Geographies: Real

A More Recent Edition of This Invaluable City Atlas Than Mine

This is one of two posts by an inveterate map freak. I will start with real geographies that inspired some of my more fantastic fictional ones. I have read two novels this month which inspired me to dig up my copy of Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement Édition 2005. The first was Cara Black’s Murder in Clichy; and the second, Georges Simenon’s masterful Maigret and the Bum.

Ever since I was a grade school boy, I loved maps and atlases. It became even more pronounced when, at the same time, I collected stamps from such strange corners of the world as Tannu Touva, Bechuanaland, Liechtenstein, and Nejd. Naturally, I had to know where these geographic entities were, their principal cities, and some knowledge of their economies (if any).

No, I Don’t Wear Nail Polish

The best city street atlas I have ever seen is the abovementioned Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement. Each of the twenty arrondissements (districts) of the city gets either two facing pages, or, if required, two sets of two facing pages. In addition, there are maps of the metro, the RER (suburban rail routes), major bus lines, the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, and La Défense. Throughout, it is organized so logically that I cannot imagine using any other map to follow the action in novels set in the City of Lights.

Absent from this handy atlas are the suburban banlieus which tourists are not likely to visit unless they are in the market for recreational drugs or a bit of the old ultra-violence. Unlike American cities, which tend to be hollowed-out at their core and liveable only in the outlying suburbs, Paris reserves the center for historical buildings and the wealthy, while the areas beyond the peripheral highway are strictly for slumming.



What, Me, Getting Lost?

This Image Is Practically Engraved in My Memory

Apparently, I have this phobia of getting lost. When my brother and I were in Ecuador last October, we could not find any street atlases; though, it wouldn’t have done us any good if we had them, because outside the central tourist area of the cities, there were no street signs. Dan made fun of me for my meltdowns when we wandered off what maps we had. There mus have been an incident in my childhood when getting lost from my Mommy and Daddy terrified me. I wrote a blog about this entitled Where the Streets Have No Name.  (Sorry, Edge and Bono!)

Where this is all leading to is a dream I had last night. I was traveling alone in the City of London. Having been there five or six times and having expended fierce amounts of shoe leather each time, I have a good picture of the city permanently resident in my head. I was trying to find a bookstore near Charing Cross Road, but had no idea where I was. And, even more peculiar, there did not appear to be any Underground or Tube stations on the inadequate map I had.

I had had some sort of meeting and was wandering around the city with some of the participants. At one point, they decided to stop and have an impromptu cricket match, which fortunately did not last long. When they stopped, we kept wandering in an easterly direction, coming on a square with a large Catholic church and a troupe of nuns ministering to the need of a large bump encampment. I thought to myself, “Gee, I had no idea there were so many bums in London.”

In the end, the dream just came to a stop. (Did I wake up at that point?) Although I jnever got to my bookstore nor to any other recognizable monument or building, I was more perplexed than terrified.

Thi9s is not the first time I got lost in my dreams. In none of them did my reaction rise to nightmare levels, but it is an interesting recurring theme—sort of like having to give a public speech while buck naked.


A Transcendent Moment

There It Was: Mount Chimborazo

There It Was: Mount Chimborazo

The text is from Matthew 18:22: “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” It refers to how many times one must forgive transgressors. That inspired the Swedish author, Lars Görling, wrote a novel entitled 491, which was made into a film by Vilgot Sjöman.

This is a very roundabout way of remembering the route Dan and I took as we emerged from the twisted warren of unmarked streets which is Ambato, one of Ecuador’s largest cities. We were looking for the E-35, which is the Pan-American Highway. Instead we were on E-491, which took us through a number of towns and villages which were not on my map of the country. Nor, for that matter, was E-491.

Then, as we rounded a hill, quite suddenly, we saw the volcano Chimborazo dead ahead of us. The clouds had moved aside, allowing us to see the glaciers on Ecuador’s tallest mountain. If you measure altitude from the center of the earth rather than sea level, it is the tallest mountain on earth, looming in splendid isolation from the rest of the Andes.

A Herd of Wild Vicuñas

A Herd of Wild Vicuñas

As we drew closer to the mountain, we espied a large herd of wild vicuñas on both sides of the road. Dan and I stopped to take pictures in the rarefied air, which must have been 15,000 feet altitude.

Throughout its length, E-491 was spectacular. Even the Indian villages along the route were more interesting. And then, as we approached the city of Riobamba, we crossed the Pan-American Highway. We spent the night in a spare, but scrupulously clean hotel near the railroad station. By then, we were on the “wrong” side of Chimborazo, which was now covered in clouds.

That was the end of our getting lost: The next day, we easily made our way to Cuenca in about five hours.

Where the Streets Have No Name

It’s Okay in the Center of Town, But ...

It’s Okay in the Center of Town, But …

When Dan and I started driving in Quito, we made a dismaying discovery. We spent a whole morning looking for a road atlas of Ecuador, and were greatly surprised that no one thought such a thing existed. And all city maps we had showed none of the outskirts, just the centro historico or tourist center of town.

Worse was to come: Once we left the center of town, there were almost no signs at street corners indicating where we were. Even if we had a good street atlas, it wouldn’t have helped, as most of the streets were strictly incognito. Missing were any directional indicators, most notably for E-35, the Pan-American Highway, the main trunk highway, which runs north/south through the center of the country. Where there were signs, they were more often than not for relatively minor streets.

The net result is that we got badly lost in the cities. All we could do is look out for intercity buses to see where they were going (if we were so lucky as to pass them) and follow them. Where there were no intercity buses in evidence, we tries to orient ourselves to the nearest known volcano and look for wider roads headed roughly in the right direction.

In Quito, we finally lucked out and found ourselves on the Pan-American Highway, but we didn’t know for about 40 miles that we were on the right track.

And then the E-35 lost itself in a warren of streets in the city of Ambato. In tomorrow’s post, I will explain how getting lost in Ambato led to the most transcendent moment in our whole vacation—just by sheer persistence and good luck!

Where on Earth Is Frisland?

It Looks As If It Is South of Iceland

It Looks As If It Is South of Iceland

Until late in the Sixteenth Century, maps of Europe had a largish island called Frisland (also called Frischlant, Friesland, Frislandia, or Fixland) situated south of Iceland. It is thought that an Italian mapmaker named Nicolo Zeno was first responsible for the placement of the imaginary island on his charts in 1558. Then, in 1573, the Fleming Abraham Ortelius picked it up for his maps, followed by Gerard Mercator (he of the projection) of Duisburg. In 1576, Martin Frobischer thought he was in Frisland when, actually, he had overshot it and found himself in Greenland.

I am indebted to Benedikt Jóhannesson of the Iceland Review for turning me on to this existence of this cartographic canard. I remember standing on the farthest southern point of the Westmann Islands in Iceland and looking south. I saw quite a few small, rather volcanic rocks to the south—but nothing as large as Frisland is represented to be. Perhaps it’s the original Fantasy Island.

Curiously, this part of the ocean lies along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. There have been volcanic islands that arose from the bottom of the sea, only to subside or be eroded away after the eruption that created them spent its fury. Perhaps someone reported some such island—though no way that large—and some mapmakers picked it up and embellished it a bit. A good example of such an island is Ferdinandea, between Sicily and Tunisia, which appeared and disappeared several times. It lasted long enough for several countries in the Nineteenth Century to dispute its ownership.

The Boy Who Loved Maps

Somehow, I Had to Get Out of Cleveland...

Somehow, I Had to Get Out of Cleveland…

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.