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We were celebrating our 10-year anniversary. What better way than to rent a car in a country for which we owned no maps and where we were at best casual speakers of the native language?
To keep things interesting, we even brought along our six-year-old, who’s a double major in the fields of sudden biological emergencies and loudly stating the obvious. He also boasts a minor in carsickness.
As one of his more recent statements of the obvious had been “Whoa! Mummy, that’s the closest we’ve ever come to crashing when you’ve been driving the car,” it was understood that my husband would be doing most of the driving.
At the car rental counter in Marseille, France, we were told that our car would have a GPS system (actually, a “jjjay-pay-ess” system, which sounded far more exciting). I resolved to set aside my usual disdain for GPS systems, given that it would save us a small fortune in area maps.
Even better, the authoritarian voice of the GPS would rid us of the usual interspousal exchanges – “This left? That can’t be right. Give me the map!” – that might disrupt our peaceful enjoyment of the giant lavender field that is Provence.
We found our car in the lot and, expectations high, switched on the device. My husband programmed it using the time-honoured method of stabbing impatiently at all the menu options and cursing. As a final touch, and with an absolute minimum of smugness, I deftly persuaded it to speak English, and we were off.
Several shortcomings of the system soon became apparent. For one thing, computers think in terms of distances while humans think in terms of landmarks. “In 40 metres turn left” is only a helpful instruction if you are some sort of distance savant. “Turn left before the Eiffel Tower” would certainly be an improvement.
Second, when you give someone directions they usually get to ask clarifying questions. The GPS steadfastly refused to answer queries of the what-the-hell-is-that-supposed-to-mean variety. Third, there are lots of toll roads in France – the GPS, being a local, might have thought to point that out to us before selecting the “Empty out your wallet, tourists!” route.
As the days passed we got used to La Jjjay-pay-ess, and even began to respect “her” views on most things. At times we mocked her (“Call that a veer?”), and occasionally we silenced her for insubordination (“No, I don’t want to do a U-turn. Go away!”). We ridiculed her smooth, sterile voice, suggesting better narrators for her irritating U-turn messages, like Yoda (“Hmm, do a U-Turn you will”) and Darth Vader (“I find your lack of faith disturbing. Do a U-Turn.”).
Perhaps the accumulation of these petty humiliations explains the the Great Betrayal she perpetrated on our journey to Nîmes.
Leaving the walled city of Carcassonne and heading for Nîmes, we forcibly removed the toll roads option from La Jjjay-pay-ess’s route-planning weaponry. She meekly complied, or so we thought, leading us on a digestion-reversing thrill ride over back roads that featured a ballet school’s complement of hairpins.
After a couple of hours we came to a roadblock staffed by two humourless gendarmes, who intoned the French equivalent of one of La Jjjay-pay-ess’s favourite phrases: “If possible, do a U-turn.” We were forced to retrace our steps entirely and take the usurious toll roads after all. If it had been possible for her to have smirked, I’m sure she would have.
We had programmed La Jjjay-pay-ess to take us to the Roman amphitheatre at Nîmes’s city centre, known as Les Arènes de Nîmes. When we reached the outskirts of the city she unexpectedly told us to make a left turn.
I was uneasy after the roadblock experience, but ignored my instincts and adopted the beatific smile I imagined the owner of a 100-per-cent reliable GPS system would wear. However, the more La Jjjay-pay-ess assured us we were nearing our destination, the more worried I became.
There was nothing at all redolent of ancient Rome in the suburb we were driving through; not so much as a pair of gladiator sandals in sight. As we took the final three turns of our journey, the wide highways and bustle of a big city were replaced by narrow roads and empty sidewalks. There was a feeling of neglect and foreboding; if this had been a movie, the music would have just changed or stopped suddenly. The silence was shattered by the announcement that we had reached our destination.
Either several travel websites and guidebooks had grossly oversold both the architectural prowess and aesthetic sensibilities of the ancient Romans, or the shabby 1960s stadium we were looking at was not the Arènes de Nîmes.
When interrogated, La Jjjay-pay-ess insisted she had been programmed to take us to this exact spot. Only she hadn’t, or at least not by us. Once reprogrammed, she was a model of efficiency at leading us to the real Arènes de Nîmes. But trust, once broken, is a hard thing to rebuild.
We can’t explain what happened – maybe we were the victims of some rogue computer code written by a disgruntled programmer on his last day. Maybe an electrical fault was to blame. However, I choose to interpret it as a lesson in human-digital relations: Don’t mess with La Jjjay-pay-ess.
Gael Melville lives in North Vancouver.