On Plato Street: Memory, Cartesian Knowledge and Spatial Cognition

In the town where I lived the first years of my life, the world was no more that three blocks long and three blocks wide. You could see some of its boundaries from our house, which stood at a corner, a towering mountain at the end of one of the two streets, a tall hedge with fig trees and a ruined timber cottage at the other. Places nearby gave it mystery and depth expanding the sense of its physical dimensions; the long sea coast with its warm summer winds, the abandoned railway line, the trickling water creek, the houses of my two aunts, one with its goldfish pond and palm trees, the other with a cascade of rooms and terraces  (all jumbled together in my child’s mind) that I still cannot connect or put dimensions on today.

But every route seemed to begin from and return to this three-by-three block world, that contained everything inside it with me at its centre.  Halfway between our house and the coast stood a small white church. My grandmother used to take me there during Easter week. We approached it through the main avenue of eucalyptus trees that linked the Frankish castle at one end of the town with the sea-port at the other passing outside her house along the way. It was a solitary church, invisible from our house in the middle of what looked to me like pastoral land. It was half pastoral, half industrial, my father recently said when I brought up the subject. Built at the beginning of the twentieth century, the little church was a votive offering to commemorate the night where the factory that previously stood on that land was saved from fire. For those Easter ceremonies the church was so packed inside, it was a miracle the heavily laden candle stands never tipped over setting it alight. If I were to draw a map of my small three-by-three block world, it would not be easily recognised as a conventional representation with everything joined up. I would picture it full of gaps and empty spaces, a patchwork of invisible boundaries and unconnected streets rather than a conventional gridiron town.

The mysteries of childhood can now be re-imagined through Google Earth and multiple locational devices. Transported by way of  ‘street view’, I recently took myself to Platonos (Plato) Street, the epicentre of my childhood memories, games and travels . Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, did not mean anything to me back then, but thinking of this now, it is rather a meaningful coincidence that he gave his name to Sophia’s world, my three-by-three block world. This was where I first learned to point to things with their name, no matter how different they looked when they cast their long cool evening shadows on the parched walls than what they were in bright sunlight.

From that first satellite image the town seemed not much wider than I had previously thought; the world seemed to end, and still ends, not far beyond my three-by-three block world, a short distance from Platonos Street and Kanari corner. The digital rectilinear grid stretched from north to south. Street view parachuted  me towards the ground, and there I was next to our house.

It still stands as I remembered it along with three other houses on the left and another across the street all largely unchanged in all these years. But someone has filled in the patio with the orange trees which has now been blocked off by a shop on one side. There I lived amongst gossip and lullabies and memories from other worlds that my mother and grandmother recreated through songs and winged words.

My father, a topographer, frequently travelled, in my mind mapping unknown territories that stretched far away; farmlands, swamps, rivers, Venetian castles and rugged coastlines. In summer nights he used to carry me on his shoulders and I marvelled at the huge moonlight shadow we formed as we walked back from my aunt’s labyrinthine house. 

Zooming in and out I approached our house from both streets, absorbing every detail, the doorway, the verandas, the steps the railing in the balconies, the window shutters, the height of the pavement, the distance of the windows from the ground, all of which seem to have shrunk in the meantime. I measured my steps, charting the distance between our door and the entrance to the shop on the ground floor, the spot where I sat waiting for the ice cream man who used to wheel his ice-cream tricycle around the town. My memories were now digitally ‘enhanced’ by that unusual combination of Google Earth reality and slippery recollections of childhood. In vain I tried to get a view of the west-facing veranda, to see the world as I would have seen it from the balcony, a theatre box overlooking the scenography of streets, courtyards and gardens. This was a scenography of hide and seek, of witches and wizards with broom sticks, of boys and tomboys kicking stones and climbing the tall trees. The more I saw of the fragments it gave me access to, the more Google Earth became an accomplice to the imagination. Memories flooded back but not complete, so many unremembered sides, the neighing of horses, the smell of stale wine, the jars of olives, the scent of ripe peaches and melons.

As a Google Earth flaneur, I ventured to explore the other places and half remembered patches that filled in my three-by-three block world or linked to the territory beyond. The house with the fishpond remains intact with a more recent generation of gold fish. My other aunt’s house is also there, though now adorned with graffiti, a garden abandoned to the weeds and broken windows, a testament to the difficult times. In spite of a clear exterior view, like this ruin, my memory of its interior is still disjointed, broken into many rooms and levels. Some things will never link and we will remain lost in their fragments. But then in my block-by-block travels I discovered that I can see other connections. Surprisingly a straight route along Plato Street from our house led to that small white church. The street is no longer broken down by a hedge, but stretches away through that pastoral-industrial land bending around the church to resume its straight course to the seaside. So if I had drawn a straight line on a map it would have linked our house with the church which back then stood somewhere in a nebulous ground.

‘A straight line from our house leads down to that church’ I told my father excitedly later in the week. By now my father had lost entirely his sight in one eye and nearly half in the other. Although a topographer, he was oblivious to the treasure trove revealed by Google Earth. Like me back then he could not walk more than three blocks away, and like an ancient ruin was largely living in the shadows. Showing no surprise he exclaimed ‘Oh, I did that plan, I was commissioned to produce a plan, fill it with square blocks, price the plots and drew the street so as to bend around the church and continue on the other side’. So he had produced the plan that squared up and divided that unfamiliar territory expanding what was then my three-by-three block ground. He had established coordinates locating this land in the world and connecting it to its neighbours in a rational way.

Temporally the two events, my current discovery and his plan, which he drafted back then when things did not yet link, were as unconnected as the church and our house. Whether labyrinthine or ordered by grids the world was suddenly shrinking back again to Plato Street and our house, where mysterious and imaginative understanding was being overlaid with Cartesian knowledge.

My memories had been broken and patched and broken and patched again by a spatio-temporal cartography and geography beyond simple -comprehension. The only non-paradoxical thing I could extract from my refashioned recollections was a picture of the house, and here it is, a gate to the past, the infinite space-time, aligning and misaligning the geo-referenced mind.

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