Cours de GPS

road signs, panneaux

The female voice that lives inside my GPS is called, improbably, Serena. Perhaps this female persona was the fantasy of the German engineers who designed my personal navigation app. Or maybe the marketing people thought the name would inspire a sense of serenity.

When I had to choose between Serena and Henry, her male flatmate, I went with dulcet-toned Serena. Of the two, she seemed slightly less commanding.

Did I mention I have issues with authority?

My first impression is that she sounds nothing like a Serena to me. Her snooty British accent makes her seem far too well-schooled to be doing this job. And, having taken a trip or two together, I fear she must agree.

Although we are in France, Serena speaks English. If I have the option, I always pick the language this is least likely to cause confusion, or misinterpretation, to my English ears. This is especially true when it comes to getting from point A to point B. I am, as confessed before, geographically and spatially challenged, a condition that only seems to get worse with age. But because we are in France, and French-speaking Switzerland, I do expect her to have a minimal grasp of the lingo.

The problem begins as soon as we hit the road.

“Prepare to bear right,” announces Serena imperiously. The road stretches ahead in a straight line.

“I think you mean go straight,” I suggest, trying to be polite.

“Beware!” says that lady.

“Beware of what?” I ask. There is no danger that I can see.

“At the roundabout, take first exit.”

“You mean turn right?” I ask, squinting at the screen propped on my dashboard. You are not technically allowed to use a GPS on your phone while driving in France. Just in case you might be cheating by texting or checking your Facebook status, they make any use of a phone in a car illegal.

Thankfully I no longer have to face the road conditions shown in the picture above, which used to be part of my daily commute. But getting around France can be confusing, so I take all the help I can get.

“In 200 metres, prepare to turn left.”

Okay, that much I get.

“Prepare to turn left in 100 metres, onto LARUEDELAMARTINIERE,” anounces Serena blithely.

Her French pronunciation is a curve ball that catches me unaware. It bears no connection to French as I know it. What street does she mean? I glare at my screen but cannot see any name resembling her French with an English accent.

The road curves and I miss the turn.


“Chemin de la what? Where did you learn to speak French?”

“Now turn right.”

“Wrong! It says do not enter.”


“Of what?”

There is silence. I glance at my screen and see a straight arrow. It seems that Serena has strategically repositioned.

“At the roundabout, take the third exit.”

“You mean go left?”

“Take the third exit and continue onto the D93.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Now prepare to bear right.”

“Oui Madame.”

“Now bear right.”

“My god you’re a nag.”

“Turn right on RUDE LACHAINE.”

“Rude is right!”

“In 300 metres, you will have reached your destination.”

“What? You are seriously confused!”

“You have reached La Rue de la Résistance.”

“Ray-sis-tance?” I say, mocking her accent. “Listen, lady, this is France. You need to work on your accent.”


I look in my rear-view mirror and see a cop right behind me. Realizing he may be able to see me talking to my GPS, I put two hands on the wheel, activate the turn signal and proceed into the parking lot.

“Merci Serena!” I say, signing off. She says nothing, far too polite to say I told you so.

I have indeed reached my destination.

Navigon, the app I use. Not my destination!

Do you use a GPS?



  1. Our GPS had my husband and son is stitches when, with similarly distressed French, they were told that they were in Rue LaDiDahDiDAhDiDah – or at least that is what it sounded like. Mind you, here in Sydney last night, my phone battery died, and without any GPS and road works at every turn, I am lucky to be home now. I have new-found respect for the accented authority.

    • MELewis · November 9, 2017

      Right you are. That thing has saved me on more than one occasion and I’ve now become entirely dependent. Can just imagine the LaDiDah name — they always seem to chop up the syllables instead of running them together. I wish someone would let me try out for the job – I’m sure I could pronounce place names without sounding quite so ridiculous!

  2. coteetcampagne · November 9, 2017

    I cannot get anywhere beyond local trips without my satnav, here or in the UK.
    When the five of us drove over to France in 2010 in my son-in- law’s Landrover he set it up with the voice of Darth Vader, so we had James Earl Jones’s mechanically augmented menacing tones echoing around the whole trip.

    My favourite line was uttered each time we deviated from his instructions ( I find that men are inherently inclined to think that they know better) it said “your lack of faith disturbs me!” In a truly dark and unpleasant fashion.

    We retaliated by setting up our satnav with a joke Aussie channelling terrible puns and modelled on every known archetype when he borrowed my car to drive to Argeles.

    • MELewis · November 9, 2017

      That is hilarious! I would love to have a GPS voice like that — and the lack of faith the line applies 100% to my hubs, who drives me wild by always thinking he knows better than either me or the GPS. How on earth do you get your satnav to do that?

  3. midihideaways · November 9, 2017

    We’ve had a lot of laughs recently with friends, who used the map app on an iphone for a GPS (works pretty well, even for walking). They were driving to somewhere around Narbonne, when the voice from the phone commanded them to “turn right onto avenue de c**ksuck” – the place is called Cuxac!! Luckily they did not have small children or aged parents in the car!! 🙂 I’m not sure why the makers of these apps insist on mangling foreign street names so badly, but sometimes it is quite funny. I have a built in GPS in my little car, and it only calls out the road numbers. It’s also got a very imperious line of “make a u-turn if possible”…. But I wouldn’t want to be without it now!

    • MELewis · November 9, 2017

      Oh, I can relate! We’ve stumbled on quite a few hilarious bloopers in our time, though of course I can’t think of any when pressed. Cuxac will stay in memory! 🙂 I get that the challenge for these things is making them understandable for those who aren’t fluent while remaining somewhat true to the language. Not an easy task!

  4. Alpenhorn · November 9, 2017

    Thanks for the laugh this morning! It sounds like you are having the same discussion as “TomTom’s behind the scenes with Darth Vader”

    • MELewis · November 9, 2017

      Lol, I had never heard of this before! But at least now I know where the inspiration came for coteetcampagne’s GPS experience. I think if my GPS had any kind of sense of humour we would get along much better! Thanks for sharing.

  5. francetaste · November 9, 2017

    I am not impressed with my husband’s GPS. It has sent us down off-ramps only to get right back on the facing on-ramp. We went in circles once and ended up at a construction site. I do give it credit for taking us through tiny residential streets to avoid a huge bouchon on the Paris periph’ one Christmas.
    I use maps. On paper. When I have to drive somewhere new, I will look at an online itinerary ahead of time and note a couple of key instructions.
    The whole female voice/name thing for automated assistants is upsetting to a feminist.

    • MELewis · November 9, 2017

      It’s funny, while I do consider myself a feminist, that aspect of it never occurred to me. I suppose it’s more shocking to me as a humanist that they try and turn these personas into people…but that’s a story that goes back to the dawn of computers! Personally I’d like to be able to configure the system for a sense of humour, but that could be awhile in coming…;-) As for the directions, well… I wonder if the cops would accept ‘the GPS made me do it?’ if I actually followed its directions the wrong way down one-ways streets, into pedestrian areas, etc?

  6. George lewis · November 9, 2017

    Maybe you should try Henry or Henri.

    • MELewis · November 10, 2017

      What? Cheat on my husband? 😉

  7. Susanne · November 9, 2017

    No GPS here. We get lost the old fashioned way by arguing about the best route to take, checking a tattered map that has holes in the folds and always giving ourselves an extra 1/2 hour to go anywhere that isn’t in the regular rut of our lives. A marvelous post. I felt your aggravation at every turn and BEWARE!

    • MELewis · November 10, 2017

      That sounds rather wise, and certainly as copilot I would always prefer the paper map. But husband won’t listen to what I say and then we argue and — well, the GPS is a third party to arbitrate, uh, make that argue with. An extra half hour is a good strategy. Glad you enjoyed!

  8. Colin Bisset · November 10, 2017

    It often takes me longer to load the details of where I want to go into the GPS than drive the distance, but I do use it from time to time (even if I know better). The problem in Sydney is tunnels, which underscore (undermine?) the city and completely screw up the Serenas of this world. Although my GPS has rather an attractive voice, I’ll give him that.

    • MELewis · November 10, 2017

      Tunnels, bridges and hills make it harder to figure out maps for clueless people like me. I do well with your basic grid set to a compass. Sydney sitting around so much water must add to the fun, but I presume the tunnels also keep a lot of pollution underground. Would love to visit one day — but will definitely rely on a GPS!

      • Colin Bisset · November 10, 2017

        Don’t worry, I’ll drive you… 🙂

  9. Lisa @ cheergerm · November 10, 2017

    Snortworthy Mel! So she won the argument, oui? (Or is that whhheeeeeee!!)

    • MELewis · November 12, 2017

      Ha! She may have won the argument but I always get the last word! Cheers Mrs.Cheer!

  10. acflory · November 10, 2017

    In about 60 years, onboard AI will be smart. Until then I’ll just pull over and use a map. 😦
    I’m not a complete Philistine though. I did buy the Offspring a GPS device, but it didn’t last long. I think the it died after a ten minute journey took over an hour and raised the Offspring’s stress levels to critical…

    • MELewis · November 12, 2017

      Sixty years, eh? Not much chance I’ll be around to enjoy that but in the meantime, it’s good for a few laughs. And to be fair, although it’s wrong some of the time, the GPS has saved my skin on more than one occasion. Sounds like the Offspring has the right idea, though — better to chuck it out the window if it only raises the stress level!

      • acflory · November 13, 2017

        -grin- after one particularly hairy episode, said GPS did disappear from the car, and the Offspring was forced to learn how to read a street map. I love gadgets but I also love maps so…was cheering like crazy. 😀

  11. zipfslaw1 · November 11, 2017

    I have similar issues with my GPS driving directions voice, which is in French, when I’m in the US. I eventually figured out that “téache” means “th,” as in “18th Street,” but it still takes some close listening…

    • MELewis · November 12, 2017

      Lol! Never imagined before what a French GPS would do with those ‘th’ endings. But that’s wild: Does it actually say ‘Rue Dix-huit téache’? What a weird mashup.

  12. Osyth · November 12, 2017

    I used to have John Cleese as my voice in Britain. When I moved to France (actually fro three months before I moved in preparation) I moved to Jacques who I call Franck because Jacques is actually my stepson and it didn’t seem quite polite to imagine him locked in my GPS for eternity. Even when he infuriates me. Well they both have the ability to do that. The net result of having Franck is that I am entirely fluent in French GPS but apart from that he has taught me to relax and go with it because he is so consistently wrong in his suggestions (including his insistence on masterfully stating ‘sortie IMMINENT’ when we still have 2km to go on before we need to exit a motorway that I generally ignore him. In fact recently I have taken to using a map … I wonder if I will look back and call myself a trendsetter 😉 x

    • MELewis · November 13, 2017

      Managing a map while driving myself is probably more than I can coordinate. But going online ahead of time and printing out the directions is definitely a strategy that has helped me when the GPS cannot be relied upon. As for John Cleese, that is hilarious! If I had him talking to me I’d either be distracted to tears laughing or incredibly obedient. I love how respectful you are of your stepson, though, by going for Franck. 😉 Besides, what a great way to improve comprehension!

  13. Suzanne et Pierre · November 29, 2017

    Interesting as usual. Our first GPS voice was Sally (in North America) and we started calling our GPS by that name…She was OK as long as we were in English territory but we had the same problem as you with her pronunciation of French words. So we decided to pick another voice in French because it was way too difficult to understand. We did the same thing with our European GPS though I don’t remember the name of the voice as we kept calling her Sally…Now that we are back in Canada, we keep going back & forth between the English & French voices because the French voice doesn’t do much better with English names…Though we rarely live without a paper map to confirm the directions of the GPS as they are sometimes wrong…

    • MELewis · November 30, 2017

      How reassuring to know that others struggle with the same GPS pronunciation issues, Suzanne! I suppose it’s preferable to have a natural sounding voice whether male or female rather than a computer generated one, but I do wish they’d improve the way they say the names in other languages. Of course, in French I am never sure whether to say English names in the French way or to stick to the native pronunciations. Nothing like a good old paper map to keep you straight, although there’s always a tendency to wonder if the GPS has more current info than the printed version.

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