My grasp of geography was purely visual
Whenever the huge map of the world was unrolled in front of my high school class, it was not so much exotic names of distant lands that caught my fancy, but rather the shape of land masses: brown mountain ranges extending swaglike across continents, and rivers drawing jittery lines through green or sand-colored plains. I saw drama in the wondrous forms and patterns on our earth's surface.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Take Europe, for instance. You couldn't help noticing that big creature, made up of Sweden and Norway, about to pounce on the puny peninsula called Denmark. That small country didn't seem to have a chance against the massive assailant. Ah, but look at the sharp tip of Skagen pointed at its attacker, a scorpionlike sting holding the beast at bay in mid-jump.
The Baltic Sea is shaped like a maiden kneeling in prayer, her outline visible between Sweden, Finland, and what used to be the Soviet Union. Now it's the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Never mind political boundaries or names of mountains, rivers, and cities. Mine was a purely visual approach to geography. I looked at the features of the earth as if they were Rorschach inkblots, except that no teacher was going to quiz me in order to plumb my psyche.
Neither would my fantasizings have earned me a good grade in geography. My art teacher, though, might have understood.
As I roamed farther west in Europe, across the North Sea from Denmark, I saw another animal, this one sitting on its haunches - the United Kingdom. It had turned its back toward Europe, making no bones about its disdain for the Continent.
The Hebrides Islands and Scotland's Northwest Highlands were stuck to its forehead like a jagged crest - hurled there, no doubt, by the raging North Atlantic. Ireland resembled a roly-poly puppy suspended above its mother's lap in midair, hands and feet pointing west.
In the Mediterranean, Italy's high-heeled boot took the prize as most memorable shape. I also liked the way the Alps, in northern Italy, curved toward the southwest and then slimmed down to become the Apennines, as if to secure the boot to the Continent. To the east lay Greece with its two multifingered peninsulas - the Peloponnesus in the south and, almost a carbon copy of it, the smaller Khalkidhiki farther north.
Was there any other country in the world with such a close duplication of shapes?
The Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain made me think of a welding seam, keeping the Iberian Peninsula fused to the rest of Europe. Without this weld, Spain might have broken loose and landed on Morocco's northernmost tip, closing off the Strait of Gibraltar.
Looking at Germany, my homeland then, I was forever fascinated by those mountain ranges right in the middle of the map, south of Berlin. Those brown strips clearly looked like a chair teetering on its hind legs. It would have tipped over long ago, had not its front legs been tied to the Carpathian Mountains, which, in turn, could be taken for a crouching feline that reached all the way down into Romania.