I’ve been on vacation this week in Florida, where we booked a suite at a time-share resort that came with one of those intensive seminars where salespeople aggressively try to get you to purchase a stake in the operation.
As the promised two-hour session crept closer to three, a manager type came out to try and sweeten the deal for us. After he introduced himself, he asked us where we were from, which led to the following conversation:
Salesguy: Oh, Michigan! (He held up his hand with his palm facing us.) That’s where everybody always holds up their hand to show where they’re from.
Salesguy: Does it really look like a glove? I’ve never …
Me, perplexed: Uh … yeah. Look at the map. It’s outlined by lakes.
Salesguy: Really? I’ve never looked. I’m from New Hampshire, so …
Me: You’ve got a big map on the wall over there, go take a look.
Honestly, WTF? He may have been from New Hampshire, but he lives in Florida now — another of the handful of states whose contours are mostly defined by water and thus, easily identifiable. Could he point out his adopted state on a map?
It would be overly generalizing to say that easterners are provincial and geographically illiterate, but unfortunately that’s been my experience while visiting and living on the eastern seaboard. When I was young, my family used to visit relatives in Boston, and I remember my mother’s incredulity at the responses she got at dinner parties when she told fully grown adults where we were from.
“Oh, Michigan,” I remember one story going. “Is that near Colorado?” Or another: “How do you survive the winters there?” as if we were a roadless, igloo-dotted, wolf-bitten frontier.
Look, I’m not a geography Nazi. I can understand someone confusing, say, Arizona and New Mexico, or (especially) Wyoming and Colorado. But I find geography fascinating. I can easily get lost in a good map, and the stories of how state and national borders are formed and change are intertwined with history itself.
Educational shortcomings is one thing, but geographical ignorance to me signals a fundamental lack of curiosity about the world around us.
If you can’t even pick out Michigan, or Florida or Alaska or Hawaii, or the boot of Italy, then we probably can’t be friends. Sorry.