Don't ask me how, but when I take a certain journey on the underground, I always get lost.
I should perhaps start with a bit of disclosure usually referred to as “full” (although I’m not actually revealing all my innermost secrets, just one of the minor trivialities that make up my persona): I have no sense of direction whatsoever.
Were you to let me drive, walk or otherwise travel along a given path for any reasonably long period and then tasked me with getting back to my starting point via a different route, I can almost guarantee that I would confidently head completely the wrong way, eventually necessitating outside intervention of some sort and probably a series of frantic phone calls.
By contrast, I have no problem reading a map and, provided I haven’t had too many glasses of wine, can usually tell my rights from my lefts and ups from downs. So navigating around a French underground system ought, theoretically, to be a piece of gateau. Especially if, as is the case in my town, this system consists of a mere four lines, each of which travels more or less from north to south or east to west. To further simplify navigation for even the dyslexic and illiterate, these lines are colour-coded in blue, orange, purple and green.
Ninety-nine times in 100, assuming I know where I am (this kind of helps), I look on the metro map and work out how best to get to where I want to go and whether I might have to change somewhere. If I’m feeling particularly lazy, I will enter the destination on a nifty app on my phone and let it explain the quickest way. Armed with this knowledge, I then unerringly take precisely this route, often without even consulting the map or app again along the way.
Except on one particular journey.
Admittedly, it’s not a direct Station A to Station B journey. Getting that wrong would warrant an urgent visit to my GP. Presumably coupled with a referral to a specialist. No, this one involves two changes of trains, thus acquainting me with fully three-quarters of the lines on our not overly extensive network.
Specifically, I take a metro west from Station A to Station B, switch lines, travel north to Station C, where I change onto the westbound train of the third line, getting off at the very next stop: Station D.
This is fine on the way out from A to D. But I don’t think I’ve ever managed to return from whence I came without suddenly and alarmingly finding my train pulling into and often enough out of some completely unknown station in a mysterious part of town.
The pattern is always identical: I get on the underground at Station D and take the single stop eastward to Station C, where I know I have to change. I then follow the directions to the second line and then board the train. Knowing I have five or six stops before reaching Station B, I will pull out my book. Occasionally, I will mark my position on the page with a finger, glance up, fail to recognise the station we are passing through and blame it on my scant knowledge of that particular line. Eventually, however, I will be sufficiently disconcerted by the locale to consult the underground map.
This is when I discover that, rather than changing lines at Station C, I have merely taken the same line in the opposite direction, past Station D (at which time I was firmly and unwittingly engrossed in my reading) and off westward ho into terra incognita. At least, incognita to me.
Because we are typically about to leave said mystery station, I will then make a mad rush for the door in a desperate attempt to exit the train lest it take me yet further from my intended destination. This of course inevitably means pushing past a horde of presumably less disoriented travellers, thus leaving a trail of old people, children, pregnant women and the otherwise infirm sprawled on the floor in my wake. But at least I will have reached the platform. Generally without leaving my book on the seat in the process.
Spooked, frequently panting and sometimes bereft of reading material, I assiduously consult a map and locate the trains going in the other direction, sooner or later reaching Station C for the second time (or the third, if you count the outward journey). I will, of course, immediately find the southbound train and make my way home without any further incident.
So why, you may ask, do I make this simple mistake? And not just once, every single time? It's not as if there are no signs in our stations and particularly C, which is, after all, an intersection. A plethora of large and self-explanatory panels point out the various travel options and lines to potentially confused commuters and tourists alike.
The answer – since you insist on posing said needless and therefore infuriating question – is that I haven’t the faintest idea. That's not much help to you, I’ll admit, but it’s the best I can offer. So unless you’re a cat, and therefore about to get killed for it, you’ll simply have to curb your curiosity.
Today, on returning to Station C in my habitual state of disarray, I made a point of checking whether the signage was in any way missing, amiss or ambiguous. It was not. Nor was it even far to get from one platform to another. You simply follow the clearly indicated directions, and before you know it, you are on your way home to that nice cup of coffee you’ve been promising yourself for hours.
You can therefore understand why I usually cycle to this particular destination and back. Cycling is so much easier than taking the metro. You don’t have to go from A to B to C to D and be forced to take the detours this naturally entails as the underground winds its way through the tunnels that criss-cross the city. You can just go straight from A to D.
Even so, given my lack of directional know-how, I will programme the end point on my phone’s satnav and have a charming young woman lead me.
Given the choice between sweet nothings whispered delectably in my ear and yet another trip to Oz and back, I know which option this particular Dorothy will take next time.