1. You look at a map of a city you’ve never been to.
You see patterns and street names and they tell you nothing. The map remains dead, the city unknown.
2. You go to the city you’ve never been to.
It becomes a city you know.
3. You look at a map of a city you’ve been to, but have left behind. As you look at the map, you remember.
You are looking at nostalgia. You walk through street names and remember the taste of cake in the café whose name you forgot, but you remember its yellow walls and comfy chairs. A square is no longer four lines on a map, but an open space with people and statues and laughter and a fountain in the center. The monotonous, two-dimensional blue that indicates an ocean turns into postcard memories, so many shades of blue and green and the smell of salt and fish. The famous building with the famous name that everyone knows is now a personal experience, it is yours and yours alone in a way that will never make it anyone else’s. A billion feet have walked these (now familiar) paths and two of them were yours. You can trace the steps you have taken and you remember feelings and colours and strangers who offered you a smile. There is the hostel you slept in, there is the river you crossed so many times, there is the corner where you listened to the most amazing street musician. You fondly whisper street names that you had trouble pronouncing when you first spoke them, clumsily. You connect dots, and they turn to images in your head.
The map is alive, the city an old friend.
4. The map you look at is always the same; the perception is different. It is you who has changed.
p.s. // every time i look at a map I have a feeling that is hard to put into words
A man enters an office supply store. He was a mere mortal seconds before, but as he passes through the door he becomes a customer. His superior gaze drifts across his domain and settles on the cashier.
“Do you sell stamps?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say,” However-”
“I want one.”
“However, we sell them only in sets of ten.”
“But I want one.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t sell you a single stamp.”
“Can’t you just…” He (skillfully) mimicks the act of ripping apart paper.
Clearly, I have never thought of this. My simple mind grapples with the idea. I realize I am dealing with a genius, and yet, I regretfully inform him, “Sorry. They come on stickersheets, and anyways, the barcode–”
“Well that’s just rubbish,” he informs me. He is right. I realize this now. His genius ignites a spark within me.
“You are right,” I tell him as I take fifteen sheets of stamps into my hands and begin to tear them apart. I type 0,019 stamps and press a non-existent key on the register. I hold out a quarter of a stamp to the customer (with a smile), but he shakes his head (without a smile). I rip apart all the stamps I can find, desperate to please him, for he has gifted this humble store with his presence. From the pieces, I begin to assemble a perfect, custom-made stamp. It is worth exactly 66,66€. I single-handedly reprogramme not only my cash desk, but the entire system. It can now scan any stamp in (or out of) existence. It is raining stamps. I am smiling.
Two hours later, it is done. Beaming, and covered in the torn remains of hundreds of unfortunate stamps, I hold the perfect stamp out to The Customer. He accepts it. I rejoice. It might just be my high fever and blurry gaze, but I think the right corner of his mouth moved upwards for exactly half a second. I am blessed.
He licks the stamp and slaps it onto a letter. He wants to lend a pen. I lend him a pen. When he is done, he holds the letter out to me expectantly. He does not say a word, my silent angel, but I can tell what he wants. Thus is our connection. There is nothing, I assure you, nothing I would have rather done than to accept his letter, on my knees, with tears of gratitude streaming down my cheeks… But alas:
“I want to send the letter,” my dear customer finally says, after the silence has stretched into infinity and back.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Sir,” I say with a polite smile, brushing stamps off my shoulders, “We don’t accept mail. We only sell stamps.”
After all, you can’t make exceptions to a well-established rule in the workplace.
The customer doesn’t bat an eyelash. “That’s okay,” he says with a disarming smile. “I wouldn’t ask the impossible of you.”
As he turns to walk away, a single tear rolls down my cheek. I wipe it off with a stamp that wears his majestic face, hand-stitched by me.
I don’t tell him there’s a mailbox around the corner.