When I flew to Damascus in November 2005 to spend a few pre-Christmas weeks visiting friends and favorite haunts, my friend M eagerly showed me his new car. Not being a car person, I’ve forgotten the brand, but it was one of the “big three” that meet Levantine standards for understated luxury: BMW, Jaguar, or Mercedes.
People here call it the alligator, M told me, grinning.
Your car? I asked, puzzled. I wasn’t criticizing: after all, I named my high school car “the Sharpei” (as in, “so ugly its cute”). And the vintage Chevy pick-up I drove whenever I was home for the summer during college was known as “Marvin”. But M didn’t seem like the type to name his car – and nor did his friends, the beefy, self-confident men of Damascus’ old Sunni merchant families.
Not my car, M explained, frowning a bit at me. The model. People call it an alligator because of the headlights and the hood. Everyone wants this car.
Oh, I said, nodding and trying to sound deserving of my good fortune at getting to ride in it.
The car was plush, and it certainly did glide through the city streets (although to be honest I’m not sure that “gliding” accurately describes how alligators move, at least on land). But in my mind it had one major, major flaw.
M’s alligator came with a built-in GPS console. This was 2005, so think first-generation GPS, the type that required the user to insert a CD with road information for the relevant country. (American users may never have had this experience – I believe that most early GPS cars sold in the US came with the CD pre-installed. But Europeans, who might have been more likely to drive to neighboring countries, probably did.)
Please insert the country CD so we can get started, the GPS voice would say each time M started the car, while the display flashed the same message. Every few minutes, the voice would repeat itself.
Can you turn it off? I asked M.
Oh, M said. Does it bother you?
Well, in a way. The voice was annoying, but I suppose it was a reminder to M’s passengers that he had bought not only the latest but also the most deluxe model.
For me, the voice was a reminder that all customers – even luxury customers – were not created equal. I don’t think that there was a CD for Syria – so M and other alligator drivers were stuck with the trappings of luxury, but without the reward.
GPS technology has improved over the past three years, with self-updating systems that offer flexibility and entertainment. Put on the sexy voice so diamond can hear it, my friend K said to her boyfriend J recently as we climbed into their SUV and headed to Brooklyn. It was a sexy voice – and a very funny one. I have another friend who chooses to GPS in Spanish, so his son can learn the language. (His vocabulary may be somewhat restricted, but he will be very good at giving clear directions.) And I understand that many GPS’es offer celebrity voices – when K & J aren’t laughing at the bedroom voice helping direct them to IKEA, they usually take directions from John Cleese.
But my friends in Syria and Lebanon were still driving without electronic help – and using their GPS displays for nothing more than to indicate what radio station was on. So yesterday I was delighted to see that in Lebanon, at least, one can now drive with GPS:
(Thanks to the Daily Star for this advertisement.)
Of course, driving with GPS is really only an improved version of driving with a map – something that no Lebanese person I know would willingly do.
Even H, who is generally pretty mellow about my weird American habits, draws the line at using maps. Last weekend I handed him three, detailing different possible routes to the Berkshires, and asked him to navigate.
Maps? he asked me. Are you serious?
Midway through the drive, he looked at the by-then crumpled up pieces of paper and frowned. If you had told me six months ago that I would be back in American AND READING A MAP, I would have laughed in your face, he said.
H was much happier once we got lost and had to actually start asking people for help. This is the real way to drive, he said, smiling. See? You just ask people.
So I’m not sure how well NavLeb will sell – but it gives me an idea for an ad campaign. If the NavLeb’ers can convince people that driving with GPS is just like having a local villager in the car with them, every step of the way, it might be a very big seller. All they need are a bunch of old men from the day3a to provide the voices 🙂 .