By Sarah Pridgeon
It may have crossed your mind to wonder how a newcomer from an alien nation manages to handle this newspaper reporting lark and the detailed knowledge of places, people and legalese it entails. The answer is: with great determination and the patience of my colleagues, but not for the reason you might think.
Discovering all the little differences between our two nations has been a pleasure, rather than an annoyance. I have enjoyed every puzzled moment and each spark of understanding that follows and I continue to learn with almost every issue we publish.
No, the problem has never been the need for knowledge. The real difficulty I face is much more debilitating: I have absolutely no sense of direction. I once got lost in my own apartment building. I’m not even sure where I am right now.
It’s a day-to-day dilemma I have faced throughout my life. By the time I left London, I had managed to internalize a list of useful maps that got me to work, to friends’ houses and to the supermarket, though my rudimentary navigational skills could never extrapolate a route between them. Bear in mind that even this took me a decade to achieve.
So notorious did I become for my ability to head in stupid directions that, when a company I worked for moved its offices across the city, my boss gently sat me down and asked if I would like him to escort me from the train station. It was a thoughtful offer, but still humiliating when I discovered that the new building was less than 50 yards away.
I inherited my total lack of mental mapping from my father. When he visited Wyoming, he was sent to town from the canyon to fetch my bridesmaid and her wife from their hotel. When he finally returned, he admitted to having driven back and forth along the canyon road for over an hour. He had been working to a logic I understand well: if he just kept going, he’d get somewhere eventually.
There may be several million fewer residents here to block my view of road signs, but this county is a whole lot bigger than the streets I’m used to getting myself lost in. Things are spread much farther apart and are never where I expect them to be, although the latter is really nothing new.
For me, there is a paradox in the process of getting to know a new home: once I have been to a place, I can usually find it again, but I prefer not to go the first time in case I get lost. It’s usually for the best if I just keep very still, but this is not an option when the front page needs a photograph.
And so, when I am sent on a story-finding mission, your editor has learned to prepare me first. Today, I was only sent as far as the industrial road, but I was treated to a ten-minute explanation of what to expect and a map to remind me when all that guidance dribbled back out of my ears.
These aren’t just any old maps, either. For the inevitable moments when I am standing in a field, three feet from my end point but blissfully unaware of it, I am given maps that stretch from the Times office all the way to my destination.
They are annotated with representative diagrams and symbols and the proper place names are replaced with text he is reasonably sure I can understand, such as “big building with stuff next to it.” At the end, he draws a stick figure holding a camera, so I can tell exactly where it is that I’m meant to be.
It took a while for him to realize how necessary this is. I spent most of that while at the wrong end of town, round the back of buildings and driving in circles with a frown on my face.
The final straw came when I was asked to attend a meeting of the school board in Moorcroft. I was dragged kicking and screaming to my vehicle, protesting all the while that I was more likely to end up in Massachusetts than Moorcroft. It did me no good, they sent me anyway.
I arrived with surprisingly little effort, but only because the road is straight from one end to the other. It was when I reached the high school that my problems began.
I would like to tell you I’m kidding, but the fact is that I couldn’t find the front door. I circled the building three times, sending increasingly panicked texts to my secretly amused editor.
I tried every door I came across, but not a single one would open. I even wandered over to the elementary school and completed several circuits of it, just in case I’d mistaken one school for the other.
It turned out that both buildings were locked up for a reason: in a very rare moment of oversight, he’d sent me on the wrong day. There was no school board meeting that night and wouldn’t be one for another whole week, so I decided not to wait.
Still, had I been a little better at navigation, I might have saved myself an hour of wandering. I could have strolled straight up to the front door, noted that it was locked and been alerted to the mistake right away. I could have avoided the curious stares of the lifeguards as I trotted around the corner for the third time.
Practice will never make perfect for me, I’m afraid, because I am simply not equipped for orienteering. That part of my brain is filled with cobwebs, so I must learn these routes one by laborious one.
And so, if you ever need me to cover a story for you, I would like to make a humble request. If you’d prefer that I turn up at the right place, at the right time, without the wide-eyed stare of the recently lost, please submit detailed instructions and an annotated map at the front desk.