To those who drive in the United States or England with an English-language GPS, certain difficulties may not occur. But strap a GPS to your dashboard, set to English while navigating in foreign lands. The already new and curious environment swerves into surrealism, as the friendly and calm GPS voice tries valiantly to pronounce the names of the streets on your route.
It's not just the voice that is surreal, but some of the stories about how people have gone wildly (and sometimes fatally) off-course, because of a blind over-reliance on their GPS. Some of these stories sound like urban legends, but are, in fact, true.
In 2011, a couple from Canada, en route to Las Vegas, decided to drive the scenic route, Idaho State Highway 51. Their GPS, freshly-purchased for the trip, was programmed and they began to follow its instructions, even as night fell and they had no sense of orientation in the desert. The road they were on grew slowly worse as it wound into the Jarbidge Mountains. The couple never arrived in Las Vegas, and it took a few days for friends and relatives to grow concerned and inform the police. Police eventually found the wife in the car, half-crazed from lack of water and starvation. Her husband, who had set off on foot after they'd run out of gas, in hopes of finding civilization, was never found again. This, believe it or not, is called "death by GPS" and it is a real thing. Stories of someone willfully driving into a lake because "the GPS told me it was a road" sound like the punchline to a mediocre joke, but they do happen. An elderly woman from Belgium was trying to go some 90 miles to Brussels, using her GPS, and just kept driving and driving. It was only when she looked up and saw signs in Croatian that she realized she'd gone a bit further than Brussels. She was in Zagreb.
Obsessively following one's GPS, which bounces signals between the unit in your car and satellites, to pinpoint your exact location on a map in relation to your chosen destination, can result in a strange psychological phenomenon in which we shut off normal logical functioning and hand over "responsibility" to the GPS. We even tend to personify it, as in "the GPS told me to turn here." Science writer Greg Milner recently published a whole book on the phenomenon: "Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World."
But I'm not the sort to blindly follow what a computerized voice tells me to do—even if it does have a nice British accent. In fact, if anything, I like to toy with the GPS. GPS software is programmed to speak out letter combinations in the correct manner of the language of the voice setting. I live in Europe, drive in different countries, and prefer to keep my GPS in my native language. Careening through Tuscan villages, behind gesticulating tractor drivers in blue overalls and in front of sunglass-wearing honkers in sports cars, speaking with both hands while steering with none, is not the time to practice one's Italian. So I keep the GPS set to English. To a particular English voice, actually. I don't know his real name, so I call him Rupert.
My rational mind tells me that Rupert's tone never changes. He has been programmed to speak sounds, and the way in which he speaks them remains consistent. But each time I make a wrong turn, Rupert announces this with the single word, one which any GPS user will have heard countless times: "recalculating." Should I fail to follow Rupert's advice, or make several wrong turns, he will chime, each time, "recalculating." And although it cannot be, each time he utters this word which I've come to dread, I have a sense that he is ever more annoyed. I can read into his tone a subtext, which sounds something along the lines of "recalculating...you idiot."
This made me think how it might be if GPS devices came equipped with an aggression setting. One can alter the level of passive-to-active aggression in the voice of your GPS guide. Setting:
1: the tone remains consistent.
2: "Recalculating" is laced with an eye- rolling level of annoyance, but nothing more.
3: Rupert says "recalculating," but the anger is palpable, the "re-" emphasized for dramatic effect, followed by a telling cough.
4: "For the love of Pete, recalculating."
5: "What the heck is wrong with you? Didn't you hear what I said?"
6: "Do that one more time and I'm getting out of the car."
7: "You drive like your mother."
8: "F*ck you."
If that's the case, maybe there should be a setting for consolation after missed turns.
1: "You've had a long day, haven't you?"
2: "Don't worry about that turn. The next one will be even better!"
3: "I didn't like that road, anyway."
4: "I'm sure you know best..."
5: "I'll give you a massage when we get home."
There was one time when the GPS map indicated no road. Yet there I was, hurtling down a dirt path through the woods in Slovenia. The GPS, in fact, indicated a lake exactly where I was driving. I'm not sure how the GPS map and the earth around me got out of sync, but I bumped along, and there was the gentle voice of Rupert, so calm, so collected, so reserved, so British, repeatedly "recalculating." According to Rupert's map, I was driving through the middle of a lake. The image of my car on the GPS screen swam further into the lake which, in real life, I had not yet reached. With each "recalculating," I imagined the panic rise in Rupert's voice.
At some point, I presumed, the entire GPS device would eject itself from my vehicle, and a small parachute would open, carrying the machine out of the hands of its clearly insane and heedless master. Rupert's valiant attempts at the pronunciation of foreign street names have become a source of great amusement. So much so, that I will seek out streets the names of which, I imagine, will cause Rupert particular grief. Place names in Slovenia are no picnic for Rupert's British newscaster accent. For some time, I've sought a street in Slovenia down which to drive, the name of which contains my favorite Slovene word, "čmrlj." This is pronounced, roughly, "cha-merl" and means "bumblebee." It is, to my mind, the mother-load of all unpronounceables. How will Rupert approach this mouthful?
I'm malicious, you say? Maybe. But one can consider the tasks I set to dear Rupert as a challenge, a chance for him to practice those foreign names that British and Americans alike seem to mispronounce with such verve. Of course, Rupert never improves, because he can never improve. I'd be monumentally disappointed if he did. So it is malicious, then? How quickly we both forget that Rupert is, in fact, an inanimate computerized voice. Were he a real person, he would have resigned from my services and resorted to litigation for emotional damage long ago. In driving through Italy one day, from Orvieto to Assisi, I approached one particularly difficult turn...not involving the steering wheel, but rather a turn of phrase.
I cackled to myself. Let's see how you do with this one, Rupert. The street name, as written on the GPS screen, was Strada Centro di Umbria detto Viale di Fra Giovanni detto Beato Angelico. The Central Umbrian Highway, also called the Big Road of Brother Giovanni who was called the Blessed Angelico (in the vox populi, the painter Fra Angelico). But when it came time for poor old Rupert to direct me to turn right onto this street, the following long and tortuous expulsion of sounds came clattering out: "In point two miles turn right onto Stra-duh Kentroo Dee Umbry-ah detto Viah-lay die Fray Ghio-vayney detto Beetoh Anghel-ikoh." What's that you said, Rupert? By the time he had finished the name of the road, I was already past the turn. Should I circle around, just to hear him struggle through it again? I circle round. Come on then, Rupert. Once more with gusto. As I approach the turn for the Central Umbrian Highway, I sense a barely perceptible mutter emanate from my GPS. I can never be certain, but I would swear that I heard something, long before the turn. Was Rupert trying to share with me some secret knowledge, a meeting of minds, a truce along our travels through poorly-pronounced foreign lands? As my car swung round a curve and approached the highway ramp, I heard Rupert mutter under his breath: "What an idiot..."