An Inside Story

“Sometimes you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless.”

Bhante Gunaratana.

Journal from Provence – Most of the past 4 days have been exhausting. I’ve been doing all of the driving while C the navigating via his mobile phone. GPS isn’t an exacting technology which only exacerbated my discontent with it. When the GPS was supposed to be directing me through one particularly confusing stretch of road, C was busy changing the navigation voice from French to British English to American English to Australian English until I completely lost my temper. “Put the @!**!!I phone down and just look at the street signs. If I have to go around this village one more time I’m going to SCREAM!” Technology fails miserably sometimes. We can communicate with anybody in the world almost instantly., but it hasn’t made us better communicators.

So far we’ve been to Albi and stayed at a fabulous B&B, then drove on to Arles. In Arles the GPS couldn’t find the hotel. We circled the lower half of the village by the train station 3 times before I decided to go down a one-way street the wrong way and find a place to park. Remarkably, the hotel was just across a busy square in front of us. We spent 2 rainy days there.

Next on our itinerary was the seaside village of St. Aygulf. On our way there we decided to stop in Aix for lunch. We headed for the centre ville, but couldn’t find it due to road work. The GPS sent us around the village 6 times! My mind was darting around like a crazed bumblebee (actually a deadly wasp) looking for anything familiar. C said, “You need to pull over and ask for directions.”  “Excuse me!…” I spat out. “Isn’t that why we have the #@*^!!GPS?!!! C wisely didn’t utter another word. I decided to blindly follow a delivery van. Luckily it didn’t stop, but led me to an intersection where there were signs for the Autoroute and St. Aygulf.

C had visited St. Aygulf  61 years ago with a group of 15 boarding school teens and couldn’t remember anything except that he’d won a goose in a raffle. Now the paradise is completely paved. After the GPS sent us into a residential area, then up and around the village twice, I gave up and parked by a small farmers’ market that was packing up. Since C didn’t recognize anything it didn’t matter where we stopped. We had lunch at one of the only restaurants open, run by a couple straight out of the Addam’s Family. As Morticia greeted her regulars we were seated by Lurch who kept tilting  slightly on his way into and out of the kitchen.  

 After lunch we set out to find our B&B in Draguignan. The GPS sent us up an incredibly steep, badly paved road. I stopped midway refusing to go on. It felt like our car was going to tip over backwards. I decided to turn around and start again. This time C had me back into a boulder while he was resetting the GPS. Fortunately, no damage was done to the car. On “wheels barreling pell mell down the hill” I retraced our route until we finally found the B&B.

The following night we spent in Sanary-sur-Mer. I refused to use the GPS to get there. We had no problem using our worn out map, easily navigating over the paper creases.The next day we drove along the coast to Cassis, spent a few hours there, then set off for Marseille Airport to pick up my clients, two sweeter than honey people from Chattanooga,Tennessee, who had toured with me last year.  We arrived at our B&B, L’Albiousse, an exquisite 16th century mansion in the heart of the cobble-stoned village of Uzès.

Another day, another GPS debacle. We set off early for Châteauneuf du Pape. The GPS route chosen took us more time than I’d allotted and we wound up at our first wine tasting twenty minutes late. Our reservation was forfeited to a loud foursome from Texas who held court at the tasting bar while we sat off to the side. Fortunately, D, our winery tour guide, is a wine connoisseur. His breadth of knowledge about the wines of the region is impressive and he helped explain why the Châteauneuf du Pape wines were always more expensive than wines from Vacqueiras or Gigondas, which use the same or very similar grapes: hand harvesting is one.

We couldn’t stay long because we had lunch reservations at what turned out to be a wonderful restaurant, Le Verger des Papes, the orchard of the Popes, which sits just below the ruins of the famous Château. The spectacular view from our terrace table overlooking the valley below and the delicious meal made up for the hurried morning.

The following day we explored the walled village of Aigues Mortes and had lunch at Chez Coco. C and I realized we’d been having lunch there every time we’d visited Provence over the last 17 years! The tour continued with a 4×4, 3 hour jeep ride through the Camargue wildlife sanctuary.

We stayed in Saintes Marie-de-la-Mer for dinner and drove back to Uzès in pitch dark, not an easy drive. The GPS sent us along the most secluded stretches, over speed-bump-laden roads and through what appeared to be 2 prisons across the road from each, eerie in the ghostlike bloom from the headlights. Eventually, we came to a main road just outside of Uzès.

On Saturday, my clients were too tired to tour Nîmes, so we stayed in Uzès for the weekly market, the best in the Gard region. On Sunday we drove to L’Isle sur-la-Sorgue which was very crowded, but we were fortunate to find a place to park. We walked through the antique and farmers’ market, then had a relaxing lunch, returning to Uzès in the early evening. No GPS was needed as I’ve traveled in this corner of Provence for many years.

Monday we drove to the village of Bedouin, had lunch with D at a lovely courtyard restaurant called Lily et Paul, then drove up Mt. Ventoux, another very unnerving drive. The GPS chose the shortest, but steepest route. I was alright until the car in front of me stopped suddenly, forcing me to use the handbrake in order not to roll back, then to slowly let it down so I could start up the 23% grade again! We made it to the flattened peak, 1,912 km/6,273 ft high. I felt a very strange kind of vertigo. It was close to freezing and very windy. I can’t even imagine the Tour de France bicyclists making the climb up, let alone down! 

The following day we went to the Carrière du Lumière,Van Gogh light show in the quarry below Les Baux. The GPS sent us to a parking lot below the quarry, so we had to hike up a steep incline. We lunched at La Cabro D’Or after driving back and forth, making u-turns in the most unlikely places, because the GPS couldn’t locate the entrance of the restaurant, which was just below us. 

In the afternoon we drove to St. Remy to visit St. Paul Mausole, the monastery where Van Gogh stayed for a year, during which time he not only cut off most of one ear, but painted some100 canvases, his most iconic.

We followed this with a visit to the Village des Bories, outside of Gordes. The bories are ancient Provençal dwellings that date back to the Bronze Age and were completely rebuilt in the 17th century and inhabited until the middle of the 19th century. The houses were all built from dry stones stacked like igloos. The village has about thirty bories, old sheepfolds, and bread ovens.

The tour ended formally with lunch in Nîmes. We planned to drop my clients at an airport hotel in Marseille for a very early flight to Ireland the following morning. C and I almost came to blows again over the GPS directions. I thought finding our way to the airport would be easy because the route is clearly marked, but we were guided through tiny villages, instead of utilizing the Autoroute. I kept asking C why it was taking so long, why were we going on the slip roads when I could clearly see the Autoroute just off to the south, but he hissed, “Just follow her directions.”  After a drive that should have taken only an hour and a half, but took two and a half, we finally arrived at the airport hotel and dropped my clients off.

Once back in the car I tried not to get upset and angry knowing that with time my feelings would pass, but my crazy mind just exploded. “Just follow her directions?! She’s just an algorithm! You’re not actually navigating, you’re blindly following instructions! If you don’t use your brain it’s going to shrivel up and atrophy!” As we drove away, C sheepishly admitted he’d typed in the wrong information earlier. I wondered how many of our GPS mishaps were caused by human error and not data error. We didn’t utter a single word to each other as we returned to Uzès for one last night before heading home.

The next time I sat down at the computer I looked up problems with GPS navigation and discovered some very interesting, though not surprising facts. There are millions of people equipped with devices that make it completely unnecessary to learn from their environment. They don’t see where they are in relation to the spaces they inhabit and often follow their GPS commands into disastrous situations like driving into lakes, off piers, and even over cliffs. They have lost their ability to understand instinctively. I also learned about Dr. Gladys West, one of the four scientists who invented GPS. She continues to prefer using printed maps over a navigation system, saying above all, that she still trusts her intuitive faculties. I had to laugh.

It is said, “You won’t know if you truly love someone until you’ve travelled with them.” Sometimes traveling together isn’t glamorous, predictable or even comfortable, but we should be grateful for having to deal with difficult situations, because without them we wouldn’t be able to practice patience, mindfulness, loving-kindness or compassion.

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