Let’s Get Lost

My wife Anne thinks I have the worst sense of direction of anyone she has ever met. That might explain why I get lost so much.

In my travels I have been lost in many places in the world. That includes once exiting the wrong end of a train station in Bern, Switzerland, missing the person who was waiting for me at the correct exit, who would have taken me to the hotel where I was to sleep that night, and instead I eventually sleeping outdoors in a park, thinking I had been abandoned. I might have been prepared for that by my riding freight trains around the United States when I was 22. On that trip I had so much trouble getting out of North Platte, Nebraska (I was taken to jail there) that I hopped a freight on the fly and when it turned south and didn’t stop for the three hundred miles, I found myself not just in an unknown town, but in an unknown state.

You might think that my knowing how bad my sense of direction is that I would take precautions against getting lost. But getting lost has never bothered me. It is one way to find things that you don’t plan for. In my life most of the things I’ve found have been positive. Here are a couple of those stories.

On January 20, 2020, I found myself lost in Copenhagen, Denmark. I’d walked to the post office from my hotel and on the way back I found myself without a clue as how to get back. I was attempting to properly orient myself by looking at a tourist map while standing on a street corner when a young guy stopped by and asked if I needed directions. I asked him for the way to Husets Biograf. That was the movie theater I had shown films at the previous evening. From Husets I could find my hotel, or at least I assumed that once at once there I could find my hotel. The young fellow didn’t know where Husets was, but he wanted to help. He flagged down a guy walking by and said “This guy needs to get to Husets Biograf. The new fellow replied “I know where that is” and then directly to me said “I’ll walk you over there.”

The new fellow seemed about my age, and as in the case of just about all Danes, spoke English. Walking along he asked what I thought of Greta Garbo. I told him I was a big fan of Greta Garbo and was particularly fond of her work in Europe before she went to Hollywood. I told him I thought every person alive should see her in the film The Saga of Gösta Berling made in Sweden by Mauritz Stiller in 1924. We also talked about Greta’s 1925 G.W. Pabst German film The Joyless Street. Arriving at Husets I got the email address of my guide, who told me to call him Skipper.

I did manage to find the hotel without getting lost and inside sent an email to Skipper. He got right back to me and included a link to movie he was in. He’s the guy with newsboy cap. Later I found his proper name is Roland Møller. He’s appeared in 17 feature films and won Bodil awards for both actor and supporting actor. The Bodil Awards are Danish film awards given by the Danish Film Critics Association. Kind of like the Oscars, presented annually in Copenhagen. It’s one of the oldest film awards in Europe, established in 1948. He got into movie acting after getting out of a life of crime. In an email he told me he flew to New York a couple of years ago to go from there to be a guest at the Oscars. It was for him being in the film Atomic Blonde starring Charlize Theron. He said he was pulled aside at the airport because of his criminal past and that when they asked him what he was doing in America and he said he was going to be guest at the Oscars, they didn’t believe him. I hope to see him again the next time I am in Copenhagen and find out how the Greta Garbo project is going.

On November 8, 2008, I got on a train in Kiel, Germany around seven in the evening. My plan was to get a night train South from Hamburg, with my final destination being Florence, Italy. Although I had made over a dozen trips to Europe showing films, starting in 1995, I had never spent time in Italy. For this trip I had arrived in Milan from the US about a month earlier before showing films in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. I had deliberately booked my flight home a few days after my last film gig so I could spend a couple of days in Italy.
I made the connection easily in Hamburg and found an empty compartment in first class for sleeping the night trip away, finally falling asleep around midnight. When I woke up it was about five in the morning and the train was stopped and empty. I sleepily stumbled off the train to find myself in the huge and ancient train station in Milan. I am still not sure why I didn’t arrive as planned in Florence. My guess is the train had split at Frankfurt with half going to Florence, and my half going to Milan. Making my way through the station I stopped at a newsstand and saw a huge headline in an Italian paper. It said OBAMA VINCI CASA BIANCA.

I don’t speak Italian, but even I could translate that to Obama Wins the White House. Yes, while I had slept the night away, the votes had been counted that ended eight years of George Bush as president. How did that affect me? For one thing, there was a change as how I was viewed as an American. With Obama winning, everyone was happy to see me. There was joy in Italy for the end of the Bush years.

I could still get to Florence, but it would be shorter trip to Turin. So, I chose to go to Turin. After breakfast in the station I took a train there. When I arrived it was still morning. Looking at a street kiosk map I found the art museum and set off on foot for it. The map showed it being straight down the street I was on about fifteen blocks away. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know I was striding off exactly in the wrong direction. It was about at the twentieth block I started thinking I was lost again. Ah, in the next block there appeared a very large, and very old looking, brick building. I assumed it was the art museum.

There was no entrance on the side I was walking, so I walked around the corner. From there I also found no obvious entrance. I then came to an opening that led into an inside garden. There, since it was still early in the morning, I sat down on a bench among the pruned rose bushes and thought about how nice it would be to be there in the spring when all would be abloom. I then opened The International Herald Tribune, lit a cigarette, and did the crossword puzzle. Completing that task, I got up and walked around the garden, finally coming to a door to the huge brick building. I opened the door and stepped inside. I found myself in a large round room lit by a skylight about three stories above. The biggest thing in the room was a very large metal staircase spiral staircase that was at least thirty feet across. Since there seemed no entrance to the building from the ground floor, I began walking up. At the first landing I stopped. There was large open walkway leading inside the building. Unfortunately, it was dark down the very wide hallway. I was then surprised to see a man walking toward me out of the darkness.

The man did not speak much English, but was able to tell me I was in the old prison where political prisoners had been kept, going back before Mussolini. It appeared the place had been built in the 19th Century and it was large enough to house a lot of political prisoners. He said it was still a while before it would be open to the public for the day, but it was now a museum and he was in charge and he would show me around.

The first place he took me was to the prison cells, and then a room with manacles still hanging from the walls, with floor drains where fluids could be washed down, where prisoners were tortured. More perversely interesting were the areas where the prison director and his family had lived in well lit and nicely furnished rooms that seemed very out of place in such a gloomy place.

Easily the most interesting place was the chapel. It was a fully accommodated church. It had a full vaulted ceiling, much like many other old European churches I had been in. Stylistically it could have been two or three hundred years old. The walls were white terra cotta or plaster with painted frescoes of cupids and angels. It was large enough, with room for at least a hundred people.

The pews were for the prison director, his family, and the guards and other workers in the prison. They would enter from the side to take their seats in pews toward the back of the nave for their view of the priest at the altar. The weird thing was that in back of the altar was a large opening where a wall should have been. The opening was at least thirty feet wide and forty feet high. To explain why it was that way my guide took me into the room in back of the opening. It was not a deep room and seemed to be used for storage. What was interesting was the wall at the back of the room, parallel to opening at the back of the church. That wall was curved and rose up three stories. Horizontally, along where each story should be, were a row of small openings, maybe one foot by one foot each, a few feet apart, with darkness behind them. Each row contained maybe thirty openings.

I was then taken up in the area behind the openings. Behind the openings were small rooms, in which each had a chair. I was told that for every mass the chained prisoners were brought into their level and each one could look out through their individual window while the priest did the mass, but since they were prisoners, they were only allowed to see the back of the priest. It struck me as so cruel. Not only would they see the back of the priest, they would be looking at the faces of the prison director, his family, and guards who imprisoned and tortured them. It might have been the saddest place I have ever been.

At the end of my tour my host took me to the front lobby. It was about time to open for the public. He said very few tourists came to visit. School groups were common. There was written material on the walls. I could make out names. The Red Brigades, affiliated with the Baader–Meinhof Gang, who had been convicted of the abduction and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in Turin in 1978, had been imprisoned there. I suppose they were the last of a hundred years of political prisoners held there.

My host opened the front doors and sunlight streamed into the room. Outside was a group of twenty or thirty small children with their grade school teacher waiting to come in. I walked out into the sunshine, leaving behind an astonishingly fascinating place, that I was only able to visit because I got lost.

Categories Essays

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.