However much one ponders over a map, you never quite get to grips with what a place is really like. Our mental maps are informed by a few cartographic essentials (where? how big? close to?). But they need some other nourishment too. Prose that nicely depicts the spirit of a landscape and evokes a sense of place. And, better still, the impressions gained by actually visiting the place.
Belarus was for years a blank space on our mental map of Europe. Then we went there and caught the flavour of the country. Felt that first flash of surprise on stepping off the train and wandering through foreign streets.
Suddenly there were some real places in Belarus. Earlier this year we penned a few pages about a small provincial town in the country (see hidden europe 14 in May 2007). Perhaps you still see the crumbling synagogue in Grodno in your mind's eye, watch the kids as they play on that grassy bank that runs down from the synagogue to the river. With Lenin on his plinth, and a nice dash of retro-punk colour in the town square, Grodno perhaps acquired the status of somewhere you might even like - or somewhere you could easily dislike.