My husband left for a week-long trip to Barcelona this morning, leaving me busy with two kids and feeling oddly lonely. A long January Sunday was staring me in the face, so I made plans to meet a friend of mine near her place in Vincennes. It was a good forty-five minutes away in a corner of the Paris suburbs I'm less than familiar with, but I thought I could swing it. Le Petit would be coming with me, after all.
The little gray Renault Clio that my mother-in-law has generously loaned me, the car which is coaxing me into becoming a confident driver again after almost ten carless years in France, has no GPS. This is no problem when I drive back and forth to work, which is the great majority of the kilometers I log. This is no problem when I meticulously plan out my route ahead of time, with Google Map printouts at hand. But I don't have my husband's sixth sense with Parisian geography, and I still need plenty of warning before heading on the white-knuckle Paris ring road called Le Périphérique, so I don't improvise. But Le Petit has a bizarrely knack with geography. When he's in the car with a map on his lap, I am not exaggerating, I feel more confident than when I'm using my husband's car's GPS.
I'm not sure when he started mapping out his world in his head. By age five he was drawing maps of France at school, from memory. The summer he turned five I bought him a laminated Michelin road atlas of France on a whim, and ever since he spends most of his time on family road trips with it open on his knees, following along with his finger and comparing his itinerary to the one displayed in the dashboard. He knows and loves only one app on our iPad: Google Maps. He used to spend hours following roads to all corners of the earth, especially (for some reason he has never disclosed) Siberia. He can place all the countries in Europe on a blank map -- all the countries, from the Baltic to the Balkans. He started to learn to read by deciphering road signs, so desperate was he to learn where roads were going.
Back in September, he went with me on a shopping trip to a nearby shopping mall. I found myself in the wrong lane and forced to turn onto a highway going the wrong direction. He calmly talked me through the route to turn around -- he'd done it once before, with Papa -- and the next time, when I went by myself, he wanted to make sure I'd be OK on my own.
"Because, maman, if you get lost I can't come and get you!" he'd warned.
Today before our afternoon outing we looked at the map together on Google. The A13 to the Périphérique to the Porte Dorée, I told him, and we'd meet my friend at the Château de Vincennes for a walk in the surrounding park. I got the kids herded down to the parking garage, buckled into their car seats, and was preparing to go when I realized I didn't have the detailed map of Paris. I considered unpacking everyone to run back in but we were already late, so I explained my predicament to Le Petit and gave him an unhelpful map of the southwestern suburbs (we were headed southeast) and a large, undetailed map of the entire Paris region.
"Do you think you can get us there with this?" I asked. He thought he could.
By the time we stopped for gas, five minutes later, he'd already corrected my itinerary.
"You're wrong, maman, the exit we want is Porte de Vincennes and not Porte Dorée!" And he explained my error clearly with the help of the undetailed map.
"You're right, then." Of course he was.
Later, as I was mustering all my nerve on the Périph amid the swerving cars and motorcycles, I asked Le Petit to advise me on the lane to stay in.
"Don't worry," he said with authority, "You won't exit soon. First there's the A6, and then the A4, and only then will will get to the Porte Dorée and the Porte de Vincennes."
"There's Porte de Châtillon..." I said vaguely.
"You're far still. The A6 is at Porte d'Orléans."
As he told me all this, I had the distinct feeling he was telling me from familiar memory, as if he were introducing me to classmates by name. He was not just reading off the map.
A little later, I noticed a bridge.
"We must be nearing the Seine!" I remarked, glad to have finally grasped some landmark.
"That's the bridge over the train," he corrected. "The train for the Gare d'Austerlitz. The Seine is just afterwards."
We exited to a large boulevard and a remarkable mess, the kind that one finds at any "Porte" into Paris, this one made worse by double-parked trucks packing up a large open-air street market.
"Where do I go from here? You wouldn't happen to know, would you?" I asked Le Petit, prepared to pull over, park and pull out my smartphone if necessary.
"Go straight!" he said, "The château is straight ahead. You can't see it from here, but it isn't far, I promise."
That's when I remembered that he'd visited the park before -- two years ago, at age four-and-a-half. Once after that, too, with my husband, at five-and-a-half. That was enough for him to be certain of his way.
We met my friend, we had a grand time at the Parc Floral, playing on the giant slides and running around the garden. The weather was mild, there were kids everywhere. We stayed until closing, and the sun was setting as we headed back to the car. The Périphérique was slow on the way back, so I let Le Petit choose a somewhat extravagant alternate route, the A4 to the A86 to the N12 with one emergency pee pee stop somewhere after the N118.
I don't hide how impressed I am with my little navigator, but I try to remind him, too, that it is OK to make a mistake. "You know, if you ever don't know where we're going, it's fine. We'll stop and we'll figure it out. It'll be OK." I don't want him to think the whole world relies on his sense of direction, and I know that at the moment a good portion of his whole world is Mommy and Daddy. Even if he knows the world map (it hangs over his bed; there's also a globe on his dresser and three or four atlases in his book shelf), he's unlikely to accurately evaluate his own place in it. It's scary being a kid.
He doesn't seem unnerved by the pressure, or if he does, he doesn't tell me. Meanwhile, I gain confidence with every outing together, and that is strange: isn't it supposed to work the other way around?