Bringing maps to life

July 2023
Ben Shragge

Before there was Google Maps, there were maps. No, not the Maps app on the iPhone, but physical maps of places.

As a kid, I was fascinated by maps. I collected my dad’s road maps, when they were still a thing, and pored over my children’s atlas until the pages fell out. By Grade 4, I could name most of the world’s capitals, with my favourite being Brasilia, Brazil’s planned city in the tropics. Through sheer overuse, both the spine and cover came off of my atlas, but never has a book been so lovingly destroyed. A globe, too, took pride of place on my nightstand, transfixing me with utopian-sounding place names like Greenland. 

But as the saying goes, “the map is not the territory.” Greenland isn’t green, and looking at representations of places is no substitute for hitting the road. My curiosity about the world was tempered by too much attachment to the comforts of home. I went to university nearby, in southern Ontario, and neglected opportunities to study or roam abroad. I kept the old globe in my bedroom while living, studying, and working in the horseshoe-shaped coast of the westernmost tip of the smallest great lake.

Toronto has been nicknamed the “Centre of the Universe” for how its residents see themselves in relation to the rest of Canada. Though I grew up in Hamilton, its doomed rival, I absorbed the same sentiment. Other Canadian big cities were too distant, while the United States border, though only an hour away, sealed off that land of opportunity. I tried to make a go of it in Hamilton, but the professional and romantic options were limited. It was less that I imagined myself moving to Toronto, and more that I couldn’t imagine moving anywhere else.

Travel widens your perspective. Your idea of the “Centre of the Universe” shifts when a Spaniard wonders where you’re from, then follows up by asking if Ontario is the French-speaking part of Canada. You start to picture yourself living in other places, because you’ve actually experienced what life is like in other places. As my travel evolved over my twenties—from traveling with a parent, to traveling on a group trip, to traveling with a friend, to traveling alone—so did my outlook on myself and on where I was capable of going in life. After my dad died, in particular, I felt the urgent need to become more independent, which travel embodied and fulfilled. 

If I could travel alone, I could also move somewhere alone, without a network of friends or family. I’d been to Boston on business while working for a Canadian company. By researching work visas and speaking with open-minded employers, I discovered that borders were not so insurmountable after all. So, when I was looking for a new job, I widened my filters to include not just the Greater Toronto Area, but all of Canada and Boston, too. 

I soon discovered that, in my industry, there were more job postings in Boston than in all of Canada. Although I almost moved to British Columbia, Boston’s density of opportunities convinced me to accept a job offer in the United States. Worst case scenario, it would be an adventure and a chance to gain more life and work experience. After all, if I ended up moving back, employers in the “Centre of the Universe” would be more impressed by a stint in a big American city than they were by my Hamilton address.

But beyond the reasons I accepted a job offer in the United States, there was the widened perspective that allowed me to seek out such opportunities in the first place. I had felt the isolation and anxiety of being alone in a new country before, and had overcome those emotions to experience openness and wonder instead. I could no longer be overly attached to the comforts of home because that home was no longer there. Mortality struck, the house I grew up in was sold, and family and friends evolved in their separate ways.

Now I have a new home of my own in the greater Boston area, somewhere I barely thought of visiting, and never imagined living, when I was younger. How I ended up here, of all places, has a lot to do with chance and opportunity. But it’s also intimately connected with my childhood love of maps (including the globe that still sits on my nightstand) and my belated drive to experience the places they represent. In 2019, I finally made it to Brazil, and someday I hope to visit Greenland, too.

Ben Shragge is the HJN’s digital editor. He lives in Boston with his wife and daughter.