With our daughter safely on the train to Avignon, Kay and I found ourselves arriving in Annecy shortly before nightfall. Our modus operandi when we travel abroad is to book a few nights in B&B’s or hotels in certain locales beforehand, and then once we are on the ground, have the flexibility to deviate from the path. We arrive in a city or village and book something that suits our fancy in the moment, stay longer in one location, or bounce to another.
Risky behavior, I know, but that is the fun of unexpected circumstances and special encounters while traveling. We had booked the apartment in Paris at the top of trip, a B&B in Mont St. Michel, a one-night stay in St. Jean in the Pyrenees (ended up being three nights because we loved the place and the location), and a two-night stay in Annecy. We were going to explore the French Alps, and Annecy was the perfect jumping-off location. Other locations we chose on the fly.
I must admit that as night fell on Annecy and we were unable to find the location of our B&B, I reluctantly thought a pre-programmed G.P.S. would have been helpful, but would I confess that to my daughter? Never. We knew we were close, but could not zero in on the exact location. It had been a long day of driving and we were fading, so I had Kay pull over at a random location, I hopped out and went inside a hotel and booked a room. As good fortune would have it, our third floor, balcony window looked out onto the cobblestone street where only pedestrian traffic was allowed. It was the Old City section filled with quaint craft and gift shops and restaurants.
Annecy is sometimes called the Venice of the Alps because of its two canals and the river Thiou running through the Old City. At dinner the following evening we were placed in open-air seating of a nice restaurant cheek-by-jowl with three other couples: German, Swiss, and French. Between the four couples, there were enough universal gestures and elementary language skills for us to communicate although most of the time we just laughed and shrugged our shoulders at our lack of fully understanding one another. At least we were not negotiating international treaties, just enjoying a meal in close proximity.
We planned a day trip up to Chamonix, and again “Wrong-Way” Arnold, got us off the path requiring a ten kilometer backtrack. I gave myself a consolation prize for continuing to reduce the backtracking distance, and by happy coincidence, the wrong direction for Chamonix just happened to be the correct direction for our continuing journey toward the Pyrenees the following day. Unbeknown to me, Kay had programmed her phone with G.P.S. tracking the direct route from Annecy to Chamonix, and she kindly offered it as an addition to the map. I took it, but did so without gratitude. The last thing I wanted was to be indebted to a little blue dot.
We drove along the perimeter of Lake Annecy toward the French Alps, and after several kilometers of silently studying the map with an occasional cursory glance at the G.P.S. on her phone, Kay asked, “How’s the little blue guy doing? Is it working?”
I compared my dead-reckoning with the current location of the roving “little blue guy.” Map, road signs, and G.P.S. were in sync, and I gave my wife a hard look.
“The little blue bastard’s got it right,” I snapped. “You happy now?”
She smiled and nodded. I would not say she looked smug, but it was close.
On we traveled through small villages leaving Lake Annecy behind and began ascending into the mountains. When the French highway department shuts down a road, the word on the signage used to redirect traffic is deviation. Halfway up the mountain on the main road we hit a deviation sign, and suddenly, I was back in business.
“Go left,” I cried tossing the phone into the cup holder, and Kay geared down the transmission and took the alternate route. Two things happened: First, the little blue bastard went into a navigational freak-out. He spun in place, its little blue pointer whirling in circles, stuck at the point of our “deviation,” and I imagined hearing his tiny, frantic, algorithmic voice squealing, “What the what? What the what?” The little blue bastard was lost in a void of trilateration. Second: my wife found her inner “Mario.” She took the mountain-pass curves like the latent Indy driver she was, is, and evermore shall be. She never got out of third gear, straightening out the switchbacks and hairpins like an expert. Mind you, this was a secondary road with few guard rails, so one faulty move and we could unintentionally end up like Thelma and Louise. I was just thankful Kay wasn’t touching up her lip-gloss at the same time she was downshifting and accelerating.
In forty kilometers we had crested the mountain peak, driven through some beautiful landscape which included high-altitude ski lodges, and descended the other side into a small village. By then we segued off the secondary road and back onto the main road to Chamonix. I confirmed this with my map, and Kay said to check the G.P.S. as well. I scoffed at this suggestion, but to humor her, I retrieved the phone from the cup holder. To my surprise, the little blue bastard had miraculously caught up with us.
“Oh no you don’t,” I said. “You don’t get to crow-fly over the Alps to make up forty kilometers that easy.” And for the rest of our trip, the little blue bastard was employed…like most professional actors.
From Annecy we met up with Lauren in Avignon. The City Center was a medieval walled city that
encompassed shops, restaurants, museums, theatres, churches, and the Palace of the Popes. I lost the ladies halfway through our self-guided tour of the Palace of the Popes. The shops were beckoning. A couple days later, Lauren took the train back to Paris and flew home, and Kay and I went on to the Pyrenees, spent three days traveling through the mountains back and forth from France into Spain. I did a lot of mountain hiking in the Pyrenees.
Then onto Bordeaux, and we ended our trip in Giverny; the small village an hour west of Paris where Claude Monet lived and painted. From the time we left Avignon, I threw all caution to the wind and found secondary routes through picturesque villages, mountain ranges, farmland, forests, and off-the-beaten path vineyards and avoided all toll roads for the rest of the trip. That included the morning of our departure from Paris. Once again in the pouring rain, I navigated us to Charles De Gaulle airport without donating any more funds to the French highway system. Yes, I was gloating when we turned in the key of our rental car.
In two and a half weeks of travel throughout France we put 2,800 miles on the car. That last half of the trip spent driving the countryside on those secondary roads were especially satisfying although Kay found the electronic, post-mounted speed indicators stationed at the entrance of many village annoying. It was the French-friendly way to monitor speed. An added feature to these roadside radar machines was either an emoticon of a smiling (color green) or frowning (color red) face depending on the vehicle’s rate of speed upon entering the village. My dear wife rarely saw the green smiling face. She might argue differently, but I only remember seeing one green smiling face. Nobody is perfect. After driving together in multiple countries in our years of travels (countries where roundabouts abound), my wife has developed strong opinions regarding traffic lights. She opposes them. It slows her down. Since returning to the U.S. from this recent trip, she has often ignored a traffic light transitioning from yellow to red and accelerates through intersections justifying her choice with an empathic, “This should be a roundabout.” Again, nobody is perfect, and who of us can live a day without practicing the art of rationalization?
So who won this Life Skills vs. Google G.P.S. contest? I would have to say we all won because we had a wonderful trip and returned home in one piece with a collection of great stories. If one is counting the number of times I got us off course, you have to say my skills as a map reader were lacking. But all those misdirections produced some memorable encounters with a variety of French people all across the country that we will remember the rest of our lives. And when Kay was not driving, she was snapping these photos.
The moral of these stories is simple…travel, often, anytime, anywhere, and anyway you are able. Take a map. Juice up your Google G.P.S. Pull out your compass. Your choice, but allow the luxury of wrong turns. The surprises are always worth the risk and adventure.