Life & Culture

Don’t ask me where I am — I have no idea

Susan Reuben can get lost a few metres from her home.


Earlier this week, I got lost going home from a choir rehearsal at Finchley Reform Synagogue. This may not seem particularly remarkable, except for the fact that I live in Finchley, and have done for 14 years. A quick look on Google Maps tells me that the synagogue is only 0.4 miles from my house.

After years and years of practice, I am actually pretty good at getting round my immediate area — but on this occasion a friend was giving me a lift.

I was supposed to be directing her, but I was chatting too much and forgot — until I suddenly realised I had no idea at all where we were.

As may be evident, I don’t have a very good sense of direction. When I passed my driving test in the early ’90s, it soon became clear that I was a total liability behind the wheel. Every single time I drove away from my house, I became immediately and comprehensively lost. I would find myself meandering randomly and rather desperately around the streets of Newcastle (which was, at least, where I lived — I never managed to end up in the wrong city) until I chanced upon a recognisable landmark.

Eventually, I just gave up driving — it was too stressful. I didn’t start again for another decade, with the advent of GPS. Having a little machine in my car, telling me where to go, felt — and still feels — like a true miracle.

My oldest child rather enjoys a feeling of superiority as he is so much more competent than me in this area. A couple of years ago, when he was nine, he announced that he was going to give me a bit of his sense of direction each year for my birthday.

This year at Limmud, he made a video for me on my phone of the route from the breakfast room to the conference sessions, so I could get there by myself. And very useful it was, too.

With my bad sense of direction comes a general lack of spatial awareness that causes all sorts of problems— even if they are not exactly life-threatening ones.

For example, when my toddler broke his elbow and had his arm in a cast, I carefully cut the sleeves off several of his t-shirts to make it easier to put them on him. The only problem was that whereas I cut the right sleeve off his tops, it was actually his left arm that was broken.

Going shopping is a simple matter of trial and error: I just wander randomly around a shopping area until I stumble across the place I’m looking for.

I was at a Noam fundraising quiz the other day and one of the rounds consisted of an unlabelled map of Brent Cross shopping centre. The challenge was to identify certain of the shops. Luckily, some of the others in my team were astonishingly good at this. For my part, you may as well have given me a map of a shopping centre in Kuala Lumpur for all the use I was at knowing which shop went where.

Perhaps my most memorable getting-lost incident was 25 years ago at the end of my Cambridge interview. Having spent an hour trying harder than I ever had in my life before to appear intelligent, thoughtful and competent, I shook the interviewer’s hand, bid him farewell… and walked into a cupboard.

For an insane second or two, I wondered whether if I just stayed in the cupboard, he might not notice. Then I saw sense, reversed sheepishly, and was gently pointed towards the door.

They still made me an offer, amazingly. This is probably down to the fact that academics are not themselves renowned for their practical skills.

I inherit my lack of spatial awareness from my dad. If he and I go off somewhere together, other family members tend to make sarcastic comments about how we’ll never be seen again. The only problem is that he is much more reluctant than I am to admit that he has a problem. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he remains serenely confident that he knows his way around.

This means that, if I ask my mother the way to somewhere within his earshot, he will try to answer instead. I have to resort to drastic methods to get him to stop, such as dancing round the room singing, “La la la I’m not listening.” Eventually, Mum and I just agree to postpone the conversation till another time.

I did manage to get home from Finchley Reform Synagogue eventually.

My friend was a bit bemused by my incompetence, but she didn’t call me any names or use any swear words, which I think shows a remarkable degree of forbearance.

Or it may just have been because she was laughing too much.


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