Doctor, dear doctor, help me for I’m a graphomaniac. Yes doctor, I love paper. I adore the smell of the thing, the muffled noise of a pencil running on a smooth sheet. In a nutshell, doctor, I love writing. I feel the need, no the urge, to put my thoughts on paper. Doctor, I even have a favourite pen (Uni-ball broad black, made by Mitsubishi in Japan, and to think I was sure they only made cars). I’ve also got a favourite pencil (Staedler Norris HB2). I own two laptops, I can get OneNote on my mobile: yet, I can’t do without pen and paper. I sketch my presentations and plans on a Waitrose Essentials pad, before I commit them to the eternity of PowerPoint or MS Project. It’s bad, I know.
Actually, doctor, do me a favour. Don’t help me. I’m perfectly fine as it is, going through a pad every quarter, sharpening my pencils and losing rubber erasers at every corner. In facts, now that we’re friends, doc – mind if I call you doc? – why don’t you ditch that iPad of yours and get a notepad? Notepad and fountain pen doc, they’ll give you a certain je ne sais quoi. People love it, I’m told.
I plunged into graphomania in my early teens, thanks to two, unrelated, events that happened one summer. Must’ve been 1995, or 1996. Who knows. Enter event one: a book, which I think I pinched from my brother, about the Vietnam war, the title long forgotten. A passage mentioned how the NVA soldiers all loved writing, and carried small booklets, normally bound in red cloth, or oilskin, to which they confided dreams, stories, letters and poems. Whilst the concept of poetry was lost on me – perhaps I’m too prosaic to appreciate it – the idea of having a personal notebook was something I could relate to.
Event two happened the following year, and was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One specific scene of that film captured my imagination, and it wasn’t Elsa’s death, or the adventurous chases in the Venetian dungeons: it was, of all things, Sean Connery’s notebook. See, Connery, who played Indy’s father, had a notebook, a black thing held close by an elastic, bulging with flying papers, covered in notes, yellowed by time, filled with exquisite drawings and containing God knows how much wisdom. Ah, to have something like that in my pocket!
Notebook, in Italian, is taccuino, to be pronounced with a hard c, as if it was a k, and I became hell-bent on possessing one. The price was about 10,000 Lira and let me tell you that, when you’re eleven, that’s some serious dough, especially if your only income is granted by squirrelling away the loose change off a 2,000 Lira ice cream cone. Still, one day, having gathered the necessary funds, I marched to the bookstore of the village where we lived at the time, appropriately named Livres et Musique. Back then there was only one choice, or so it seemed to me. It was a rather serious black taccuino, ruled or plain, its angles dull and a folding pocket for loose papers. The Moleskine.
In the intervening twenty years things changed – price, for starters, or a shift in preference for the soft-cover plain version – but the equation taccuino=Moleskine always held true, at least for me. Each and every one would have its pages numbered with a sharp pencil, like Chatwin suggested (and I don’t even like the guy). With time, though, the purpose of a taccuino evolved. What set out to be a recording of impressions and notes, to be jotted down quickly on the road, lest I forgot them, morphed in the repository of the first draft of all my blog posts. Talk about Lean processes.
Then, roughly two years ago, the idea. Why couldn’t I use a Moleskine to write down some notes on what was useful, interesting or good to eat? After all, I carried the thing in the back pocket of my trousers anyway. It followed that, in order to find all this treasure, I needed a map where, unlike what Indy said, X always marked the spot.
I’m not very good at drawing. I suppose I lack the basics, a good understanding of prospective: whatever it is, I know that whatever I’ll draw will be asymmetric, too baroque on one side and barren on the other. Caravaggio would definitely headbutt me, or worse. Still, the idea of drawing my own maps, of forging my personal guide, was too good to pass on.
Faithful to the old adage “Don’t run before you can walk”, my first attempt was comically simple. A one line, describing the coast of South-West Sri Lanka, and another to define our itinerary. Then a step too far, a map of Nuwara Eliya that I found mildly pleasing but utterly useless at navigating through the valley.
I hastily returned to the very basics, with a simple sketch of our journey through the Pamirs.
Uzbekistan was a challenge. How to depict the riot of roads, alleys and catwalks that made the centre of Samarkand, Bukhara or Tashkent? Draw a grid, I told myself.Draw a grid, use a pencil, sharpen it often and focus on what’s important. But for a few wrong turns, it worked well.
Beirut was next. Here precision was fundamental, especially in Hamra. Roads had no names, or if they had they were known with others. Nicknames, nom-de-guerreor prominent buildings. To hell with proportions, what mattered here was the number of junctions, of roads, so not to miss our hotel at night.
And so here we are today. New maps are ready for use, a lot more than ever before. Some are utilitarian, sketches with the same beauty of a skip filled with old furniture; other are more aesthetically pleasing; will their artistic flair match their usefulness, come September? I guess that only time will tell.
This post is dedicated to Magdi. After all, it was your idea.