Monday, 10 March 2008

On maps, anticipation and experience

I have a Michelin map of Spain on the wall beside my kitchen table. I put it there in order to familiarize myself with the geography of the country before last year's trip to Compostela, as much of my knowledge of the geography of the Iberian peninsula came from a combination of Asterix and Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels as high school geography in Quebec does not really cover Europe. I had just had the embarrassing experience of only finding out that the Columbia River did not empty in Puget Sound as I had thought, just before leaving with Chris and Margo for the Washington State trip in 2006. Very embarrassing for a former Génies en Herbe team member and someone who had crossed the Columbia river (admittedly more than 20 years earlier).

Getting back to the map of Spain, I had traced the approximate route we were going to take with a highlighter pen. I had looked at the names on the map and wondered what they would bring and what they would look like on the ground. I look at the map now and marvel at how very different it seems after having visited the places on it.

I don't need to hang a map of Eastern Canada on my wall as I am fairly familiar with the geography of Canada (my high school geography did cover it, albeit grudgingly). I have also visited a certain amount of it, especially Quebec City.

However, not by bike. Seeing the land from a car is a very different experience than by bike. I look at the maps of routes I will follow, and wonder: "What will it be like?" While the shape of much of the land is known to me, much more will be revealed to me. I know that the maps lie. All maps lie: it is necessary for them to do so in order to effectively convey information. (That was something I learnt in high school geography (thank you, Louis-Paul Perras)). So I try to build on their limited information and piece together a mental picture of what will be. Yet I know that it will be imperfect. That is the nature of anticipation.

That the mental picture will seem such tawdry thing compared to the real places is "the fragile beauty of experience" to quote an extraordinarily minor Canadian poet and playwright.

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