Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It's Hard to Find on a Map

As we pedaled along the Schelde River from Temse toward Antwerp, our guide Rolf (who was familiar with Belgian roads but not its history) brought us to a stop in tiny Rupelmonde. We had just bumped over a cobblestone path leading into the town and were glad to stop and literally rest our butts.

Rolf noted that there was little of interest in this town except for a statue that dominated a square in front of an impressive old church. The statue featured a bearded Renaissance scholar holding some charts in his hand. We were too far away to read the plaque below the figure.

Mercator the Elder

Looking behind me, I spotted a second statue, much smaller and rudely dwarfed by an electrical repair truck that, incongruously, featured an American flag. The small statue bore a plate reading “Jonge Mercator.” It was easy to figure out what “jonge” meant—young. But “Mercator”? Perhaps this small town, which barely rated a place on a map of Flanders, was some kind of haven for mapmakers.

Jonge Mercator

Then Rolf solved the mystery by explaining that Rupelmonde was the birthplace of the famed cartographer Gerardus Mercator—the man who coined the term “atlas” for a book of maps and was one of the first to superimpose parallel lines of longitude on his maps to help sailors plot their courses across the seas. [How do I know all of this? Wikipedia, of course.] What he didn’t explain (or perhaps didn’t realize) was that 2012 was the 500th anniversary of Mercator’s birth in Rupelmonde, and that Belgium was celebrating that birth throughout the country. There was even a big Mercator map exhibit in one of the major museums in Brussels.  

Ironically, Rupelmonde didn’t seem caught up in the “Mercator madness” or had chosen to stay low-key about its most famous son. There were no banners, no posters, and surprisingly no souvenir stands. You can’t picture an American town (or even most European ones) acting this way. I later read that Rupelmonde had celebrated on March 4, Mercator’s birthdate, but that was nearly five months before, and the “furor” had obviously died down. We bikers would certainly have enjoyed celebrating with some birthday cake featuring Belgian chocolate!

Why am I going on so long about all of this? Mostly because I felt Mercator and his birthplace deserved more respect from our biking party, and I feel bad about the way we treated him. Of course, I’m just as annoyed by the way the town was treating the statue of the Jonge Mercator. And I want to apologize to both the young and the old Mercator. Sometimes Jewish males have to invent reasons to feel guilty.    

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