Getting Lost on Purpose

Yesterday was my first opportunity to really walk around the city. Even though I ended up wandering for a good 5 hours or so, I still feel like I’ve barely grazed the surface of the myriad opportunities to explore that Vienna has to offer. It still hasn’t completely sunken in that I actually get to live here for a year, so I’m still basking in that typical, overwhelmed-but-ecstatic touristy glow (but not really taking in any of the tourist attractions that have admittance costs, at least not until I’m employed). Walking aimlessly and people-watching are two of my favourite activities–and my enjoyment of said activities is only amplified when they are done in tandem–so my fourth day in Vienna was pleasingly exhausting.

I began my morning by finding the Supertramp office and meeting Inge, a woman who assists with SWAP applicants who actually make it to Vienna (not that it’s a difficult process; mine just took an oddly long time to get back to me for some reason). Inge gave me the low down on some basic stuff I have to do this week, including getting my residence card. But, as the office is closed on Wednesdays, I have no choice but to go today – a situation that’s typically a chronic procrastinator’s delight, not doing something but also not having to feel guilty about not doing it. So, with the rest of the day open, I had some coffee and a butter croissant at a café (full disclosure: it was a Starbucks, which is kind of cheating when I have so many other delicious options, but it was only because I hadn’t had their coffee in forever and it’s like some weird drug to me. Now that I’ve had my fix, I can get something more Viennese next time.). I watched people through the giant front window and they watched me back, it was delightful.

Sated on said croissant and people-watching, and fueled up on a cafe latte, I burst out into the sunny side of Mariahilferstraße to begin dériving. In a nutshell, this means wandering in a city along the path of least resistance, basically following your gut instinct and whatever whim guides you rather than depending on a map to show you the way. Guy Debord is credited with developing the idea, and the Situationists adopted this practice. Debord is perhaps best known for writing The Society of the Spectacle (full disclosure: haven’t read it), but his conceptualization of the dérive is pretty fantastic. I don’t want to bombard anyone with theory, because we all know that it can be mind-numbingly opaque, and as tasteless as a birthday cake in which you’ve forgotten to add baking soda and several other key ingredients (full disclosure: I once did this exact thing for my mom’s birthday and the cake literally tasted like drywall. No one wanted to say it, but I couldn’t live the lie for more than a bite of that sad, pink, drywall cake. And that’s what theory tastes like most of the time.). But Debord’s idea, revisioned by the Situationists and put into practice, seems like the ideal way to get to know a city, even if I’m going to become more familiar with its winding streets in time.

Now, I may have a geographer’s blood running through my veins, but absolutely none of his innate sense of direction was genetically passed down to me. I’m one of those people who has to turn the map to match it to the direction she’s facing in order to decide whether to go left or right (and screw this east-west thing, what’s that all about?). At least when I was living in Montréal, I had the mountain at the centre to guide me in a vague, encouraging sort of way. So while the idea of actively becoming lost should seem somewhat terrifying, it mostly seems exciting to me, even though I carry a map on me as back-up. My German’s nowhere near good enough to actually inquire about where I am, so that’s not an option for now. If I can get lost and feel good about it, anyone can. And it’s not necessary to dérive in a completely unfamiliar city, although that’s type of anticipatory ‘lostness’ is the most exciting for a beginner. However, it’s possible to explore your own neighbourhood for days, according to Debord, by letting the flow of the city guide your (unrestricted but not idle) movement.

Of course, being lost is way less appealing when you actually have somewhere to be, so it’s best to do your dériving if you have a solid chunk of time to invest (rather than “waste”). Time and a pair of legs, that’s all that’s required. And that’s what I’m doing today, too.

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