Death by GPS

murlo from above

He had been delivered to us by GPS.

“We could go for vespers,” my wife said.

It was late afternoon. We were leaving Murlo, which I have to say was something of a disappointment. Somewhere along the road in Tuscany we’d seen a billboard or two for Murlo, with its iconic cowboy image. And somewhere along the road in Tuscany we’d talked to someone, probably in a wine bar, who told us about it: Murlo, town of the Tuscan cowboys. I said it sounded like a football team.


When we got to Murlo, there wasn’t a cowboy in sight. There was barely anyone in sight. Evidently the Murlonians, I told my wife, like to keep to themselves. A British couple walking across the main piazza informed us that Murlo is famous for the inhabitants’ DNA, which studies suggest is as close to Etruscan DNA as any in Italy. The Murlo cowboy icon, it turns out, is probably a representation of a haruspex, an ancient Etruscan dude who divined the future by poking at the entrails of a sacrificial goat.

No cowboys. No horses.

Not much fun.

“Well that was interesting,” my wife said. “So how about we take in vespers?”

She really knows how to show a guy a good time.

“There’s supposed to be a monastery nearby,” she said. “It’s called Abbazia di Monte Oliveto.”

My wife loves a monastery. It takes her back to her Italian Catholic youth–processions, confessions, devotions, summer camp, fun with the nuns (she calls them le suore). At this monastery, with a little luck, we might hear some monks sing vespers.

I am partial to Gregorian chant.

“I’m in,” I said.

This trip, I should point out, was pre-iPhone, pre-GPS. How to get there from Murlo? She took out the rental car agency road map, unfolded it, and laid it in her lap, looking for Buonconvento. No luck.

We were rolling out of Murlo when she pointed to an old guy by the side of the road. “Ask him,” she said. “He looks local.”

He did look local. Black coat, gray pants, hands joined behind his back. He was doing the old guy walk.

I pulled off onto the shoulder and stopped.

Asking for directions in Italy can be frustrating. Often you are told to just keep going. “Sempre dritto,” you’ll be told. Go straight. You’ll eventually get there.

The other possibility is a helpful person gives you directions in the local dialect. That was the case with this old guy, who, for all I know, might have been speaking Etruscan.

If you watch the tv commercials today, you can be persuaded that technology offers a solution to problems like these. My favorite commercial features two people touring an Italian town. They’ve gone there to seek out ancestors. Finding an old guy like my friend standing by the side of road outside Murlo, one of them takes out his iPhone, holds it to his mouth, and says, “My grandfather came from this town. We’re looking for his relatives. Do you know the Rossi family?” He then pecks at the translation app, which cobbles this message into grammatical Italian and pronounces it, in the audible voice of iPhone lady, to the old gentleman. In the tv commercial, he nods, smiles, and says, Hey! I’m your long lost relative!


Well, maybe.

In reality, the old guy probably just says, “Eh?”

They jab the little speaker icon on the translation app again. iPhone lady repeats herself.

The old guy also repeats himself, only a little louder this time. “EHHH?”

The problem is her pronunciation.

Years later we’re on the road again, this time looking for a restaurant called Kiosquito 46, in Riccione. I’ve Googled the address and invited iPhone to tell me how to get there. iPhone lady knows. She gives me directions in English. I understand her English. Her Italian, not so much.

She says, “Merge onto Via Enrico Berlinguer.”

Both my wife and I: “What was that?”

“At the next roundabout take the exit onto Viale G. de Verrazzano.”

“Onto what?” I ask my wife.

“I didn’t get it. You have to take an exit.”

“Can you ask her to tell you again?”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

I slow the car down. I’m hungry. Kiosquito 46 has great artichokes, which, what if we get there late and they run out of them?

My wife says, “Just keep going around.”


“Just keep circling the roundabout. She’ll have to say it again. Maybe we’ll get it.”

iPhone lady repeats herself. We still don’t get it.

“Turn the volume up.”

“It’s up all the way.”

On the third lap, we take the wrong turn and get re-routed. There are many more turns ahead of us. She gives us the scenic route. We listen intently as iPhone lady tries to say Via Casalecchio, Via Panzano, Via Piemonte, Via S. Lorenzo, Viale Giulio Cesare. It takes awhile. We drive, stressed, a little bit lost, straining to understand. Eventually iPhone lady says, “Your destination is on your left.”

map to kisquito 46

Technology is supposed to help. A recent article in the Guardian describes a new phenomenon called “death by GPS.” A man in Yorkshire following GPS directions drives his car to the edge of a cliff. Somewhere in Australia a couple Japanese tourists, following GPS directions, drive their car into the ocean. “Satnav,” as they call it in Britain, wreaks havoc on how we think when we drive. Studies show that “characteristic brain activity linked to simulating the different possible routes for a journey appears to be entirely absent when a person is following directions rather than independently planning a route.”

Right. A few years ago a friend arrived at our house for dinner. When asked, he said he had no idea how he got there. He had been delivered to us by GPS.

That year we found Abbazia di Monte Oliveta without GPS. It took us a while, but it was okay. We stopped and asked directions, then stopped and asked directions again. We just kept going. Eventually there was a sign, Abbazia. The drive around to the back of the monastery took us to a parking lot in a grove of pines.

“Peaceful,” my wife said.

“Bucolic,” I said.

“Shall we?”

I like the word “vespers.” If evening prayers were called “crunchers” I probably would have been less cooperative.


We found the door to a chapel, took a stairway down to a stuffy room, and waited. It would be just us and the monks. After ten minutes or so, dressed in brown robes they filed in, ten or twelve of them, and sat. One of them set up an electric keyboard that reminded me, once he began to play, of the organ in Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “Ninety-Six Tears.”

The monks got through their vespers. So did we. It was not Gregorian chant.

Out in the parking lot my wife said, “Well, at least we found it.”

“Cowboys and vespers,” I said. “Not a bad day.”

It was getting dark. We had the find our way to a warm meal and a bed that night in Pienza, from a place that was not on the map. Years later we would have poked at the entrails of an electronic device.

At the main road I turned right. That put Murlo at our back. We went sempre dritto, believing eventually we would see a sign.

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