The ultimate map room

Maps have fascinated me all my life.  As a child, I pored over the family atlas all the time.  But what fascinated me even more were the few pages of historical maps - appended almost as an afterthought to the atlas.  They primarily showed Europe at various points in history and how United States grew through purchase, conquests and claims.  I think there was even a map outlining major battles during the Civil War.  It was a window into history that beguiled me.

I rarely met any kindred spirits while growing up but when I travelled around Europe, I realized that I had ample company amongst dukes and earls and kings.  Many of their palaces have map rooms - perhaps to keep track of their extensive landholdings as well as those of their rivals.  Palazzo Ducale in Venice has an amazing map room which sports 2 humongous globes as well, all of which I admired and at moments imagined had been restored just for my pleasure.

In today's technological age, it has become trivial to find good current maps.  Thanks to Mapquest, Yahoo Maps, Google Maps and others, you can not only see the world map, you can zoom in and out and spot individual streets and ask for directions and even get a satellite view.  Google Earth lets you delve into even greater detail.  I have managed to trace down the exact alleyways that I used to walk when I worked in Connecticut!  But now I wish for a new dimension - the dimension of time.

Imagine, just imagine, if you could call up the map of New York City from any time.  See how the fields in Manhattan island give way to houses and high rise buildings.  Or call up a map of Switzerland and see as new train tracks are laid out and new cantons keep joining the Swiss confederation.  Or see how New Delhi goes from this elegant and sparse new capital for the crown jewel of the British Empire to this bustling gargantuan metropolis in just 70-odd years...

There would be so much to learn from such a map room.  We could track how people moved about, how empires have risen and fallen, how kingdoms have expanded in unexpected ways.  We could also see the morphing of various countries and get a handle on various boundary disputes that plague the world.  We could also see how names of places have changed -Bombay, Londonium, New Amsterdam and Peking becoming Mumbai, London, New York and Beijing.  Imagine the history of the world coming alive as we scan across the globe...

Wouldn't it be wonderful?


Postcard from Europe #3: The Clinton Dividend

Another post from the time in the early 90s when I was working in Germany and traveling on weekends...

16 years back, I was in Bordeaux for a weekend. I was in the mood for some local food. The lady who ran the Youth Hostel knew that my French was limited to "Parle vous Anglais?" so she said "I know this place but..."

Well, I ended up going there, a tiny, tiny place that was filled with regulars. The only one who knew English was the waitress, Marie, whose entire length and breadth of High School English was tested when I asked her to explain what was on the fixed-price menu. She ended up dragging me into the kitchen and showing me the actual vegetables and meats and furiously scribbling down the words as I told her the names in English. Throughout a delectable 6 course meal, the regulars and I had an odd conversation - single words traded back and forth to appreciate and enjoy the food and the wine we were served.

When the meal ended and Marie had a little bit more time, the questions came in more complete form and the conversation turned to the Bill Clinton. You see, just 3 weeks before, Bill Clinton was elected the President of United States. He had really piqued the interests of these folks in Bordeaux. They felt they understood him. They were also quite confused how he could be elected with only 43% of the votes.

That started a whole new conversation on electoral college and the curious way that America held its elections. In the end, when I got up to pay, the owner of the place gave me a hefty 15 Franc discount on 50FF meal and didn't charge for all the wine I drank - because I was so patient with the questions. I call that discount my "Clinton Dividend". I yearn for another such dividend...