Friday, June 22, 2007

Careful What You Ask For...

I'm in France for a conference. This time in Provence, in a town called Bandol. The hotel is not near the airport and requires a drive through the picturesque French country side. Before leaving for France, I had a discussion with one of my colleagues about getting to Bandol. He's been here before and said that it's a nice area but if I'm getting there after a 20 hour trip, landing at night and then driving an hour or two to get to the hotel, I might want to get a hotel in Marseilles and drive the following day or at least get a GPS. I said the GPS option sound good - I've never tried that. (Thanks Ravi!)

The shuttle driver taking me to San Francisco aiport was using a GPS. I looked at how it did the cool "3D" driving instructions and liked it. Fast-forward 20 something hours later to Marseilles, France. I get to the Avis office to pick up my car. It's getting dark outside, raining a little bit and I'm pretty tired from the trip. I decide to ask if they have a GPS system. Remembering "A Good Year" I also ask if it speaks English. For the next 30 minutes, the two Avis reps try to set up the GPS to point to the hotel I'm going to. Eventually we find out that the name is not quite as in the reservation. It's "La Fregate" and not "Dolce Fregate". But the directions seem to match the ones the hotel provided and so I'm all set.

TURN AROUND, THEN BEAR RIGHT, says the GPS in a feminine, British voice. I like it. It's a cool accent and they chose a sexy voice.

I take a few minutes to adjust to the stick shift. It's been a few years since I've driven one and I need to wake up my Clutch leg and remind it that it has a job to do during the drive. I then navigate the French signs for how to leave the parking lot and BEAR RIGHT on the road.

AFTER (slight pause) 400 YARDS (slight pause) TURN RIGHT

Yards, huh? If I remember correctly, a yard is close to a meter. I keep track of the map on the GPS screen and take the right turn.

AFTER (slight pause) 300 YARDS (slight pause) BEAR LEFT

I drive some 290 yards and the GPS again goes BEAR LEFT.

There are lots of bears in France. I bear left and merge onto the highway going to Marseilles. The roads are great, the Sun has already set and the sky is mostly dark. It's a good thing I took the GPS. I don't know if I'd have found all the right turns without it.

Getting into Marseilles, I hit the first snag. There are a number of long tunnels going underground that I have to pass. I enter the first one and watch the GPS screen. For the first 30 meters or so it's fine, then suddenly the route colors go out and we have a B&W picture. GPS devices can't receive the satellites while underground. My GPS still shows progress though and I wonder whether it has some kind of dead reckoning mechanism like submarines use to figure out where they are. Dead reckoning is a fancy technical term for "we're guessing where we are".


The GPS is still in dead reckoning mode but it's assuming I've moved. The only problem is I'm already at the end of the tunnel on the right-hand side and bearing-left would require cutting across three lines of traffic and solid divider lines in less than 10 meters before the lanes split irretrievably. I miss it.


The GPS is very resilient. It readjusts the route based on my current location. Of course I hear the silent "STUPID DRIVER" at the end of the sentence. I get back on track and enter a longer tunnel. This time I'm smarter. I slow down towards the end of the tunnel until the instructions are ready again. The GPS doesn't say it but I'm supposed to PAY THE TOLL.

I'm now on the longer stretch of the route. For the next 15-20km I can drive without any instructions. I'm not sure why the GPS gives me instructions in yards when the overall trip is measured in kilometers. Weird.

20km later it starts up again. TAKE NEXT EXIT. BEAR RIGHT. LEFT TURN ACROSS THE ROUNDABOUT. GO STRAIGHT. The bossy little %@#$. It doesn't matter where I want to go. Only it counts. It's the one calling the shots. I'm so pissed off. oooooooooooooof.

It does, however, get me through the village of Saint Cyr Sur Mer which I'd never have been able to do myself. Too many small turns and residential roads without any signs. We finally get to Route Bandol, almost to the final destination. We start making turns into roads that have no names, or at least I can't find them. I'm sure I'm driving through gorgeous French countryside but it's too dark. It's a very picturesque dark though. We're very close. I make a turn onto what feels like a lower quality road. I can't see it that well but it has the texture of concrete that has been patched one too many times. There's nothing around me and it feels a bit deserted.


It's not grammatically correct English but it certainly makes me happy. I start looking for signs of the hotel. There's no light around, only the broken down road and the trees. I drive slowly through these 400 yards. I think I passed a car that was "parking" back there. I keep going. The GPS finally chimes:


And I look around. There's nothing but trees. I'm on a dirt road with a shut manual gate ahead of me. Only night owls are awake in the forest. It's certainly not the Dolce Fregate. But I've ARRIVED AT MY DESTINATION. That's so great. Just great.

I turn around and start climbing back out, hoping I'd be able to reverse engineer the path I've traveled. Since I was following the GPS I wasn't paying too much attention. The GPS keeps saying "TURN AROUND AND BEAR LEFT" in its feminine British accent. I keep replying "SHUT UP" in American.

Turns out I was pretty close. I was on the correct road before I started all these twists and turns. The GPS took me, as instructed, to the La Fregate camping ground.

Careful what you ask for...

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