Wed., May 2, 42 A.B.

Searching For China, Settling For Greece

I've never done illegal drugs.  I've never tried smoking a tobacco product.
I haven't had a beer since September, 1999.  Beer's never been much of a treat for me, and after it triggered a migraine some 20 months ago, I gave it up altogether.

Despite all this, I do not consider myself a saint.  Far from it.  Truth be told,
I have a monkey on my back that's bigger and meaner than anything a heroin junkie or feverish nymphomaniac has ever faced.

My name is Dan Birtcher, and I'm addicted to maps.

Contrary to what you might think, maps are NOT gateway graphics which inevitably lead to atlas abuse.  They don't need to be.  They're MAPS -  things capable of creating and sustaining two powerful illusions which prove irresistible to people like me:  1) The illusion that we know exactly where we are; and 2) The illusion that places other than where we happen to be at the moment actually exist.

Like many, my addiction started innocently enough.  I bought a few old National Geographics at a garage sale once.  I took them home.  I opened one up.  The most incredible map I'd ever seen fell at my feet.  It was an utterly unattached map of some exotic foreign land, recently divorced from a typically stodgy article I didn't care a whit about and suddenly displaying its unimaginably colorful topography on the floor of MY own room.  I'd never seen a map so... so realistic before, nor one with details so large and easy on the eyes.

By the time I had finished getting to know its every marking and fold, I was hooked.

I now have dozens of maps of all shapes and sizes, from an old Gulf Oil service station depiction of Ohio's roads in the 1930s to a large vinyl map of the world I hung up on the wall and tracked the events of the 1973 Yom Kippur War on with crayons to a recent county-by-county representation of the US color-coded according to the number of bowlers living in those counties.  In my estimation, there are no bad maps, and no matter how many I have, there is always room for one more.

I don't look at them as often as I used to, being middle-aged now and all, but sometimes... once a year or so... I get a certain... hankering.

That's when I head for my Box of Boxes and indulge my secret passion.

Recently I went looking for China.  No, not because of recent news events - just because I could.  And because the map I have shows the provinces, cities, and roads on one side and the ethnic regions on the other.

It's the ethnic regions side I recently had a particular hunger for.

It's easy to think of China as just being full of Chinese people.  But that's a gross oversimplification, to say the least.  China is home to some 55 minorities and can be divided into at least as many different ethnolinguistic groups.  The Hui, the Oroqen, the Daur, the Ewenki, the Kaoshan, the Kirgiz, the Xibe, the Uygur, the Yao, the Yi - on and on the names go around the edges of my map, each one representing an unsuspected universe of ways, sounds, and pasts, each impinging on my consciousness only when I open my Box of Boxes and seek them out.

As luck would have it, however, my map of Greece was the first map I saw when I opened that Box recently.  I tried to resist its many-inlet charms -
I tried to remain focused - but...  I'm afraid one glimpse of Thessaly was more than I could stand in my map-starved condition.

Taking Greece into my hands and spreading it loving across my desk, I ran my finger slowly across its submissive expanse searching for a town I'd never heard of before.  For no reason I can comprehend or guess, I settled upon Platanos - a tiny, nondescript dot about 100 miles northwest of Athens.  After spending some time convincing myself that people as big as you and me actually live there despite the minuteness of the ink used to indicate their home town, I flattered myself into believing that I was at that moment the only person in all Ohio to be giving them any thought.  I honestly believe that Platanos quivered under the intensity of my ardent scrutiny, but that may only have been the result of a sudden breeze coming in through my window....

A search online for facts about Platanos revealed very little.

There was a depressing message board exchange between an alleged native of Platanos and an American UFOlogist.  The Platanos man tried to assure the American that a UFO had crashed in his vicinity back in 1990; the American started off intrigued, then slowly grew skeptical as the weeks went by, then finally gave up the chase in disgust as plans to meet his increasingly strange Greek correspondent horribly fell apart.    

There was also an article listed on the webpage which ran thus: "Lazaridis, G. 'Market Gardening and Women's Work in Platanos, Greece.' European Journal of Womens Studies 2 (No. 4) 1995: 441-67."  I seriously thought about tracking it down before it occurred to me that market gardening had probably changed quite a bit since 1995 and I abandoned the idea right then and there.

Returning to my map of Greece, I noticed something I'd never noticed before: Greece has a helluva lot of islands.  The Aegean Sea is studded with them the way my childhood living room floor was strewn with Legos and Pop Tart crumbs.  Unlike my Legos and Pop Tart crumbs, however, the islands of Greece run right up to the coast of Turkey.  It's an incredible thing not unlike seeing a bunch of Kentuckians dotting the Ohio River right up to the litter on the weedy banks of Cincinnati.  For the first time in my life, I could see why the Turks are permanently miffed at their neighbors to the west.

And then there's the island of Lesbos.  Who knew it was so BIG??

My eye hastily hurried back to Platanos and Thessaly before it became thoroughly distracted forever....

Thessaly is an incredible place.  Although less than 1/8th the size of Ohio and having a population less than 1/10th of my home state, Thessaly has had a much greater impact on history and the human imagination.  Just 20 miles or so northeast of Platanos, for example, is the port city of Volos.  Although comparable in size to my town, Jason and the Argonauts chose to set sail from it and not from here.  Even more incredibly, Thessaly was the home of both the centaur and Achilles - which rather takes the edge
off my business card's boast that I live just 67 miles from the home of Rutherford B. Hayes and a mere 53 miles from the grave of Warren G. Harding.  As if that wasn't enough, Thessaly also just happens to be the site of Mt. Olympus, Home of the Gods.  Somehow the fact that I'm less than 36 miles from the highest point in Ohio has lost all its luster.

On the other hand, Mt. Olympus is not exactly what you might think of when you think of the Home of the Gods.  Have you ever seen a photo?  Click  here for two shots of its rather ragged appearance - as well as the fact that it tops out at less than 10,000 feet.  FYI:  There are more than 90 mountains on this planet that are at least twice as high, including Mt. Pissis (*giggle* *snort*) in Argentina.  Travel agencies tell me that you can actually hike to the top of Mt. Olympus and back again in a day as part of an affordable vacation package the whole family will enjoy.  "Ancient people were not mountaineers," my Encyclopedia Britannica sniffs in an unconvincing attempt to explain Mt. Olympus's one-time mystique.  Personally, I think the Gods would rather while away their days in a cheap Vegas motel than be caught dead in such a sorry excuse for heaven.  After all, even the cheapest motels now offer HBO.    

Thessaly has an ace up its sleeve, however, which more than wins the pot Mt. Olympus almost lost it.

I'm talking about Pharsalus.

About 20 miles northwest of Platanos, Pharsalus is where Julius Caesar met Pompey in battle on August 9, 48 BCE.  (That's June 6, 48 BCE to us Julian calendar types.)  Although Caesar had only 22,000 men compared to Pompey's 45,000, Caesar whipped Pompey's ass by having his men use their pila as stabbing spears rather than as javelins.  Perhaps a third of Pompey's men fell dead; Pompey never recovered, leaving Caesar free to become Cleopatra's lover, the title character of a Shakespeare play, and someone worthy of being portrayed on film by Rex Harrison in his pre-Doctor Doolittle days.

There's more I could say about the wonders and majesty of Thessaly - much, MUCH more - but... it's the 482nd anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and... and I still can't believe he's really gone.

If you'll excuse me, I need to go catch up on my grieving before retiring for the night.

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           (©Now by Dan Birtcher using his pila as a typing stylus)