Monday, December 02, 2013

Quick, what's the capital of Latvia?

One of the effects of my job is to have enormously improved my geographical knowledge. In school I was hopeless at geography. Sister Norah, the principal of my school and our part-time geography and social studies teacher, despaired. I just didn't care.

I thought the entire world was made up, basically, of "the Island" and "the Mainland," and everything that was not on the Island was just not very important.

Except England, which is where we all came from, so it mattered.

And except the Chinese families who, obviously, came from China, but not for several generations. China existed in my interior geography, and I knew that it was more or less the opposite direction from England, and the families of a lot of the kids in my neighbourhood were from there, so it mattered too.

Oh, and there was America of course, but it wasn't very important, since none of them lived on the Island. (Obviously, if you lived on the Island, you'd be an Islander and not an American, even if you'd started out as one.) Mostly Americans were just the large and annoying people who came to Victoria every summer on the boat from Seattle and asked stupid questions like, "Is that where the queen lives?" Yeah. That's where the Queen of England lives. On the west coast of Canada.

I knew there was also a Rome - where the pope lived - because we were Catholic, and Africa, where they had lions, giraffes and stamps. And Pyramids, but I was a little hazy on how they worked in with the lions and giraffes and stamps.

Later I learned about the Second World War and that this had been started by Germany, and that it mostly involved Europe, and Germany was in the middle of that. I also instinctively figured out that England was not really "in Europe". Just sort of next to it. Watchfully.

In Victoria in the 70s there were, mostly, two kinds of people: English people and Chinese people. I knew theoretically about the existence of, oh, Greeks and Italians and Japanese and Scots and whatnot, but I don't think they made much inroads in my child-brain.

As soon as I started at St. Patrick's, I became much more conscious of French people, because they tried to make me learn their stupid, nonsensical language (tables have gender? Whut?). But I mostly dealt with that the most passive-aggressive way I could, by looking out the window and pretending not to hear anything the French teacher said. It didn't matter much, though, because we were on the West Coast and the nearest French-Canadians were nearly 3000 miles away, along with Pierre Trudeau whose idea it was to inflict it on us. As with most subjects in school I didn't like, I figured if I ignored it long enough it would go away by itself.

I knew about Japan, and even knew a little Japanese and could write a few words in it, but this was because my mother was studying it in university, in between her differential calculus and invertebrate zoology classes, which I think annoyed me even then.

But I still didn't know where France was, or care. It was the Mainland, and therefore irrelevant.

From this solid bedrock of geographical knowledge I understood that the world was a dangerous and hostile and uncivilised place and that sensible Islanders never went there.

For nearly 15 years now, I've been writing articles and briefs and all sorts of things about people around the world. The very first newsy writing I ever did for money was about East Timor. One of the best things about doing this for a living has been to make the rest of the world interesting and worth looking into. I have, believe it or not, actually found myself looking up the major imports and exports of small African countries. (South America remains a mist-shrouded enigma.)

Some time ago, in the course of conversation with my other worldly and cosmopolitan friends here, someone asked, "What's the capital of Latvia?" Without thinking I said, "Riga".

Bloody hell! When did I learn that? I had no idea.

It happened again today. I'm writing about Croatia and without having to look it up, I knew it was Zagreb.

If only Sister Norah had known.



Ingemar said...


I also said "Riga," instinctively.

(Also do not mistake Latvia for Lithuania; the latter's capital is Vilnius)

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Knew that one too.

Anonymous said...

Hilary, I expect you would eat the tiger. Instead of the other way around, I mean.


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Sorry, Andrew, lost me. Which tiger is this?