That Tiny Dot on the Map

As an American living abroad and teaching English, I often get asked where I’m from. This is an unusually tricky question to answer, and not necessarily because so many people suck at geography. Technically speaking, I hail from Maryville, Illinois, which is a mild-mannered suburban village of the type where it’s big local news when a Casey’s gas station comes to town. But if I say that, people (even fellow Americans) invariably ask, “Is that near Chicago?”

Nope. STL all the way.

Nope. STL all the way.

That’s why ever since my university days I’ve said I’m from St. Louis, of which Maryville is part of the suburban Metro-East area. My students in the Czech Republic would nod cluelessly until I drew a boxy map of the United States, highlighting New York City on one coast and Los Angeles on the other and then marking a big fat dot in the middle to represent my hometown.

The French grasp St. Louis as a pre-existing entity if you pronounce it like they do, though they picture it much further south than it actually is, typically somewhere in Louisiana. That’s when I suggest it’s located on the Mississippi river, only about five hours south of Chicago.

O la vache!” is the standard response. “Only five hours?”

Distance is perceived somewhat differently in Europe. In the Midwest, the average distance between cities is something like three hundred miles, which translates to about five hours on the interstate. By comparison, France, the largest country in Western Europe by area, would fit snugly inside of Texas. Though there is a well-maintained highway network, it is an inefficient tangle of cooked spaghetti. Journeys a fraction of the distance take double the time. And, the highways here aren’t free.

Texas France

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Since I came to Europe four-and-a-half years ago, I’ve subsequently experienced the reversal of the same problem: describing where I live to people in America. Despite the Czech Republic being wedged in between Germany, Austria, Poland, and Slovakia, I can’t recall the number of people who asked, “So that’s near Russia?” The shabby old Iron Curtain draws a long shade, I guess. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Likewise, now that I live in France, the ever-present question is: Do you live in Paris? No, I don’t, but it’s very nice there. In fact, the city I live in is called Angers. My brother, bless him, still pronounces it using English vowel sounds, as in, “Talking to that idiot really angers me.” Pronounced correctly, it sounds like Awn-zhay, and the city’s inhabitants are referred to as Angevins, which I admit doesn’t have the same verbal elegance as Parisian or Lyonnais may have.

Angers is located within the Pays de la Loire region and is the administrative seat of the Maine-et-Loire department. For non-French folks, what this means is it’s almost 200 miles southwest of Paris and about an hour-and-a-half from the Atlantic coast. The Loire Valley is one of those UNESCO World Heritage sites, spotted with hundreds of vineyards and châteaux.

The Loire Valley.

Angers itself is nestled between the confluence of the Maine and Loire rivers. The Maine runs through the middle of the city, where it passes by the Château d’Angers. This medieval fortress dominates the view of the riverfront. Built in the ninth century by the Counts of Anjou, it was a stronghold of the early Angevin empire and the royal House of Plantagenet. These days it’s a museum and is home to the so-called Apocalypse Tapestry, an enormous masterpiece of medieval French art. Truth be told, however, I have yet to see it in person. I’ve been either too cheap or too busy to drop by the castle to take a tour of the interior. Perhaps I’ll go next spring, when my parents will come from St. Louis to Europe for the first time.

All these places that I’ve lived have just been tiny dots on a map, a triangulation of latitude and longitude. To the uninitiated, these cities are like abstractions, a rough approximation of geographical and cultural knowledge applied to whatever. But St. Louis is not Chicago; Prague is not Moscow; Angers is not Paris. This isn’t a bad thing. They’re just different – different mentalities, architecture, cuisine, history, landscape, politics, economics, art, and culture. I’m just trying in my own minuscule way to peel back the layers on these places that I know and share them with you.


One comment

  1. Hey, how do you find Angers? I’m here until April, teaching English in three primary schools.

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