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Major Tom, far from home

Jefferson Galt

Oh, the delights of a few days in the tropics. And then it all goes wrong.

Last weekend, Starfish and I were in Kuala Lumpur for the Formula One Grand Prix. You know the one: nine laps, rain, cars parked, garden tents on the grid. Fantastic racing.

It was wet. Very wet. But nice to be back in KL and then Singapore.

Not so nice to be hopelessly lost several times.

In KL, my satnav (the TomTom I carry in my backpack) took me around a circle three times. Or rather, it took me around three different circles several times. Then it took me down a tiny alley, against a one-way system.

In Singapore, it took me to an airport runway. Honestly. It was closed but that didn't help.

Apparently, I've forgotten to plug it into my laptop for months and months and I've missed seven map updates and at least one major operating system update. So it's not Major Tom's fault.

Or Tom2 as Starfish has taken to calling it. She doesn't get the Major Tom reference and thinks David Bowie is ancient history. She keeps trying to find music I won't like but aside from some Marilyn Manson she's failed. Anyway, she decided the TomTom needed a pet name, even if she wasn't going to use the one I gave it. It's actually Tom Squared but when she first used it it was in an SMS and you can't do a little superscript 2 in SMS. So now it has three pet names, all vying for superiority. No one will win because it's not important - the joke and the fun are more important and no doubt will go on for years. They already have, just not very many!

Actually, it's hilarious to listen to the directions in English because it can't say the names of foreign places correctly. Now, I suppose that there's some sense in saying them the way an English person would say them if they had never seen them before. But if you have ever heard the correct way of pronouncing place names, then Major Tom's lovely female English voice (which is genuinely really nice to listen to) gets it woefully wrong. And provides us with hours of amusement. Changi (ch-ang-i) becomes Changie (change-I), for example. And when it says Malay place or road names, we have to look at the display to find out what it's trying to say. But we've tried the Malay language version and while Starfish can understand it, I have no idea what it's trying to say to me. So I spend more time looking at the display than at the road which isn't very clever.

When I ignore it and go off-piste, so to speak, it seems to get angry: "Turn around when possible," the usually lovely voice says time after time in disturbingly - and increasingly - harsh tones. Surely this is in our imagination but it's weird because Starfish and I both sense the same and burst out laughing at the same time, even without saying anything to each other. And we think it gets even more cross when we laugh at it.

We love the instructions on how to get from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (or vice versa). In summary, it's "I'll help you to get out of town and to hop onto the highway. Then drive for 300km. Wake me up when we are nearly there and I'll talk you down to your final destination." Does a SatNav understand the phrase "are we there, yet?"

It reminds me of the instructions a friend, now long dead due to illness, in London gave me to his house in Spain. Honestly, this is it : "Go to Dover and get to France, get on the Autoroute and drive to Spain. After the border, take the second exit, drive until you see a pink nightclub. Turn right. Take the third right, drive 150 metres and park." Incredibly, we stopped right outside his house - which we couldn't find because it was behind a tall hedge and we couldn't see it.

Why do I carry my TomTom all over the world in my back-pack with all the other mobile office bits that seem to be a part of my standard travel kit? If you don't know that, you've never tried hiring a car when you travel. There are NEVER any maps in them. So you have to go to a petrol station and try to find a map you can understand. Not easy when they are in the local language that you don't read so you don't know if the map covers the areas you want to go. So if the hire car has no satnav of its own, you will be lost and probably driving the wrong way down a one-way street within 300 metres of leaving the hire depot.

But that's not much worse than trying to understand a different satnav system in every car that has one. Recently, I picked up a Vauxhall in Central London and had made it out of London and into Kent before I managed to successfully type in the correct address. Woeful, but luckily after 20 years in the City, I know my way around and out of town. I didn't even try to use it after that.

Then there's the fact that, when you get into a hire car, the SatNav is set to local language. Obviously. But the manual to tell you how to turn it to English (and I mean English not American) is in the local language, too. So it chatters away happily - and completely oblivious to the fact that I've no idea what it's trying to say.

So, my little pocket device is a boon. And yes, I know that, in theory I could use my phone or my tablet but I just don't seem to get the same convenience factor from them, good as they are.

So, anyway, back on this Airbus A380 - the nicest plane in the history of commercial flight - we are sitting back in our very nice seats, deciding what to eat and what films to watch. The Singapore girls (who are rarely actually from Singapore, incidentally) with painted smiles and hair in piles are being suitably attentive and we are sipping (in my case gulping) fizz. We're relaxed, happy and if I wasn't typing this, we'd be holding hands, watching a film (sharing a set of headphones so we each get half of the stereo and both get all of the background noise because we can't share my Bose noise-cancelling jobbies) just as we were before this note demanded to be written. And that's exactly what we will be doing 30 seconds after I've turned this tablet thing off.

Some things in life are just nice, even if some of the time you are lost and wondering if someone is going to land a plane on top of your car.

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