It all started when I was ten. It was the early 80s, and my family had freshly emerged from behind the curtain of Cold War Poland. We escaped the country with barely a suitcase each, all filled with necessities, rather than the pleasures of life. And so it was that I found myself in a tiny apartment in Vienna, not knowing the language, without friends, TV or toys, and no books bar one: a tatty, slightly outdated world atlas.
My parents used the atlas as inspiration for ‘where to from here’. We weren’t particularly welcome in Austria, and have applied for visas to a whole range of countries. While waiting to see who would have us, mum and dad took on whatever illegal job they could find, leaving me and my brother to fend for ourselves. I couldn’t go to school and was barred from going outside onto the streets alone, so the ‘fending for myself’ generally meant drawing, writing, and endlessly flicking through the precious atlas. There and then, I fell in love with maps. I studied the legends, the latitudes, the heights of peaks and climate patterns, the population densities, country borders and capital cities. In my head, I painted pictures of the mountain ranges in my head, of sun setting over distant seas. I dreamt of places with exotic names like ‘Ceylon’ and ‘Mozambique’ and ‘Samoa’. I was, well and truly, hooked.
Fast forward 30 years, and I am still intrigued by maps. I have at least ten atlases in the house. That’s on top of several street directories, a globe, Google Earth on my iPad, and a stack of tourist maps collected over the years as trip mementos. I just can’t help myself!
I have no shame in subjecting my children to my obsession, either. World map jigsaw puzzle? Check. Maps in bedrooms? Check. Children’s atlases? Done. A cute little snakes and ladders game with the outline of the continents in the background? How could I not get one?
In pride of place in my dining room is a six by ten foot wall map. I’ve put stickers on it showing all the places we have been, and notes for where to go. It has become a common feature of our dinner conversations. Want to know where grandma lives? Well, just look behind you. What about penguins, and lions? Look behind you. Ah, you are learning about Egyptian pyramids?…you get the picture.
I’ll accept the accusation that I might be on the slightly bonkers side of map love, but still make the point that it’s pretty important to know where we are on earth, and where everyone else is. How can you ever truly understand stuff like Gallipoli, if you don’t know about the strategic position of the Dardanelles Strait? Or why mucking about with a river in one place affects people downstream? Or why you might need to pack a hat if you go to Norway in winter? Without intending to start a great debate, I am quite saddened by the state and status of Geography in our schools. Maps (and of course, the broader understanding of geographic concepts and processes) can tell us so much more than how to get from A to B. They give us an understanding of how we are all interconnected and interdependent.
I might stop here. This is turning into a rant. Feel free to share links to good map sites with me. You can be sure I will check them out. For now though, I’m off to read a book. It’s about Spain.
Did I tell you?
It’s full of maps.