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Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean
  • Post published:April 18, 2016

I love maps especially the old medieval kind where the mapmakers used their powerful imaginations depicting fantastical images of monsters in an attempt to explain the dark and dangerous mysteries of med. maplands and vast oceans yet discovered. The visionaries looked beyond their immediate horizons and envisioned the wonders of the unexplored. No such monsters to be found on the Michelin highway map of France, but my heart still palpitated at the thought of navigating this wonderful country, and after three days of tromping around Paris with miles logged and Fitbit merit badges for Kay, it was time venture out.

By my clockwise count on the Michelin map there are seventeen main entrées (not the main course, but the right of entry) and/or sorties (not the military attack, but the brief trip away from) leading into and out of Paris. The nice lady at the rental car place gave us a city map; however, the reality on the ground was a bit different than simply following her green highlighted route out of Charles De Gaulle airport into the countryside. The highway arteries from the center of Paris have a spider web effect that created a feeling of consternation similar to Rowan Atkinson’s expression in the cover photo of this essay after looking at his map. Add to our departure: a pouring rain, rush hour traffic, and the unfamiliar French road signage. All this proved a formidable challenge, but one I embraced with an explorer’s zest. Bring on the monsters.

Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean
Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean

Once we were zipping along in the car, I gave up trying to follow the city map given me by the rental car lady, and by my best calculation in the moment, chose the sixteenth highway of the seventeen available choices out of Paris. I overshot it by one. Kay was doing an excellent job driving: changing lanes, weaving through traffic, and making quick highway transitions on my short-notice commands like a calm professional. I call her “Mario” for the racing legend not the video game character. We stopped once to get verbal directions, and after a couple of wonderful, albeit humorous encounters with congenial Parisians (language barriers make for elaborate gesticulations and elevated voices), we were on the road with only about thirty kilometers of backtracking to do.

Lauren Blair Zilen
Lauren Blair Zilen

We also had our youngest daughter, Lauren Blair Zilen, in the backseat. She was traveling with us for a few days before striking out on her own. L.B. is a savvy traveler, but her choice for directional guidance is to use the high-tech G.P.S. navigation provided by Google Maps. She remained patient and even helpful to her snobbish father pointing out road signage. Her extra pair of eyes was beneficial. And I need to add here that she bought the Michelin map presenting it to me with a mixture of good humor and admiration when we met in Paris at the beginning of our trip.

The Abbey of Mont St. Michele at night
The Abbey of Mont St. Michel at night

Out of Paris with clearing skies ahead, we made our way through the beautiful landscape heading west toward Mont St. Michel, a huge Abby and village built on a rock outcropping off the western coastline surrounded by waters of the English Channel. About halfway on our journey we went through the city of Ville d’Alençon, and since I was still adjusting to matching the directions on the map with visual sightings of road signs, we got turned around inside the city. We ended up in the square, which became a partial cul-de-sac with only one way out. Kay stopped beside an elderly couple halting their slow progress out of the square, and I hopped out, map in hand, to ask directions. The wife wore thick glasses, her wrinkled face outlined in a floral headscarf with tufts of gray hair sticking out. The husband had a potbelly with a clichéd blue French beret atop his gray head, his arms locked behind his back with clasped hands. The ancient couple wore bemused expressions at the approaching man with his unfolded, accordion-like map in hand.

Parlez-vous, English?” I asked, and they both quickly responded “No.” Undeterred, I pointed to our current location on the map, and using the inquisitive gesture of “We’re here and want to go there,” looked at them in hopes of their understanding our plight. The husband continued to smile and bob his head, but the wife launched into quick, bantam hen-like gestures, in turns pecking at the map and pointing out the route I should take with wild hand and arm movements. Then she abruptly stopped and looked at me with probing eyes and said, “No G.P.S.?” When I shook my head, her expression of curiosity turned into one of scorn at my foolishness. I thanked her, in French mind you, and walked away. Here was a couple so old they could have been around to greet the Allies at D-Day scolding me for not having the latest mapping technology. I expected a little more sympathy. I shook it off and did a 360 inside the square, spotted the Office of Tourism, made a mad dash for it, received perfect instructions from the English-speaking employee, and after a quick backtrack, we were out of the city and on our way.

Kay indulges my navigational challenges, and Lauren enjoyed the old woman’s snide remark without rubbing it in.

We spent the night in Mont St. Michel and rose early the next day to make a cross-country drive to Lyon for Lauren to catch her 5:30 p.m. train to Avignon while we intended to drive on to Annecy. Once again, I miscalculated the directions to the main toll road to Lyon by about fifteen kilometers (notice the improvement from Paris), and we had to backtrack. This was the third backtrack in twenty-four hours, and I was not taking my mistake with humor. I made a profane comment, and Lauren seized the opportunity to whip out her trusty Apple Phone with its up-to-date G.P.S. guidance technology and begin telling her mother the fastest, most direct way to get to the toll road. She did so with no move-over-old man attitude. She is far too kind-hearted for that. On her IPhone, Lauren had written instructions as well as that little blue dot that smugly floats along the correct route. Should we make a misguided directional veer, the little blue dot would indicate it on the Google Map, and like a trusty sheepdog, guide us back onto the path.

The route was direct, but not fast. For over forty kilometers we drove on twisting back roads through France roadfarm country and small villages sometimes in thick fog and from time-to-time our progress slowed to a crawl because of some unhurried farmer, his tractor taking up most of the two-lane road. I don’t blame the little blue dot for the fog or the tractors. Every few minutes Lauren would instruct her mother: “At the next roundabout, take this road. At the next village take that road. At the next crossroad take a left.” I said nothing. Lauren had not gloated at my failures, and I could not argue with success when we reached the toll road, but I remained glum for the next half-hour.

Lauren showed Kay how she too could use the Google mapping system on her IPhone…just in case we might need it once we split up. Ouch! Kay was all excited. She loves any and all technology. I maintained my surly composure. Lyon was a big city, and because of our detours that morning, we were facing a time crunch getting Lauren to the train station. I let the two women figure out how to get to the train station when we entered the city, while I kept my eyes peeled for signs leading out of Lyon that would get us on the toll road to Annecy. In the course of two weeks we spent enough money on tolls to finance a month’s worth of roadwork on the national highways.


Once I spotted the signage to Annecy I began to concentrate my attention on helping the ladies find the train station. We were in the heart of Lyon, and to my surprise, they were no longer using the G.P.S. We were in a labyrinth of one-way streets that took us in ever-widening concentric circles. I felt like we were getting farther away from the station, so we pulled over a couple of times to ask directions from passing French citizens. Lauren handled the encounters well as she held out her printout map of Lyon to inquire the direction for the train station. Because of the linguistically challenging nature of each convene and the proliferation of one-way streets, none of us were really sure if we heard the instructions correctly. We soon realized that while we were “getting warmer” like in the child’s game of finding the hidden object, our route to the train station was taking us down the wrong way of those one-way streets. After one impulsive right turn, we were in the direct path of an oncoming streetcar. Now Kay does not normally panic and never raises her voice, but this time there was a noticeable vocal elevation as she exclaimed, “I’m heading right into a street car.” Her obvious point made, she followed it with an adroit, Jason Bourne type-move steering the right front and rear wheels of the vehicle onto the sidewalk and avoiding the inevitable collision. I could not have been prouder in spite of the fact that all three of us were watching our lives flash before our eyes.

Her deft move not only spared us, but by the next turn, had French Police us on the same street as the train station only two blocks away. We all cheered as we waited for the light to turn green. Kay was going to get a little closer, but Lauren was insistent as she grabbed the door handle: “Just let me out. Just let me out. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

However, before she could make her escape, a police car stopped beside us with three officers inside. The driver was on my side of the vehicle, and his berating started before I could even get the window rolled down. In the few seconds it took for me to interject my standard “Parlez-vous, English?” I considered I might just shrug my shoulders and point to the driver with an “I told her she was going the wrong way” expression, but I knew it was best to accept a collective guilt and throw ourselves on the officer’s mercy. As soon as I opened my mouth, the “un policier”  frowned and shook his head, his demeanor revealing the fact that he had had too many encounters with inane tourists for the day or for a lifetime. In broken English I conveyed our attempt at finding the train depot and he understood enough to signal with a wave of frustration for us to follow him. As we passed in front of the station, he pointed to it and then drove away in the opposite direction. I could imagine his grumpy retelling of the tale back at the precinct of the encounter with some crazy American tourists.

We did not take the time to hug and kiss our daughter, but deposited her at the station. We would meet up again in a few days. And with that experience behind us, it was time to get out of Dodge once again in rush hour traffic but mercifully not in the pouring rain. With all the twisting and turning we did on the streets of Lyon, I had to wrack my brain searching for those road signs to Annecy. I used the Saone River flowing through the city as my landmark because signage was not forthcoming and the G.P.S. was “dead to me.” Go downstream, I thought. When we stopped for a bathroom break and to gas up the car, the woman who ran the station spoke enough English to confirm my instincts. We were just ten kilometers from merging onto the highway we wanted. With great relief we were soon rewarded with the signs to Annecy.

So what was the score at this point in the Life Skills vs. Google Map contest? Well, there is much more to this story. Stay tuned for the next instalment.