Backstory: Lost and found

Like most Americans, when I take a walk I like to know where I'm going. Whether I use a map or memory, wrong turns and streets mis-taken are out of the question.

But my wife, unlike her husband, is not against losing her way. Actually, she revels in it. This one blemish on her perfection is, I firmly believe, because she is as English as clotted cream. So while she has misplaced some of her accent after years in America, she has maintained the English tradition of happily losing your way.

England is a nation, from what I've seen, dedicated to the concept of getting lost. I'm convinced it's how they found India. Someone made a wrong turn in Sussex.

Every day, all through the countryside, long lines of flat-hatted men and sensibly shod women tramp across fields and through woods toward no specific destination other than east of Wales and west of Dover. Bird guide in hand, they smilingly head toward nowhere.

I knew about my wife's predilection for aimless strolls before we arrived a few weeks ago on the circuitous, cobblestoned streets of Rome. But until we found ourselves in very old and very dark alleyways one evening, I hadn't realized the depth of her enjoyment.

On our way to a restaurant, we made five wrong turns. We ended up in a small piazza waiting for Julius Caesar to emerge from a doorway whistling a happy tune on his way to the Forum.

"I think we're lost," I said, trying not to sound panicked.

"Goody," my wife exclaimed.

"Goody?" I wailed as my dream of pumpkin ravioli in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce began to fade.

"Don't worry," she said, and started to lead us toward yet another dark alley.

No use consulting a map. After 12 hours in Rome, I knew that. Not when a street can be called Via Condotti on one block and Via Contori the next.

Besides, I was convinced that when Italian mapmakers first got together over a bowl of pasta, they mistook the sauce drippings for streets.

So, before my happily lost wife could drag me off, I walked over to an Italian gentleman with great hair and asked him for directions. Though my wife admired his mane, she was reluctant to ask for aid.

"You're ruining my fun, darling."

Ignoring her, I explained our dilemma.

"No problem," Great Hair replied confidently.

"Grazie," I answered back, exhausting my mastery of Italian.

"I live on the street you are looking for," he said with pride, and pointed us toward the ravioli.

With a swagger in my step, I led us toward the suggested street. Two blocks and one turn later, I realized that we were, once again, irrevocably lost.

"I knew this would happen," my wife said.

"But ... but ... that man promised," I stammered.

"Of course he did. He was too embarrassed to admit he didn't know where we wanted to go."

"No ravioli?" I whined.

"Yes, ravioli," she announced, and, grabbing my arm, headed off toward who knew where.

Eventually, we found the restaurant, just as she had promised.

After that, whenever we got lost, I stopped complaining or suggesting we ask another Italian with terrific hair. In return, I got to see streets that rarely welcomed out-of-towners and discovered that even the humblest church can house a Renaissance treasure. Sometimes, getting lost is the only way to find what you're looking for.

Chuck Cohen is an advertising writer in Mill Valley, Calif.

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