I’ve just finished six weeks of perambulations around France, having a wonderful holiday as well as language practice with my very patient French friends and research for a future book. In the process I was reminded of the importance of:
a) not just relying on technology to get you places
b) not over-planning
The dangers of outsourcing our destinations to a machine
My English ‘brother from another mother’ Adam and I were driving through a pretty Southern French village on the way to Toulouse airport. For all the prior days we had managed really well simply by looking at maps (which of course give you spatial and geographic context) and ignoring the GPS in our rental car. However, in a moment of doubt on this final day we decided to use the technology. While Adam drove, I spent a couple of minutes of frustration with an unfamiliar device. Suddenly I realised I was missing everything around me whilst myopically wrestling with a machine.
‘Let’s just watch for the motorway signs,’ said my practical friend. ‘Airports are well signed on major roads.’
Sure enough, by keeping our eyes open the directions showed up when we needed them. At the same time we were able to really appreciate our beautiful surroundings as well as retain awareness of the traffic. If I’d succeeded in mastering the GPS, the result instead would have been a low awareness of the surroundings and a high focus on the gadget under our noses.
My lesson – keep your vision and awareness high. Even if you’ve made a mistake, because you’ve been observing your surroundings you’ll be able to get back on track quickly. (Tip: Just keep going round the roundabouts until you know you’ve found the right road! It can take a long time to get back to the right place if you dive off on the wrong motorway exit.)
I recognise that sometimes it’s vital not to waste time and technology can be a marvellous friend. However, I’ve been concerned for some time that over-reliance on a GPS reduces some of our other really important senses, including spatial awareness, intuition and map-reading skills. This little experience confirmed it for me!
Beware of over-planning
You might think that someone like me would encourage good planning but actually there are many times when I don’t believe this is the right thing. Taking a holiday is one of those times.
We could have spent many hours researching, planning and booking our few shared days. Instead we decided to go with the flow – book the car and the first two nights’ accommodation in Toulouse via Airbnb and then let the road unfold.
A random remark opened up a whole area of history I didn’t know Adam was also interested in – that of the Cathars. They were an independent-thinking sect of early Christians of the 12th and 13th centuries. He had just seen a documentary about their last stand at Montségur in 1244 – victims of genocide; I have been fascinated by their story since reading Kate Mosse’s exciting historical novels based around Carcassonne and the Languedoc region. Many people these days see them as forerunners of Protestantism but to the Catholic church of the time they were heretics. Behind it all was a lust for power, control and money by the church and the powerful lords of the north of France who decided elimination was the only solution. http://www.cathar.info/.
And so we headed due south from Toulouse instead of north-west as we’d originally discussed. Even as we travelled we saw side roads and mentions of interesting things that changed our plans. Not only did we find Montségur but on the recommendation of another hostess we meandered into the step-back-in-time medieval village of Mirepoix and the best cassoulet restaurant in Castelnaudary, known as the cassoulet centre of France!
There were all kinds of other treats and random delights, including arriving at just the right time for the only English-language tour of Foix Castle for that day and ‘lucking’ across my favourite French cooking experience while looking for dinner one night – a pierrarde (or hot stone grill). Magnifique!
Both of us had a truly relaxed holiday, there was no stress about being anywhere at set times, and most importantly, we didn’t try to fit too much in.
Less is more.
A version of this article also appears in Robyn’s regular NZ Herald Online column