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  • Edin Suljic

The Maps of Life

My story begins where the story of every man in my position would begin. It is the story of all men who have navigated through life without a map, or perhaps with only the fragments of a map. I am also at that point in life where it could be said of any man in the same position, whose life could be summarized in a few words: what a waste of a good man. There could be many reasons why some men navigate through life without a map. And when a man is cut off from the process of learning about maps, for whatever reason, this is where the decline and wastage of man begins. There are many kinds of maps. Physical maps, as well as maps of mind, maps of learning and maps of social behaviour. And then there are maps of secrets. And then there are mapmakers. Maps themselves evolve and change. For this to happen the continual use of maps is vital. Maps by definition should provide safe passage, but the paradox of improving the maps lies in occasionally veering off the beaten track. That is usually the task of skilled and schooled map navigators, but it should also be said that it sometimes comes out of accident or necessity. For those who navigate through life without maps or the skills to understand maps there are hardly any safe passages. They are, of course, mapmakers, most of the time out of necessity, sometimes out of curiosity, but those maps are hardly ever of any use to anyone else and bear a very little resemblance to established maps of any kind. Those maps are almost always convoluted, go back on themselves or offer no way out or progression. But then, do the maps of the established world offer a way out; or do they just offer a way from one point to another, and crucially, do they show the way back to the starting point? If so, they seem to do it through their ways of improving and bettering. The skills to understand maps are passed on through education or by parents to children, but still, most people don’t ever learn all the skills. I have been drawn to maps all my life; collecting even torn maps or just fragments of a map. Fragments of a map are something magical or mythical, worth exploring, even if I end up keeping them indefinitely, in case a time of adventure might come. If it is true that all roads lead to Rome, then everyone must, at some point, find themselves in Rome as long as they keep traveling or at least walking. And so I did find myself in Rome. Although, strictly speaking, my journeying was to a small town in Lazio province, traveling through and spending a night in Rome in two consecutive weeks. I had two fragments of an old map of Rome to help me. And I intended to use them well. Here I must bring in modern times and Google Maps. I know. I use them. Sometimes. But I can’t have the same relationship and thrill with them like with physical maps. I used Google Maps to find a hotel in the vicinity of the train station from where I would be taking trains to Lazio and to Rome airport. I picked an hotel in the area which I knew about from the fragments of an old map of Rome I’d kept, with other various junk, for over a decade. Those fragments of a map of Rome were used as wrappers for soap bars I bought in Cambridge Massachusetts, whilst living there. And no matter how many soap bars I turned over, I couldn’t complete the whole map. But I managed to piece together two distinct parts of Rome. One of the fragments showed the railway station Trastevere and an area known as Ostiense, where the hotel is. So for my trip to Rome, I packed my two fragments of a map of Rome and a book of Keats’s poems. When to read Keats if not when traveling to Rome? The only book to take on this journey. Once I checked into the hotel and acquired an updated map of Rome, I began to compare it with the fragments of the old map of Rome that once served as soap wrappers. I was happy to see that everything was still there: Terme di Caracalla, Cimitero Protestanti, Monte Testaccio, but also a lot more. And from one fragment of my life to another, I arrived at a place where I always meant to be at some point of that (life) journey. And I certainly learned that Rome wasn’t built in a day. I also learned that there is a bit of Rome wherever we might be. And I discovered that there is certainly a bit of Roman in me. After all I was born and raised in one of the ex-Roman provinces. Rome is the world as we know it. Everything there means something, somewhere else. That somewhere else might be diluted or enhanced, but certainly with an imprint of Rome. On my second sojourn in Rome when looking for an affordable hotel I intentionally wanted it to be in the area shown in one of the fragments of my outdated map of Rome. Was this about fear of the unknown in an unfamiliar place and feeling safe only in the fragments of a map of the place that I am attempting to navigate? Or was this all about linking different fragments of my life, from Cambridge MA to my current life; the threads of memories of my own existence preserved in the segments of an outdated map? Either way I have linked the memories of myself in both places through my fondness for maps of all sorts. As it turns out the most affordable hotel was in the other fragment of the map of Rome in the vicinity of Rome Termini, also showing the area of Monte Quirinale and further north towards Monte Pincio. As if I was tasked to further explore this city using my own maps and the little knowledge of the place that I had acquired so far. Once I checked in at the hotel by Termini, I set off to explore unknown Rome, the part of it that lay between the two fragments of map that I owned. I wanted to end up in the safety of the area shown in the other fragment of my map and to have dinner in the same trattoria that I’d discovered there on my first trip. And so, from Termini towards Colosseo across Piazza della Republica (that my map showed as Piazza di Termini), down via Nazionale, passing by Palazzo delle Esposizioni. And then after Colosseo and Arco di Costantino over Circo Massimo into the safety of the area of Rome covered by the second fragment of map. There I could admire the Piazza di Porta St Paolo and the railway station (by the modern Metro station Piramide) that links Rome with the coastal town of Ostia, whose interior and mosaics somehow evoked the Grand Central Station of New York. Along this route I encountered thousands of Romans celebrating their modern day gladiators, the footballers of their team, Roma. They surrounded the Colloseo, moving on from Circo Massimo, where the central celebration took place, with flares in colorus of their team. And although there were plenty of giddy people and plenty of smashed bottles on the streets, there was nothing menacing in their celebrations. They were there for the joy of their city: a pageantry that has been happening on those very streets for thousands of years. Along Viale Aventino bars and restaurants were packed; whole families celebrating with beer or cola and pizza on this mild evening in late May when streets of Rome still smelled of honeysuckle and oleanders, but also of fireworks. By the time I arrived at the trattoria in the Ostiense area, I felt like I was able to navigate myself through this city. Even more like belonging there, as the staff recognized me from the first visit and offered me a table without a reservation. I felt happy in there, as I had found it without city guides and internet ratings. A type of place that offered food that I would gladly eat in any other city that I ever visited. And more so, because I found it within the fragment of map that I had. And so, what are the skills to understand the maps for? To piece one’s life together? To link the fragments of one’s own life? What difference would it make if I had a whole map of Rome to start with? True knowledge about the world and its secrets, as well as navigating those secrets, is in Rome. That is why I had to pay attention to every detail of the fragments of map I own. Even so, if all roads lead to Rome, one can’t just arrive there. One must be at the point in one’s life that enables them to get to Rome, with enough skills to navigate the world that is Rome. Probably no one can ever have the whole map of Rome on one’s own. No single person can have all the skills to navigate the world that is Rome. That knowledge is shared in fragments amongst many, and only then when a group of people find themselves together at one place, with all the fragments, only then can they safely navigate the world that is Rome. As for me, you guessed it right, I have fractions of maps of other places that I managed to acquire either from soap wrappings or from various other sources. These soap wrappings that show an unusual collection of coincidences. Two fragments of a map of London, one showing a part where I used to live before moving to Cambridge MA, and the other showing a part where I would eventually settle upon my return to London. Then there are fragments of a map of the world showing the UK, where I have lived for over 30 years now, and parts of France, Holland and Spain, still mostly showing places I have visited at some point in my life. The last trip happened this summer, to the very edge of a fragment of a map of France, to Languedoc. Then there are sailing maps of the coast of Portugal acquired from a junk shop that I might never use, and maps of the region where I was born that I never fully explored. Despite the years, more like decades, of recklessly throwing myself into various experiences of mapping my own destiny, it seems as if I always waited for a chain of coincidences to develop in order to go to some places, even more to conduct my whole life. There are other kinds of people who map their lives so precisely and seemingly of their own will. They even plan their holidays, then purchase the maps of their chosen destination and then take themselves there. But I don’t. And then there was that other time, in 1991, when I was both a map-reader and a mapmaker. I made a true map of destiny, journeying for three weeks through Europe, from inflamed Yugoslavia, all the way to England. I am a bit more cautious now. If I am more capable of reading maps than ever before, it doesn’t mean that I am able to navigate the world that maps (attempt to) show. Indeed, I am beginning to make the distinction between reading maps and the ability to navigate the world shown by them. I can orientate myself in Rome or find my way easily in New York or London, but I can’t easily change my job or connect with other people to help me with my career. So I have to wait for the right moment to move in the physical world as well as to connect on a social plane. Ah, maps of social skills, they go way back, before physical maps. There will always be someone on the road to point in the right direction, if approached in the right way, or asked nicely. So, I go out there and look for the next short story competition (whilst I wait for the story to come to me) or for the next advert for a creative art project, but it’s the people that I meet on that road that make something possible. And that’s all. There are maps of the world and there is the world itself. And that world belongs to the skilled navigators capable of seeing the world that is more then maps. Learning to navigate the complex world using maps, of any of the kinds mentioned, is not available to everyone, for whatever reason. Understanding the maps of one’s own life cannot be taught. There are no maps of one’s own life. But fragments of maps will always be there. They offer hope. They provide the possibility for each of us to find ourselves in those very same fragments. Knowing that there are fragments, leads to knowing that there is the whole. I do venture to places for which I have no maps of any sort. Most of the time I go there with the help of other people, and that’s safe. But to some places I go on my own and those are scariest places of them all. The beasts of fears are nothing in comparison with the beasts within oneself. * * * And Keates? What ways of understanding maps did he have in order to find himself in Rome? He certainly looked for the best possible guidance, but he was brave enough to keep exploring with whatever skills he had acquired at the time. At least, that’s how I see it. He had looked upon Shakespeare and Milton as his mentors. Their work was a map for him. Was he meant to find himself in Rome at the end of his life? Death being the end of everything, as far as we know. Is the pull of inevitable, invisible forces, that creates the events that are meant to happen? In that case, all one needs to navigate one’s own life is the ability to ask for the grace and guidance of the invisible forces, as if all is predetermined. In other words, or as Shakespeare might have hinted, the stage is set and the script is one’s own destiny. But still, is one a director as much as a player? Is one a mapmaker as well as a map-reader? A map of life is like a chart that no-one is able to see as a whole, when setting off. I didn’t stop by the Keates grave in Rome. I only stood for a long time at the gates of Cimetro Protestanti (the Protestant Cemetery). Copyright Edin Suljic 2022.

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