Ever since I learned how to speak and read English, I grew to love maps. We had an old atlas whose binding was falling apart. Whenever I had a few spare moments, I would sit down, page through it, and try to memorize the maps that interested me most. Not that I understood what I was looking at: I remember pointing to a Mercator projection map of the world and claiming that Napoleon cheated us in the Louisiana Purchase, as Alaska was so much bigger. And Greenland was gigantic! Was it not one of the world powers?
Even as a boy in Cleveland, I loved the whole idea of far places, of different cultures. In the 1950s, read such obscure books as the Rev. Harold W. Rigney’s Four Years in a Red Hell about the Catholic priest’s imprisonment in Red China, and another book, whose name I have forgotten, about Soviet concentration camps around Vorkuta. What interested me was not so much the attacks on Communism as the books’ exotic locales.
Baudelaire describes me to a tee in “Le Voyage”:
Pour l’enfant amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux de souvenir que le monde est petit!
Which can be translated as follows (though I prefer the French):
For a child in love with maps and engravings,
The universe is equal to his vast appetite.
Ah, how the world is great by lamplight!
Through the eyes of memory the world is small.
Here I was, simultaneously hooked on the idea of travel and, at the same time, stuck in Cleveland. We didn’t have much money to allow for travel. All I can remember are a few day trips in Ohio, a few days in lovely Detroit, Niagara Falls (but I was only five), and trips to Florida at the ages of five and fourteen. Why do you suppose I wanted to leave Cleveland to go to college? Not only was my parents’ marriage threatening to go on the rocks (it somehow held), but I felt stifled by Cleveland’s provincial ways. All those Hungarian-American homebodies!
But there was always that atlas. You know what? I’m still that way. My mind is a capacious geographic storehouse. I can sketch the outlines of many of the countries on earth and locate their capitals and major cities. And I can tell you what countries border them.
That knowledge has always stood me in good stead. When I go somewhere I have never been before, I make sure that I am prepped for it. Although my vacations only run about two or three weeks, I can s-t-r-e-t-c-h out the time so that the vacation and its preparation take half a year. I started in on Iceland in February, and it won’t be until July that I work it all out of my system.