Monday, January 13, 2014

The Armchair Geographer

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We all had geography in school, right? (Do they still teach geography in schools?) To be honest, I don't remember much about those geography lessons, except maybe the big map of the US on the classroom wall. What I do remember is the hours I spent with my grandmother at home, the two of us devoted and enthusiastic armchair geographers.  Every month we went through National Geographic from cover to cover, and we found all the places mentioned in the articles on a globe that lit up from the inside. Then we used highlighters to draw the trips we wanted to make on the globe itself. (You might guess that my grandmother had been a teacher.)

I was particularly fascinated by Africa.  I dreamed of seeing the
Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, of the Great Rift, of Kenya and Tanzania, of Egypt and Istanbul.

But I got older, that dream faded, and eventually my geography got very rusty, too.  The places in news stories about war-torn Africa became just names to me.

Then, recently, we began watching a television series that for the first three seasons was filmed primarily in South Africa, but has scenes set in other African countries as well.
The show is called STRIKE BACK. It was produced for Cinemax but is available to buy or stream from Amazon. (It's very R-rated--imagine 24, MI 5, and Zero Dark Thirty on steroids, with lots of SEX--but it's terrifically done and guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.) And you might notice from the photo that the male leads are just a bit hunky, too...

But the vision of Africa is stunning, fascinating, and terrifying.  I got out my globe. (Yes, I do appreciate the wonderfulness of Google Maps and Google Earth--I use them every day in the research for my own books.) But a globe is different. It's tactile, and three dimensional. Perhaps in a way the difference is like that between reading a "real" book and a virtual book. I now know the names of the countries again, and how they fit together in the puzzle of the continent. I remember that the Kalahari Desert is in Botswana and touches the norther border of beautiful South Africa. I know where Cape Town sits  above the sea on its own promontory just below the 30th parallel. I know how the Great Rift Valley runs down through Tanzania and into Mozambique, and that Johannesburg is over 5000 feet high, about like Denver.

And I wonder if one day I will see Kenya.

, do you remember your geography? And is there some place that captured your imagination that you haven't--yet--managed to visit?

LUCY BURDETTE: I wouldn't say I remember my geography, because the world has changed so much! But I do love studying maps. (Those sessions with your grandmother sound wonderful Debs!) And I love planning trips (to be honest, I probably love the planning more than the trips themselves.) This year we are really looking forward to visiting the place I haven't seen that I'd most like to see--Japan. We are going with a group rather than just us, as it would seem overwhelming to manage a language that different from ours. I know I'll have other trips on my horizon, as my hub's been bitten by the travel bug lately.:) He teases me that I'd go back to Paris every time rather than try something new--it's probably true...

RHYS BOWEN: I was born with a wanderlust. I couldn't wait to get to Europe. When I was twelve I was put on a train in London and traveled to Vienna alone to stay with friends. This involved finding the right ship across the channel and the right train out of Ostend. I wasn't particularly worried about being alone on a foreign train. Geography was my best subject in school but the geography teacher was horrible. It was all maps and statistics, nothing that brought places to life.

My big fascination was Australia. I had an uncle there and every Christmas he sent me an illustrated book called "Wonders of Australia" or similar. I'd gaze at the Outback, the beaches, and decide I had to go there one day. I tried to persuade a school friend to join me and drive to Australia in a Bubble Car (a glorified motor scooter thing) so that I could write a book called "Around the World in a Bubble". Wisely she declined. But when I was invited to Australia by Australian Broadcasting I jumped at the chance. My brother followed me and settled there, then my parents followed him. Unfortunately I met John, who was on his way to California, so I left. But I still enjoy my visits there. Feels like home.

And the one place on my bucket list is Africa--safari to Kenya and Tanzania.

HALLIE EPHRON: Debs, I love that you and our grandmother plotted your trips on the globe -- like that movie trope where you see a dashed line showing characters on a plane crossing the ocean.

I love maps, but in school geography was never my strong suit. All I remember is that we had to color maps, and I was (am) lousy at coloring within the lines. My husband was a stamp collector when he was a kid, and he knows every country and every capitol. He can also color within the lines. Still, U.S. geography I know pretty well because we had puzzle when I was little that I must have put it together a thousand times, so I know most states by their shape and size as well as where they are.

DEBS: Rhys, I want to do that luxury safari to Kenya!  We have a friend who did--she said it was amazing. Unfortunately, she's quite a bit better off than your average writer...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm terrible at geography-bee type questions - ask me to name the islands comprising Japan or the body of water Illinois borders on and I'm hopeless - but I'm quite good at reading maps. As a matter of fact, I don't yet have a GPS in the car, preferring to navigate the old-fashioned way. (And, occasionally, doubling back because I've missed my turn.)

The place I dream of traveling? Northern India is near the top of my bucket list. I'd love to take Indian rail across the continent to Kalka, then ride the narrow-gauge Kalka-Shimla railway to the capitol of Himachal Pradesh. "Eyes of blue -- the Simla Hills; Silvered with the moonlight hoar" as Kipling wrote. I'd stay in a hillside cottage, visit all the remnants of old colonial Briton and then later travel overland to Kashmir, to while away the weeks in a houseboat on Lake Dal, touring the Shalimar gardens, buying sweet-smelling sandlewood bangles, eating ices made from Himalayan snows.

Yes, I did read too much Victorian literature in my youth.  Why do you ask?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Three fast things.  I remember going on road trips with my family, when I was oh, say, eight.  We had these things called TripTic from AAA--which had a yellow line through a spiral notebook of specially made maps that told directions. I spent more time looking at the maps then out the window.

I so completely remember the day I said  to my dad, who was driving… How do the maps tell you where to go?
And he told me how the highway numbers on the maps coincided with the highway numbers on the road.

This was an absolute revelation!

And I must say I'm still fascinated with map-making and geography. I spend a while on each airplane flight examining the maps in the in-flight magazines… Trying to figure out where everything is in relation to everything else.

I still don't know all the countries in Africa, I admit.  But my 11-year-old grandson does!

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I remember looking at old-fashioned maps and loving the mermaids and sea monsters that the mapmaker would paint into the oceans. I think I was so distracted by them  that I didn't look as closely at the actual geography!

One of my favorite short stories is called "Isle of the Mapmaker's

Wife," by Marilyn Sides. Publisher's Weekly said: "The swirling, erotic title tale, a 1990 O. Henry Prize Story, follows C.M. Descotes, a "rather young woman" who deals in antique maps, as she travels from Boston to Amsterdam, seeking to acquire two particularly fine illuminated maps. A man catches her attention while she dines alone in a pub, but, with quiet pride, she remains concentrated on business. When he turns out to be the map dealer in whose possession lies the most desirable map she's ever seen, however, business and sexual passion become carnally intertwined. In sophisticated and graceful prose lush with sensual detail, the remaining four stories also describe obsessive romantic attachments." Gorgeous writing, and you'll never look at a map the same way again.

DEBS: You are all so fabulous!  Julia, I read Kipling, too! And wanted to see all those things. Still do. (I also have a real obsession with Mount Everest, which I may have talked about before... But no desire to actually go there!)

I wonder now if one of the things that sparked my love for maps in books were Tolkien's maps in The Lord of the Rings...

And Susan, I ordered The Isle of the Mapmaker's Wife. Irresistible!
Hank, we had TripTic, too!

Readers, how's your geography?  And are there places not yet seen that tickle your imagination?


  1. I love globes and wonderfully illustrated maps in books . . . country-locating I can manage fairly well, although, like Julia, those geography-bee things are not my forté and I generally miss most of those types of questions on Jeopardy. Road maps, on the other hand, are an entirely different thing. I remember the AAA TripTiks and Thomas Map books, but . . . sigh . . . they were all pretty much a mystery to me. Sad to say, my sense of direction is completely non-existent; I can get lost just going around the block, and my addled brain considers all those yellow highlighter lines in the TripTik books to be unsolvable puzzles. If I didn’t have a GPS, I’d be wandering some unknown back road, forever lost. I truly don’t have much wanderlust but if I could go absolutely anywhere, I’ve always had this yen to go to the moon . . . .

  2. I have always wanted to go to Australia and New Zealand. Someday, right?

    The geography that sticks with me is the geography from the novels I read. If characters travel from one area to another, I will probably remember it. But if I sit down and study a map, it will become very hazy in a short amount of time.

    I've always learned best from stories.

  3. When I was eight our teacher gave wonderful geography lessons. The text was beautiful. Each chapter was a different country and focused on the lives of a girl and a boy. I loved it and read the entire book in one week.

    We rented a car in Denmark one summer and drove through europe visiting family landmarks. My favorite visit that trip was to a government-protected deer park in France that was cared for by a very distant cousin, Xavier. It's called Parc-aux-Cerfs is the site of a mansion where Louis XV hid the subjects of his romantic liaisons.

    It seems that our ancestors cared for this place, a hunting park for the French nobility. Interesting coincidence was my grandfather's job during the Great Depression was to care for the deer in Forest River Park in Salem, Massachusetts. We stayed and visited with Xavier and family who tried to convince us to stay and live in the village. I think the population is 12-15. We did look for a house and have had some good dreams about moving there or having a vacation place...

  4. My bucket list includes a serious tour of Scotland so I can see where so many of my ancestors came from. But the story I want to pass on is one about my father and Trivial Pursuit. My father would constitute one team, challenging whoever else was in the game -- usually four or five others. He always won, and once successfully answered this question: Name the countries the Danube River flows through, in order, from source to the sea. He REALLY liked maps.

  5. I resisted the GPS, and then I was sent on an emergency detour on some back roads in Virginia. I'd still be there without the GPS.

    My fantasy trip is to the Arctic. Or is it Antarctica?

    I was never good at geography. ;-)

  6. I love paper maps, as does everybody in my family, so no GPS, like Julia. My father taught high school geography and Emerging Nations in the sixties and seventies when a lot of countries were emerging! He'd bring home outdated pull down maps and mount them in our playroom.

    I've traveled and lived abroad a lot, but never been to Australia or New Zealand. Thanks to Seascape 2009, I have writer friend Christine there, so it's definitely on my list. Never been to China, either, but it doesn't call to me.

    I taught English and studied Japanese and karate for two years in Japan - Lucy, you'll love it. Be sure to find a little noodle-ya - noodle shop - and stay in a ryokan, a traditional inn. Such fond memories.

  7. Yesterday's winners:

    Thanks to all for sharing the foodie moments. Karen in Ohio, Cara Jones, and Ramona, please email me so you can get your copy of the cookbook!

    Lucyburdette at gmail dot com

  8. Hank has a grandson who is 11? She must have been a child bride!

  9. Nope, they no longer teach Geography in schools. And it's a shame, too. So many Americans don't know about our own country, let alone the rest of the world.

    Except for traveling in my imagination, and two trips 30-50 miles outside the borders of the US into Mexico and then Canada, I was never out of the country until 13 years ago. Since then I've been to four other continents, and have so enjoyed seeing sights and people I'd only dreamed about. Did you know you can see the curve of the earth from 50,000 feet? And that flying to Australia or other faraway places it's possible to see the sun go down at the back of the plane and then rise again at the front of the plane?

    When we went to Sydney we thought two weeks was a lot of time, but Australia is so vast. We didn't even see all of New South Wales, let alone any of the rest of that amazing country. We rented a car, though, which came with the best map ever. It was amazingly detailed, showing every single thing you might use as a landmark: fire hydrant, phone box, store names. Between helping my husband stay on the right (wrong) side of the road and navigating, I had a ball with that map.

    In October my husband, a wildlife photographer, took me along on a trip of a lifetime, a two-week safari in the Rift Valley in Northern Tanzania. Another enormous place, but absolutely teeming with life, both animal and human. I danced with Maasai women, and ate goat and chicken with my hands at a traditional Tanzanian family barbecue, and slept in tents (but in four-poster beds) in the middle of the Serengeti with hippos rubbing against the tent in the middle of the night.

    The maps failed us in Africa. Here at home Steve and our friend Terry, while planning the trip, looked at the maps and decided where we would go and when, based on distance. You'd do that here, right? Thirty miles is nothing in the US, even in rural areas. Not so in Tanzania, where even the best roads are pitted and barely navigable. But in the desert the roads are gravel, pitted, and not really two lanes most of the way. Not to mention all the tour vehicles--including ours most of the time--pulled over for wildlife watching. We spent so, so much time in the vehicle.

    But it was worth it. I've been blogging about it and have nearly half our trip chronicled, with photos, if you want to read more. Just let me know.

  10. P.S. Thank you, Roberta!

  11. I can read paper maps and did for years. But they are awkward to read in the car (all that folding), and I can never get them folded back up so they go neatly in the glove compartment. Much easier when Google Maps talks to me on my phone.

    I'd like to go to Australia/New Zealand and Italy - but also Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, the Grand Canyon and other places right her in the USA. So much to see, so little time (and money).

  12. Love maps. Hate GPS. Word of warning: do not trust GPS in rural Maine. You're likely to end up on a dead end dirt road instead of where you want to be.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn in rural Franklin County, Maine

  13. My place will always and forever be Asia. It's no secret that my gramps sailed the South China Sea in the 1930s and saved his stories and photos for his granddaughters decades later. I've traveled most of Southeast Asia and lived in Vietnam, and would go back every year if I could.

    As for one of those books that sparked my childhood wanderlust, it was my great aunt Emma's copy of The World in 1,000 Pictures from the 1950s, a pictorial trip around the globe. In fact, last year when I started remembering it, I got online and found a used copy, and just looking at its photos brings back such wonderful memories of dreaming about travel when I was a kid on a farm in Eastern Washington.

    Now, when I want to return to Asia for a night, I watch my very worn copy of The Year of Living Dangerously.

    Susan, that story sounds fabulous - I'm going to go order a copy right now!

    Hank, I can't wait to track down TripTiks for some research I'm doing.

  14. Debs, the story about you, your grandmother and the globe is lovely and wonderful, thank you!

    I wish I still had my old globe. I remember spending a lot of time planning where I would go when I grew up. But maps? Ugh! I am embarrassingly bad at Geography.

    We recently bought a little GPS thingie and I am smitten with it. When we get close to home, it always brings us a different way and we have discovered some delightful little mountain back roads we never would have found otherwise. They're roads I don't think I'd travel alone, but with Donald, Harley and GPS, they're a bunch of fun and great photo opportunities abound.

    My dream trip? Back to Greece.

  15. Karen in Ohio, they don't teach geography in schools now??? Tell me it's not true! How can children grow up with any concept of the world and how they relate to it?

    Susan, does Mattie's school have geography?

    Sam Cooke is rolling over in his grave...

    Karen, I'd love to see more about your trip to Africa!

    A funny thing--I've stayed in a flat (a small house, really) in London that belongs to a woman who grew up on coffee plantation in Kenya. She knew Joy Adamson (Born Free) and wrote a biography of her.

    I love all these life connections...

  16. P.S. I may get to go to Spain this year, courtesy of my Spanish publisher--to Barcelona! Long on my bucket list!

  17. I am always amazed by how little geography is included in the general canon these days. With the advent of technology, I think there is less emphasis on maps, map-reading and map-making overall, which always saddens me a bit.

    I love travel. My favorite thing to do is wander unfamiliar streets in new places and people watch. I'm outrageously fortunate because my work often includes travel (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, India & Sri Lanka in the last two years), which means I get to hear wonderful stories all the time.

    All that being said, I have used GPS navigation in the US on family trips. We rapidly discovered some of the limitations of the technology - at one point being directed through a nuclear power plant to the business owner's home rather than the mini-golf course we were hunting - but feel liberated to just take off on a trip without needing to do as much planning. Sometimes, we deliberately let the GPS make suggestions to see what we can discover. This is known in the family as GPS fishing.

  18. Retirement has given me the opportunity and time to visit places that I, like others here, only dreamed about on the globe (unlighted) that we had when I was a child. Sincere retiring I've been to Scandinavia, Egypt, the Middle East (where I met and traveled with Margaret Coel and her husband), and two years ago this week my partner and I were in Tanzania on safari. It's everything I imagined it would be. The first giraffe I saw in the wild (where these animals belong) took my breath away. And then last night I finished "Kim," by Rudyard Kipling, and now I'm thinking I need to put India on my list.

    Of course, I need not tell fans of the Jungle Reds that reading gave me this wanderlust, and though I didn't know the quote as a child, "There is no frigate like a book" is as true for me at nearly sixty years of age as it was when I was six.

  19. My personal opinion about learning about the rest of the world, either through books or via travel, is that we look at each other with wider open eyes. The closer you look, the more we realize how alike we all are. So from that standpoint, it's sad that geography isn't taught. And how do they know the difference between a continent and a candleholder?

    Ooh, Deb, that sounds wonderful. My middle daughter just told me yesterday that she and her boyfriend are moving to Madrid for a year, beginning mid-September. I've been wanting to go to Spain, so I'm looking forward to spending time there with them.

    My blog here:

    All the photos are mine, so don't expect much.

  20. Great topic. I love maps and geography. Although no where near the number of countries my husband has visited (70!), I have been lucky to be able to travel a bit.
    As a child, I was fascinated by the Netherlands and England -- finally got to Amsterdam once, but would love to spend time in either place.

    The trips I have enjoyed the most have been times when we could spend a week or more -- we once spent two weeks in Antigua, Guatemala. I even found a writing group on a bulletin board there. Taking part in daily life in another part of the world is just fabulous -- going to groceries and churches and post offices.

    And, like many of you, I love maps and read them like books!

  21. I adore maps and atlases; I can't get enough of them. As a child, I spent HOURS reading atlases, and picking out places I wanted to visit or move to. Later on, I also fell in love with globes. (And I confess that I've learned a lot more geography on my own than I did in school.)

    Where do I most want to visit? Right now, I'm especially fascinated with anywhere in Great Britain, although I know I'll never have enough money to get there. (Thanks to some Reds authors, I get to take virtual visits to Great Britain in different eras in time!)

  22. Debs, I love your evenings with your grandmother at the globe. I've always loved globes and maps. We only recently got a GPS, gift from oldest son. I've always been the navigator who read the maps and got us there and back, and I can't seem to give up my maps as backup to the GPS, which we named Wilma.

    I've been to Japan, Mexico, Guam, Hawaii, and England, but there are so many places I want to visit. Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, New Zealand, Chile, India, South Africa, Australia, Vietnam, Canada. And there's so much of this country I'd still like to visit.

  23. Oh, Deb, what a wonderful story about using the globe with your grandmother! You make me want to rush out and buy a globe now. I used to love the old globe my parents had. There's something magical about spinning a globe and seeing where your finger lands when it stops.

    This post reminds me of some geography-, map-related books I'd like to read. One is The River at the Center of the World:A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time by Simon Winchester. Another is A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton. Others are as follows. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi. Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings(picked that book up in Kramer's in D.C., where there is a plethora of great non-fiction and fiction books). And, last, but far from least, are Kim's books about Vietnam.

    Places that I want to go and explore the terrain and cities are England and Scotland foremost. I would love to wander the countryside around Stoke Canon (a few miles out of Exeter), the ancestral home of the Boones, and then I would hop on over to Dartmoor and stand on the moors shouting into the wind of legendary mad dogs and forbidden romances. In Scotland, I would find a kilted man to take me into the wilds of the Highlands. Of course, it wouldn't matter if we knew where we were going, as I'd be with a man in a kilt (major fantasy come true). Oh, and to explore the areas of London in Deb's books would be another must. I recently took a side trip through the Adirondacks due to Julia's influence. Another place that intrigues me is Burma or Myanmar. After reading Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning, I've been interested in this area, which has seen such turbulence and yet has such spiritual connections.

    In fact, I'm learning a lot of geography through the Reds' novels. Lucy's books enable me to walk through the streets of one of my favorite places on Earth, Key West. Rhys takes me back to New York to learn the lay of the land in the early 20th century by having Molly walk so many places. Hank is teaching me about the geography of Boston, a place I want to visit (who knew there were so many bridges?). Hallie is showing me areas of New York that are historically fascinating. Susan, I'm getting to your books and am so looking forward to traveling through the mid-twentieth century London.

    I will have to include some geographical reading in my book bonding with the grandkids, now, too. Their father, my son-in-law, is a map book addict, so they have that influence, too. And, my daughter loves reading books about Africa, so that influence should rub off, too.

    The best aspect of this blog is that it always leads me to places of interest, physical and imaginary. It is indeed a map by which to live and learn.

  24. Debs, Mattie's school does not have geography per se, but they are learning about different countries in Africa right now. They've gone to a west African restaurant, are taking west African dance, and are also learning about the different countries in Africa.

    He was amused when I told him that the countries in Africa were different "back in my day" and I even remember the pull-down maps in school (remember those) being different still!

  25. Whew! Just back form todays road trip home to Boston to New YOrk--we got as far as Tolland COnnecticut--when our car completely broke down. Sigh. Fast forward to our rental car home-no GPS! And No map!

    We looked at each other like--well, what now? And then revelation: We can go by the SIGNS!

    Then of course I got gps on my phone... :-)

  26. you will love Barcelona Debs--one of my favorite cities, maybe after New York, Paris, Rome...hmmm, I do love cities...

    Karen, the safari sounds amazing...and to see it through the eyes of a photographer--wow!

  27. Anonymous--thank you! :-) Step-grandson--but biologically certainly possible! xoo So I accept the compliment with much delight.

  28. I loved National Geographic Magazines, My Great Aunt & Uncle got us a subscription for Cmas every year...I miss getting those

    I also miss my globe I had growing up, use to spin it and when it stopped I'd pick a spot and get the encyclopedia and look it up

    Three places that I have always wanted to go:

    Ireland, because I'm Irish

    England, I know I lived there in another lifetime, everything about England has always "felt" like home to me

    Switzerland, because my Gramps gave me a book about it when I was young

    My knowledge of Geography is awful, I have to look places up on internet

    Hank - we always got triptiks and the books for each state, still do
    I love that they tell you where the rest areas are, what exits have food/lodging

    GPS's - great invention !!

  29. I was pretty good at geography. But then they went and changed borders and names on me. ;)
    I want to go around the world and hit the high spots. The Great Wall, Great Barrier Reef, Pyramids, the Orient Express, an African Photo get the idea. :)

    Pen M