Two years ago, I started “publishing” written pieces for fun and no profit on bengrapevine.com. One year ago, I compiled all of the pieces I’d written in the previous 12 months and compiled them into a collection I pretentiously dubbed “Grapevine’s Atlas”, inaccurately hinting that I knew shit all about geography.
But once a ball is rolling, it can’t be stopped. I’m absolutely certain that’s a Newtonian law. It’s been a year since Grapevine’s Atlas: Volume I. Here’s Volume II, organized by date:
They’re Out to Get You (🇺🇲Washington, D.C., United States) — Remember the harmless bliss that was J.F.K. conspiracy theories? Our dads and uncles would disappear for hours at a time to pore over the evidence (or lack thereof) of two, three, or forty-two gunmen on the grassy knoll, and then emerge in the evening totally unchanged. Today’s conspiracy theories are more widespread and insidious, and they seem to gradually shape their believers into a mutated and grotesque afterimage of their former selves. “Truth” as an idea is outdated, and with the internet, whatever misinformation you hunger for is infinitely available. What’s up with that?
Gross National Happiness (🇧🇹Bhutan) — In a world where countries are predominantly ranked according to economic output and Gross Domestic Product, the government of Bhutan proposes a new way: a ranking system based on happiness. But valuing happiness and having it are two different dragons.
Cartographic Conquest (🇨🇷Isla Calero, Costa Rica) — In 2010, Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica. Google Maps told them to.
The Long Way to Madagascar (🇲🇬Madagascar) — Madagascar is one of the world’s largest and most well-known islands. And even though humans first evolved in nearby Africa, just a few hundred miles away, the island’s first settlers would travel thousands to eventually find their new home.
The True Heart of Darkness (🇨🇩Democratic Republic of the Congo) — If you’ve heard one colonialism story, you’ve heard them all; brutal conquest at the hands of dumb white dudes. We know British Colonialism, Spanish Colonialism, American Colonialism. But it’s Belgium, delving into the heart of Africa, who demonstrates some of the most brutal acts of conquest against a native population for the benefit of one of the dumbest rulers sat thousands of miles away.
The Grapevine: Bloodbath (🇸🇰Čachtice Castle, Slovakia) — Rumor says a bored Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Báthory, passed the time by bathing in the blood of her freshly-slain subjects. Did she?
Scars of the Soviet Union (🇦🇲🇦🇿🇬🇪🇲🇩🇷🇺🇺🇦Post-Soviet Conflict Zones) — When the Soviet Union shattered in the early 1990s, some edges stayed sharper than others.
Dinosaurs, Democrats, and the Black Vote (🇺🇲Black Belt, United States) — Look at any American election map from the past 50 years and you’ll see a pretty neat line across an otherwise-uniform deep south. What caused that, and what does it have to do with Black Americans, early colonialism, and ancient plankton?
The Polish Tango (🇵🇱Poland) — Between the beginning and end of World War II, Poland moves. Not, like, a little — half of the country gets up and shifts to the west. A story of Russian invasion, German invasion, Austrian invasion, and convenient hypocrisy at the end of one of humanity’s most devastating conflicts.
The Reinvention of Writing (🇺🇲Southern United States) — No one taught Sequoyah, a Cherokee soldier, to read. No one taught him to write. So he taught himself and the rest of his people, creating a unique sense of hope for a culture under intense assault.
The Grapevine: The Christmas Truce (🇧🇪Western Front, Belgium) — You know this one, right? Christmas, World War I — German and British soldiers take a break from all that killing for hot chocolate and Christmas carols. What led to the Christmas Truce, how did it go down, and why did it never, ever, happen again?
Keeping Up With the Chagossians (🇮🇴British Indian Ocean Territory, United Kingdom) — The Chagossian people native to the island of Diego Garcia had no intention of moving. The Americans had a different plan. Unfortunately, the island, in international eyes, belonged to the British. Nothing the sale of a few nukes can’t fix.
Florence, Y’all (🇺🇲Florence, Kentucky, United States) — There’s a water tower in Kentucky. “Florence Y’all”, it proudly beams. That’s weird, right?
JFK is not a Jelly Donut (🇩🇪West Berlin, Germany) — The cold war is at its acme. The Soviets build a wall around Berlin. President Kennedy announces “I am a Berliner” to raucous applause. So why are some folks so adamant he called himself a jelly donut?
Saddam Hussein’s Canadian Space Gun (🇧🇪Uccle, Belgium) — Gerald Bull has a dream: use a huge cannon to shoot a satellite into space. Space Guns, he believes, are the future. With rapidly-advancing rocket technology, the space and aeronautics community turns away from him. He needs a friend, and finds one in Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. A really big gun, you say?
How Egyptian Was Cleopatra? (🇪🇬Alexandria, Egypt) — White and light-skinned actresses keep getting cast to play Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen, much to the disappointment of advocates for a darker-skinned Pharaoh. Cleopatra’s secret? She wasn’t African. Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, a system of military divisionism, and a whole lotta incest lead us down a fun little path of understanding who Egypt’s last ruling pharaoh really was.
The Killcoaster (🇬🇧Royal College of Art, United Kingdom) — Euthanasia is controversial. It’s also painfully boring. What if we could rollercoaster ourselves to death?
Fire Underfoot (🇺🇲Centralia, Pennsylvania, United States / 🇹🇲Darwaza, Turkmenistan) — Not far beneath the streets of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a red-hot inferno rages, leaking smoke through the streets. Half the world away, in Turkmenistan, a gaping hole burns bright for fifty years. But why?
The Bosnian’s New Pyramids (🇧🇦Visočica hill, Bosnia and Herzegovina) — Egypt’s Great Pyramid, and the Pyramids of Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations are famous for their near-prehistoric craftsmanship and grandeur. “Amateurs”, scoffs Bosnia’s Indiana Jones.
Europe’s Last Woman-Free Theocracy (🇬🇷Mount Athos, Greece) — Catholicism’s Vatican City is the closest thing to a European Theocracy that most of us know. But while the Holy See still bars women from the priesthood, they can at least stand at Saint Peter’s basilica as the Pope kisses their children. Women interested in exploring Greece’s Monastic Republic of Mount Athos wish they could be so lucky.
Here’s this year’s pieces in map format:
Just like last year, we’re (royal we) stretching the definition of Atlas with some pieces. Conspiracy theories aren’t limited to the District of Columbia, but this year, that’s where they held their Coachella/insurrection, so it kinda works.
Last year, I took up space in the Grapevine’s Atlas entry to lament my failures on the topic of geographical diversity. I’d still like to explore a more diverse set of places and ideas than those found exclusively in North America and Europe. But I also kinda feel the novelty of my article writing has worn off — I don’t think as many people are reading as they once were. I want to focus on the stories that interest me, but I’m always down for ideas from others. That’s where stories like A Tale of Two States and Scars of the Soviet Union came from.
I post opinion pieces and half-baked political rants here on ben.bengrapevine.com. The Grapevine can now be listened to on Spotify.
More stories soon. Thanks for reading.
Grapevine’s Atlas, Complete: