I am lost. This is not figurative or existential: I am physically unable to get my bearings. I thought I knew York inside out, having grown up here and spent the past few years in the city, but moving house has stamped on my internal compass. I tried to find a cash machine and ended up lost round the back of an out-of-town shopping centre, navigating only by glimpses of the big Lidl. Trying to walk the dog in the morning, we bumble into dead end after dead end; where I’m certain there should be a path, there are only cul-de-sacs. “How,” I text a friend, “do I get to that path by the stream?” then misunderstand her answer and end up at Costcutter. I have no instinctive, convenient rat runs here, and no sense of where I might encounter an angry alsatian or chatty local eccentric.
I don’t mind. Blundering your way into mentally mapping out a new place is part of getting to know it. I like the way small pockets of known streets gradually widen, then fit together as you explore further. “Oh, that goes there,” you realise, slotting the nice bakery in next to the dentist’s, when you’ve been going to each using different routes and modes of transport. You only really live somewhere when you can navigate back there like a homing pigeon (it’s not instinct, by the way: their beaks contain magnetite, allowing them to detect north). Magic happens before that, when you still get lost. That’s when you run into a parade of geese led by a man in uniform playing a drum or look up to see a window shrine to Elvis (I miss living in Brussels sometimes).
Unpacking, I have realised how many maps we have. There are practical ones – walks and bus routes – and framed maps of cities where I lived long enough not to need them. There are the schoolroom maps we salvaged from a Belgian bin, showing rainfall (plentiful), relief (negligible) and outdated regional production (“coal”, “horses” and “marble”). I like maps; people do, whether it’s the tube or the neat grid of Manhattan. You can get your home coordinates on a cushion, or the canals of Venice on a silky robe like Nigella.
I like them mainly for memories. Photos languish in boxes and on hard drives, but when I walk past a map, I am reminded of my toddler son getting an ecstatic, out-of-the-blue ride on a fire engine on rue Boursault in Paris, of the dog that carried a KitKat in its mouth every morning along Cleveland Street in London or the terrified post-redundancy cigarette I smoked on rue de la Pépinière in Brussels. They remind me where family and friends lived and the location of celebrations, fights, handbag thefts and regrettable drunken incidents.
Most map points feel like escapist fantasy at the moment, improbably exotic rather than a mildly irritating Ryanair hop away. “Maybe we’re stuck on this island for ever?” says my friend, idly. She is (was?) a travel writer. “I think we would stop minding after a while; I think I already have.” She suggests tropical domes, Eden Project-style, for holidays. “‘Where are you going on holiday this year?’ ‘Oh, we thought we’d try the Costa Rica dome.’”
I don’t really believe that will happen. I’m hopeful enough to believe human ingenuity will make it possible to go to other places without damaging them or each other, and cynical enough to think we’ll resume travelling casually, for fun, long before that.
But for now, other places are still mainly abstract: shaded black, red or yellow on maps on the news depending on how bad things are, or hung on our walls.
That makes being somewhere new feel absurdly luxurious, after months of tracing the same pathways. I am still in the same city, but discovering its unknown, surprising geography. I have found a map and I am studying the street names – Elm and Lime, Willow and Thorn – echoes of the farmland that lies beneath. They hold future memories and, somehow, the way to that damn cash machine.