From fairly early in my career as an annoying child, my parents realised the way to stop me screaming was to go into every Little Chef we drove past and hand me a map. It would result in instant silence as my eyes whizzed along the A roads, through the large grey splodges of urban sprawl and on to tiny Leicestershire villages with faintly ridiculous names.
It still works today. Put a map in my hands and I turn into the sort of becalmed simpleton who’d list clapping and popping bubble wrap among his hobbies. I like seeing where places are in relation to each other, and find that every inspection throws up a new surprise. Did you know, for example, that Edinburgh is further west than Bristol?
I love looking at borders and weird geographical anomalies. I’ve never seen an exclave I’ve not wanted to visit at once, while illogical strips of land that seem to defy logic are guaranteed to engross me. That long, thin bit that sticks out of north-eastern Namibia to form a four-way border with Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana at the end? It’s brilliant. The wobbly line that suddenly goes straight on the border of New South Wales and Victoria in Australia? I stared at that for years until I realised the straight bit must start at the source of the Murray River.
This fascination with borders means I take a very childish approach to crossing them. I’ve no idea why, say, Andorra has a right to be a country while Yorkshire hasn’t. But if I’m in the north of Spain it’ll just sit there looking at me until I break and rush into the soul-crushing embrace of its many duty-free shops.
I’m the sort of person who — just because I can — will spend three hours in Lesotho, four in Liechtenstein and five hours in Johor Bahru, the Malaysian city across the causeway from Singapore.
This unfortunate habit reared its ugly head again while I was in Geneva recently. Spending five days in Geneva is an endurance test, and on the fourth day, I cracked. I looked at the evidence and decided it was feasible to walk to France. I snaffled a walking map from the tourist office and headed off towards a faceless dormitory town with the sole redeeming quality of not being in Switzerland.
While I love maps, I don’t love them enough to actually follow them. Irrespective of what they may say, I can always find a better way. Who needs a picturesque riverside trail when you can stroll in the wrong direction along a trunk road? Why amble in woods when you can see a nice water treatment works?
The real benefit to this approach is you can walk down lots of drives, thinking they’re footpaths. At the end of each one, you get to meet a terrified elderly lady who thinks you’ve come to burgle her house with merciless levels of violence.
Alas, borders aren’t always that arbitrary — they’re often placed logically along prominent geographical features, such as rivers. Or mountain ranges.
Walking around a small lake, I could see two forbidding Alps in front of me. If France was at the top of one of them, my mission was doomed. Alas, a map is useless if you don’t know where you are on it, so I resorted to the cheat’s method: Google Maps on my phone. Which told me exactly where I was: I’d crossed into France about 20 minutes ago.
Since the Schengen Agreement came in, many European border crossings have become similarly underwhelming affairs — no queues, no bribe-hungry guards, no passport stamps and virtually no indication you’re somewhere new. It’s sad.
Walking back into Switzerland, I passed the old customs hut. The windows were shut, no one was there. A once majestic scene of pettily bureaucratic glory had been reduced to nothing; the lines on my beloved map little more than a wispy memory.
There must be thousands of these huts across Europe, passed daily by hordes of motorists who’d quite like to be stopped and forced to hand over their passport. Someone should start buying them up and turning them into a geeky network of pubs — a target for map fetishists who’d want a beer in every one of them. And if they issued special stamps as proof, the baton of cartographical tradition would be passed on beautifully.
Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)