Portraits serve two functions: one, as introduction, the other, commemoration. Portraits are an introduction to someone you have never met—perhaps a princess you are interested in marrying (or, at least, your parents and the GDP of your kingdom are invested in you marrying), a glimpse of who and what the person is about, looks like, and may be like.
Portraits also serve as memories—the people you were with, what they look like, who you were then, how your faces were shaped when you were twenty.
I have been in love with Google Maps from the first moment I saw my own neighborhood through its eyes. In the first, low-res images of Google Maps Beta, the shape of the woods behind my house, the boundaries of the Nature Preserve across the roadway. I saw my world, experienced in landmarks of stumps, fallen trees, dirt paths forking away from birch groves and algae-slicked ponds, in chartable shapes, communicable geometries.
Beyond curiosity searches, I rarely used Google Maps until I moved to New York City. Then, I began my dumb-phone-in-the-city routine, which meant Google Mapping my destination before I left the office, either printing out the directions or, more likely jotting them down on a scrap of paper or a bookmark, and holding onto this precious sequence of left right left, a jumbled list of street names, and an address, hopeful I could make it. Without an iPhone, I learned how to navigate the Manhattan grid with ease. Brooklyn or farther afield posed a greater challenge, but I was always up for it.
Even in the midst of more mundane searches, I remember discovering the journeys Google Maps could bring me on. I remember Google Mapping Ireland to understand the boy who lived there, or the blurred nexus of inner-city Kolkata. Three years ago, Google Maps had barely charted it. And now, you can zoom in on AJC Bose Road as easily as Broadway.
In our global quarantine, Google Maps has become my quick fix when I get the travel bug. I pull up images of King George Island off the southern tip of Chile and weep in wonder at the molded images of dark, ice-capped sea and the roughly rendered remote island archipelago.
I examine the Eastern half of Turkey, and note Diyarbakir’s tantalizing proximity to Mosul and Aleppo. To think, in more peaceful times, that I could have driven an hour or so and been able to touch Aleppo with my own hands. In the novel I read an entire morning on a sunny bench in Central Park, I read about refugees crossing the border from Syrai to Turkey, and I shudder at how close I was. I imagine driving to Mosul—places I read about but know that geopolitical catastrophes will most likely ever prevent me from seeing for myself. I stare at these lost cities, living in the ache of feeling how close I had been, and yet still impossibly far.
Google Maps is most fun, I think, when you know a bit of a region, you know someone as a passing acquaintance, and then you discover a second layer to them, you uncover a whole other dimension in them. Knowing what Diyarbakir was, I can better imagine Mosul. I imagine the rivers of the Fertile Crescent carving out some agrabile viability, a respite from the interminable heat. I imagine the large blocks of granite. I remember the bombed-out homes near the Christian Church in Diyarbakir. Global conflicts are hard to clean up.
I run my cursor over Iceland’s Eastern regions. I think of what a small section of a country we saw, which felt quite large at the time. I think of how much more there is to see there, so many glaciers, volcanic peaks, and foxes unexplored. I think of how close we were to West Fjordlands where the rare polar bear floats ashore from Greenland. I remember how small puffins look when we saw them.
Looking at Google Maps, I am always struck by how little I know about something I know. I wonder at how much I have seen and how much more there is to see.