Imagining Places You’ve Never Been

Circa 1630, a Dutchman named Wilem Blaeu faced a not uncommon challenge for his time and trade: he was a mapmaker, and his clients, demanding maps of the New World.  So Baleu did what he could – he created detailed maps of the known areas, mostly around the coasts. But when it came time to draw the maps just a little way inland, all credible knowledge ceased. It was terra incognita, and one of the largest areas of the unknown left in the world at that time.

When mapmakers of that time encountered a blank spot, they had a couple of options. Often they inserted a cartouche. It’s a word with a number of meanings, for instance it can be a piece of paper containing a charge inserted into a pistol. The rolling of that paper may be how the word also came to refer to an ornamental scroll (rolled on the sides), which you might find carved into marble on an Ionic column.  In this case, a cartouche is a map’s label, bearing the map’s title or information about its maker.

On this world map, Blaeu used the space for something a little more jazzy: a one-sentence history of how the New World was discovered by Christopher Columbus, encapsulated with intricate scrollwork and laurels, further embellished with what I presume were his idea of Native Americans. One seems to be wearing a grass skirt.

If you don’t know what’s there, at least make it look pretty.

I’ve been thinking of this today because I’m about to set off for my own personal terra incognita: Marrakech, Morocco, a place I’ve never been.

I’ve got a few guidebooks, but I always find them hard to read before I arrive in a destination —  for whatever reason they just don’t compute for me until I’m actually on the ground. So the picture in my mind of any place I’ve yet to visit is like is like Wilem Blaeu’s portrayal of the American Midwest — it’s basically blank, with whatever facts and pretty images I can super impose on the blankness.

Imagination always precedes exploration, and imagination can be so peculiar.

When I’m imagining a place I’ve yet to visit, my mind tends to conjure up the name of the place rendered in those big block letters that you’d see on a vintage Route 66 postcard. Those postcards usually had drawings of the place inside the letters, and so do mine.  For Morocco, inside the letter M, there’s the face of a classmate of mine from elementary school who was from that country originally. I can’t remember her name, or anything else about her. Inside the R there is a gleaming copper tagine pot, and inside one of the Cs, there are preserved lemons. Scattered throughout are pieces of décor from the last Moroccan restaurant I ate at — Kasbah, in Berlin.

Kasbah, Moroccan Resaurant in Berlin

When I envision these postcards, I am usually somewhere inside the third or fourth letter wearing a big floppy hat.  Now, I have never owned a big floppy hat, so I’m not exactly sure where that image comes from, but I do have a theory about why my mind uses the vintage Route 66 template: I would have been a young teenager when the Route 66 nostalgia/preservation movement started, so I must have received more than a few of those vintage-style Route 66 postcards from friends who were on family trips out west.

On a map, a cartouche doesn’t just cover over a blank spot, it fills it with whatever’s known, even if it’s just the mapmaker’s name. Your mind probably doesn’t use a Route 66 postcard as a template for imagining places before you visit – you have your own unique way of knitting up the images you have about a place, from your own personal experiences and fantasies. You have your own style of a cartouche.

There are two things that I like the best about a cartouche, either on a map or in the mind: first, it’s accurate: there’s no place in the world that we have no preconceptions about, leaving an entirely blank spot on the map would be less accurate than filling it up fancifully.   And second, I like that a cartouche is provisional, its place is just temporary.  It can be replaced with better information when the map is re-drawn.

Part II: Imagining Places After You Travel


  1. Darrin July 14, 2010
  2. Alison Wellner July 15, 2010
  3. pam July 16, 2010
  4. Alison Wellner July 19, 2010
  5. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales July 20, 2010

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