Friends laugh when I make a map giving directions to my house — I am, they claim, challenged. I believe that my house is the center of the universe.
Perhaps I am challenged when it comes to making a map (though often it does work just fine, thanks very much). However, when it comes to using a map to get around, I can manage to find my way around most of the time.
My ability first appeared clearly in the summer of 1974, when my grandmother Ella took my 16-year-old sister and me to Europe for a couple of weeks. I was staying on and going to summer school for graduate credit that summer. By the time they got home, my grandmother was bragging that if you gave me a map, I could get us around just about anywhere. Somewhere buried in the trip souvenirs from then is at least one map, of Florence, I think. It is well-used, cracked and torn and folded.
Just this week as I was making one more organization-sweep in my office, I realized just how many maps I own. A couple of hours later and one visit to a craft store, I was working with matching photo-storage boxes (on sale, the best kind). One box is labeled “U.S.” One is labeled “Greece and Turkey.” One is labeled “London and UK.” And I just bought a fourth box for “Italy and . . . .” Some of the maps need to stay in my car — those for Louisiana and Texas, in particular. Not just the large state maps, but the more specific ones as well — for New Orleans, for Houston, for Austin, for Galveston. I needed one not long ago, and only then realized that my pile of maps hadn’t made the move from the Mini Cooper to the Prius when I traded cars late in the fall. So before I hit the road again to travel anywhere, I need to make sure my maps are stashed away in the glove compartment.
Those are just the maps that I have here in Lake Charles. I know there are duplicates — there are a lot of maps in my apartment in Athens. I’ve left some, certainly, but renters have also contributed maps to the collection. I’ve got maps for specific towns, like Cortona in Italy. For Istanbul. And for particular islands, like Spetses or Sifnos in Greece.
Maps and globes have always fascinated me. I loved spinning the globe in my elementary classrooms. I think I had a globe at one point. Of course, now I joke that we need a Velcroed globe so that we can keep up with changes.
With a map or a globe and some idea of a place (usually gleaned from reading), I could add an encyclopedia article (a World Book one, since my mother bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias, complete with annuals) and my imagination — and be transported anywhere I could locate.
And I mean I paid attention to those maps, too. In sixth grade, I was the geeky kid who wrote the textbook company when a river on one of the maps didn’t match what I found elsewhere. The textbook map was wrong. I pointed that out to them. Someone answered me, too, and I kept that letter for years, though I haven’t run across it lately.
I’d trace rivers to see where they started and where they finished. I’d follow how they wound through countries and what cities I might see if I traveled on them.
Once I started traveling on my own, having a map became crucial. Sometimes, even now, I end up with two or three in my purse, just in case one doesn’t quite give me the information I need. Maps — good ones, I mean — can give so much more information than simply street names. Good ones will include museums and important sites as well as bus, trolley, metro and other transportation information.
I’ve bought maps. I’ve collected free ones. Some are paper and unwieldy, the kind that have to fold up just so to fit neatly back as they started, even though somehow they’re never quite right after the first use. Others are laminated, a great idea, though some of those don’t include enough area. Which brings me back to why I often have more than one map on me.
My favorite map of Athens, for example, is a free one available from the Greek National Tourist Organization. I still have at least one extra map stashed away. Others are tattered and torn, but still useful.
When I was 23, that first summer I traveled to Europe, the maps I had were truly magical. Everything was new and fresh. Wandering the streets of Florence, for example, or London — simple adventures just in walking and looking.
Even now, all these years later, some of that magic still lies in maps. Yes, I’ve got a GPS. I can use my smartphone or iPad. But frankly I prefer the old-fashioned paper maps if I’m walking around. I bought the GPS (and have European city maps for it) just in case I drive by myself. It’s easier using that than a paper map, at least most of the time. Unless, of course, the GPS fails to take you to the right place, or gets you off course, or doesn’t recognize where you are. That’s when you need to pull over to the side of the road and go back to the proven, the paper map.
In elementary school, I remember having to locate state capitols on maps. In eighth grade, I remember having to know every parish seat for all the parishes (counties) in Louisiana. It was fun for me to know capitols of other countries, too, though I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable as my friend George is. He’s the expert on that!
I even have wall art that derives from maps. One here in Lake Charles is for Spetses; it’s a print I found one summer when I was there, and had to buy it. Another is the outline of Texas, printed on rough brown sacking material, with the words “Texas Roots” printed on it.
At least two of my poems have dealt with maps, and in fact I printed one of them on a sheet of paper that I’d printed with a faint map of Athens (technology can be amazing). This summer I wrote something light about some streets in New Orleans, and want to get a hand-drawn map (not wanting any copyright issues) to use as the faint background over which the poem is printed.
My late friend Tom Fox loved maps even more — he’d had to work with maps when he was in Vietnam. Cartography was a passion of his ever since then. He used to say he’d even love to make maps.
I can’t say my fascination goes that far. Not by a long shot.
But lately I’ve been thinking about looking at maps of specific places over time to see how they’ve changed. To look at the earliest maps of “America,” for example, from before any explorers had landed — there’s an insight into imagination.
Maps tell us about place and geography, about organization and direction. Over time, they can also tell us something about the people who drew them, and the purposes for which they were drawn. How amazing, I used to tell my students, to land in a place and have no idea where the boundaries were (which was the case for the earliest explorer and settlers here in the U.S.). What would it be like to not know where a country ended or began, not to know the physical boundaries? To attempt such an imaginative leap is to begin to realize just how different the world was for those people.
What will our own maps look like to our descendants in 100 or 200 years? Will they think them crude? Limited?
I can’t imagine traveling without a map. Even if I am challenged when it comes to drawing a simple one.
At least you don’t have to rely on it to get someplace complicated.
For now, I’m going to settle in with a book about the Borgias in Italy. But I need to look up the maps for Italy too — just to fill in what my curiosity is teasing me about.
Oh, and I have a globe now, too. It’s cute, but it isn’t good enough.
Guess I need to start searching again.