For the world traveler, there’s something comforting about a map. It knows where you are when you don’t and, in unfamiliar surroundings, it can help you find yourself—in a completely tangible, non-philosophical way that is. Existential crises cannot be solved by latitude and longitude alone.
On the train this weekend from London to Paris I found myself reading some interesting bits about the history of maps in those two great cities.
Map history? Really, Brian? It’s not as boring as it sounds, trust me!
Turns out Londoners love their maps. They’ve been making them since the 1500s. And it’s not just streets: Londoners map everything from wi-fi hot spots to public toilets to bicycle rental docking station locations. A couple of years ago, sculptor Antony Gormley installed dozens of statues of himself on rooftops all over the city and it became a race to see who could map their locations first.
It’s not surprising to learn that London has a version of our Thomas Guide. It’s called the A-Z and was created in 1935 by Phyllis Pearsall, who, urban legend has it, walked the entire 3,000 miles of London’s 23,000 streets.
Parisians couldn’t care less about maps. The layout of their city is just as haphazard as London—any urban planner who thinks arranging a city in a snail-shell pattern is a good idea has probably been swigging a little too much wine. But in Enlightenment-era Paris, maps were seen as a tool of governmental control. They’re still viewed as a metaphor for authority today.
Parisians are so map-averse that out on the streets, they rarely even make gestures while giving directions or discussing where they’re going. A bob of a head, a lean of the shoulder … versus the rest of us swinging our arms wildly in the direction of La Tour Eiffel.
I don’t have a preference for one culture over another—the obsessive external mappers or those who keep their cartography subtle and internal. I tend to have a pretty good sense of direction: on my first visit to Toronto I led a group of my friends astray on purpose just to see if I could find my way back to the hotel (I could). So, that part of me sides with the Parisians.
On the other hand, I’m kind of an obsessive user of Google Maps (satellite, street view … it’s all so alluring). Not to mention that when the intersections in your city generally have five or six streets minimum coming together, it should perhaps be okay for even the most seasoned local to whip out a map every now and then. After all, it would be a shame to get lost in your own city.