Grenoble. As well they should have been.

Fortunately for me, the two places I really needed to know in Grenoble (home and school) were connected by a tram line that had a stop right outside my apartment door. Couldn’t ask for more for a directionally-challenged person. There were a couple of times, though, when even this fool-proof method threw me for a loop, either because of strikes or mechanical failures and I would have to walk home. It was an hour-long walk (versus a 15 minute tram ride) through winding streets with plenty of opportunity to get lost. But I always told myself, “If I can find the river, I can get home.” It wasn’t the most direct route, but it was safe.

It’s a lot bigger than it looks on a map

The river in question was the Isère which snaked its way across the north end of the city, running close to the university and, eventually, close to the neighborhood where I lived. Knowing that the river flowed West, I’d follow its course until I got near centre ville where I could turn south and find my way to my apartment, a few streets in. Signs might change, trees might get chopped down, but I could count on the river.

A view of Centre Ville from the Bastille with the Isère just visible through the trees.

Until one day when I decided to take a walk and explore. My host mother, Hélène, was gone for the weekend and I was bored sitting at home by myself. It was a nice day out, so I set out with no particular destination in mind. I just wanted to see a little bit of the city. And it was fun. I saw new shops, interesting architecture, fountains, statues, all kinds of things. I was beginning to feel hungry and decided I should head home for lunch. But I had absolutely no idea where I was. I had wandered down so many side streets that I couldn’t even retrace my steps. I guess I should have been crumbling a baguette behind me, although the pigeons probably would have eaten it all up. So I fell back on my reliable old plan: Find the river. Feeling more primitive than ever, I checked the sun to try and determine which direction I should go to get to the river. But… it was noon, so that didn’t turn out to be so helpful. I made my best guess and started walking.

Roll on, Isère

And then the rain started falling. Besides making me wet, the rain also had the added bonus of clearing the streets of anyone I could have asked for directions. Finally, I saw the river! I knew that this time, I needed to follow it against the flow, so off I headed. But nothing was looking familiar. I had walked the river before, surely I would begin to recognize something. Oh no, this can’t be right. Maybe I do need to go downstream? With wet hair sticking to my face and wet socks squishing in wet shoes, I turned around and went back the way I had come. Trudge, trudge, trudge, until…

Is that… the train station? The train station?! With a river running behind it. There’s only one train station in Grenoble and it’s on the Isère. I turned around and looked at the river I had been following. Not the Isère. That was certain now that I could see it beyond the train station. No, the river I had followed was the Drac which runs north along the western side of the city and joins up with the Isère a bit northwest of the train station. No wonder I hadn’t seen anything familiar! I never came to this side of the city at all. And it had never occurred to me that I had walked so far as to end up at the Drac. With a sigh, I bid the Drac farewell and moved closer to the comforting flow of the Isère, following it upstream as I had intuitively known I should. And, four hours after I had set out on my walk, I gratefully returned to the empty apartment. Dry clothes, a warm blanket and a little music on the stereo never felt so good.

A wrestling match between the Drac (lion) and Isère (serpent).

I am glad to say that my navigational skills have improved some since that time. (Some, I said. I’m still plenty adept at getting lost). I still navigate by landmarks. But I know better now than to assume that all rivers lead the way home.

4 thoughts on “French Friday #41: Show me the way to go home

  1. I did something similar in Venice. I got on the wrong boat–I saw it leaving from the island our hostel was on and thought I’d got it right when actually it made a huge 3 hr circuit around other islands before it finally came to the one I needed. Not knowing the language and being in a swim suit and all didn’t help. I finally got where I needed to go, but I have never been so scared and if it wasn’t for three nice little nuns using hand signal to tell me we were getting closer and where to get off, I don’t know what would have happened!!

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