Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
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Why-fi: How Can We Connect If We’re So Connected?

We finally, after many false starts, technical problems, and delays—in short, Italy—installed wifi internet access at Brigolante.  And I am thrilled.  Really.  Over the moon.  Ecstatic.  Tickled pink.  Walking on air.  On cloud nine.

Okay.  I’m not happy.

Now, before I begin what I hope will be thoughtful analysis but fear will quickly degenerate into diatribe, let me be clear that I absolutely understand why internet access is indispensable while travelling.  As a parent and small business owner, I either travel for work (so need to keep in touch with my kids) or travel with my kids (so need to keep in touch with work).  Unfortunately, there is no way around that conundrum, however unfortunate it may be.  I certainly am not judging guests who require internet access with the same presumption as running water and electricity.  And I would never flip the switch—at this point Pandora’s box has been opened, for better or for worse.

It's a whole new world out there.

So, what’s my problem?

Let’s parse travel–specifically, why we travel– for a minute.  You can compile an endless list of reasons for skipping town, but once you break them down it turns out that virtually each can be filed under a single category:  connection.

Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves. – Albert Camus

Camus saw travel as the moment in which we strip ourselves of all the accoutrements of normal life and are able to connect with and confront who we really are.  I can very much identify with this; it has been during my travels in life that I have been able to shed the skin of others’ expectations and projections and reinvent myself from within according to my own.  At times it has been frightening, but it has also been my most dramatic periods of growth.

There was a time when travel meant leaving.  (And before you young whippersnappers out there get all condescending, let me say that it was not that long ago.  Like, until the late 1980s.)  You left.  You were out of touch.  Unless you had the foresight and organization to leave an itinerary and hotel phone numbers with someone back at the ranch, there was pretty much no way to track you down.  Yes, there was poste restante, the American Express office, and those banks of public phones with the queues stretching down the block, but apart from being informed of a death in your immediate family by telegram, there was no expectation that you would be in touch.

Now, it is very rare that travellers completely disappear from the radar.  We Skype, we post pictures on Flickr, we tell everyone about the amazing sunset we are enjoying while sipping cocktails on Facebook, we check in on Foursquare.  I know many people who are more active online while travelling than when they are at home since they don’t have the nuisance of work to get in the way.  But it begs the question of how much baggage we drag along behind us from home along with our suitcases, and how much it weighs us down.  Do we expend so much energy staying connected with ex-schoolmates and colleagues on social media, Skyping mom every evening so she doesn’t worry, and living each moment as a meta experience of simultaneously composing our next blog post about it in our heads, that we have none left over for ourselves?

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.—Bill Bryson

It used to be like this:  It used to be that our guests would hang out in the garden together in the evening.  Couples would sample wine and hold hands.  Friends would spread out maps for tomorrow and laugh about the adventures they had had today.  Families would tromp around the vegetable garden, teaching their kids the essential yet novel art of picking ripe tomatoes.  Complete strangers would strike up conversations and, over the course of the week, swap hidden gem restaurant suggestions and compare day trips.

This is what I loved.  This is the gift I gave.

A place just that removed from the hustle that at the end of a long day of culture, of art and architecture, of nature, of food and wine, there was the time and the quiet to connect with loved ones:  to propose, to fall in love again, to conceive, to make new friendships, to have long and wandering conversations, to play hide and go seek, to spend that last week together before kids left for college.  Sure, we had internet if someone needed to check their email. But you actually had to go into our office (by “office” I mean “home office” and by “home office” I mean “small, cluttered corner of toy-strewn living room”), and it was so nice outside, and there was still wine in your glass, and your kids were saying, “Daddy, just one more time!” and the sausages on the grill were just about ready and, okay, maybe tomorrow you would check.  There probably wasn’t anything that important in your inbox, anyway.

It’s changed since we installed wifi.  Not to say that these things still don’t happen, but less.  Less.  More staring at screens and missing the sunset.  More staying inside where the wifi is stronger.  More stressing about emails coming from an office 2000 km away.  More keeping in touch with friends online and not meeting new ones next door.  More partners sitting outside alone with a book.  More kids saying, “Mommy, are you almost finished?”

Sure, internet access is something I now offer.  But what have I taken away, I wonder?

As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” — Margaret Mead

I have often said, and repeat here, that leaving my home country has made me a patriot.  Not, of course, because I espouse that insidious “love it or leave it” vein that seems to have become the cultural trope in the US in the past few years, but because the distance and separation have given me the perspective necessary to be able to appreciate those aspects of American culture which do, indeed, make it a great country (and a critical awareness of some substantial problems that real patriots should care enough to fix).  It’s kind of like how your mother is an absolute moron until you leave home and start raising your own children while still maintaining a career, social life, and your sanity.  Suddenly she becomes the smartest woman you ever met (and you understand her flaws much better, as well).

But to acheive the kind of distance and separation to put that vast cultural panorama into focus, you need—ahem—distance and separation.  The day is made up of only so many hours, so if we fill them with constantly checking the CNN newsfeed on our iPhones, watching Glee on our iPads, and  listening to Morning Edition on our iPods (It seems like I have it in for Steve Jobs.  Not really.  I just like alliteration.)—essentially floating through our travels in a bubble of familiar language, politics, customs, and trash tv–there simply aren’t enough left over to observe and absorb the culture we are visiting in a way essential to useful juxtaposition.   At the end of the day, can you ever really understand your mother until you’ve moved out of her basement?

I suppose all this ambivalence can seem patronizing and high-handed.  After all, we are all grown-ups here and make our own decisions about how and why we travel.  After all, I’m just a business owner providing services clients request.  After all, all this connectivity has revolutionized my line of work, largely for the better.  After all, before we had wifi all I did was bitch about not having wifi.  After all, it’s one of the first things I ask when I book an accommodation myself.  After all, it’s progress, right?

Right?

14 Comments

  1. anne |

    My husband and I travel out of season , so it is a lot darker and colder in the evening and nights so we tend to stay in our rented apartment /villa , and we love having internet .. I am not sure what the problem is .. have read it a few times.

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      @Anne, yes I completely agree. I love having internet when I travel. I’m just a little ambivalent about what that means for the evolution of the whys and wherefores of travel. Like I said, I’m more of an ambivalent commentator than critical luddite.

      Reply
  2. Diana Strinati Baur |

    right.

    (I’m really tempted to leave it at that but I can’t.)

    When sharing my thoughts about this, I tend to get a high, preechy voice and a brooklyn accent. I face down, but look up over my half glasses and say something like, ” you know, when I moved to Europe there were no BLOGS and there was no SKYPE and calls to the states cost a deutschmark a minute and it was no fun going to the sauna and everyone was butt naked but me and I had no clue because, guess what, NO ONE TOLD ME! There were no on line dictionaries where I could look up what chicken legs are – I had to bring the BOOK to the BUTCHER.” or something like that.

    But of course I adjusted and I got the distance and separation I needed to start seeing my home country much more objectively, and, I also believe, much more patriotically (in a real sense). In this massive synapse-type-global-connection that we now have, I am not even sure if people think like that anymore. People don’t want to disconnect – there is something disquieting and discomforting about disconnecting now that wasn’t there before all of this technology.

    I stick my wi-fi needle in my arm every day and get my daily fix of connectivity. So who am I to say. But I am kind of glad I came into this life at a different time, when this (looking at needle in arm) wasn’t an option. It made me stronger.

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      @Diana…you speak the truth. I have often thought how different the expat experience was when I moved in 1993…more isolating and lonelier in some ways, but ultimately very rewarding. Now it’s not only easier to keep in touch with folks “back home” but also to connect with other expats, which can be can be a saving grace when you are first getting adjusted.

      Does that make the old school expat experience more “real”? Are we justified in the “I used to walk to school in six feet of snow barefoot” attitude towards these young whippersnappers? I’m not sure. Sometimes I think that these kids actually have it harder with the siren song of home so strong and present and feasible in moments of indecision. I was often resolute in my ignorance; had I been tempted every day with a steady stream of homesickness inducing information from the States I may not be where I am right now.

      Reply
  3. melissa |

    Can I just say I remember the ’80s and a time when there were no computers or email…and that during my first study abroad program in Florence I had to rely on la posta italiana (gasp!) and that one-time jaunt to the post office at midnight to make a transatlantic call to my then boy friend, now husband. Everyday I would run to the school’s front desk hoping for a letter…sometimes days and weeks would go by without a sign of those flimsiest of scraps of blue airmail letters in sight…and then you would receive a missive, or perhaps five in one day, and it was like mana from heaven.

    Sometimes I wonder what our relationship would have been like if we could have contacted each other every nano second of the day during my absence through email and skype. Surely I would have felt more connected and I would have been able share my pictures and experiences in a blow by blow fashion. But, also I wouldn’t have had my own unique alone time abroad, and certainly I wouldn’t have a shoebox filled with love letters that I still keep and pull out from time to time.

    I’m not sure if one is better than the other…I just know how magical it was to receive an actual written letter, when communication was that easy to achieve. On the other hand, with daily internet fixes, I feel more connected with the world and am meeting more amazing people that I can now visit and hug in person when I travel! So, I fall back to my familiar adage…everything is ok, just do it in moderation! (that goes for cookies and chocolate too)

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      @Melissa…you echoed the exact sentiments I have expressed so many times about my first exchange experience and the years of having a “long-distance romance” with Stefano. I often wonder if constant contact would have made the flame flare up and burn out rather than slowly smoulder.

      I agree that the connections I have made online have been very gratifying and often segued into “real” relationships. The key is balance, as you so wisely say!

      Reply
  4. Mary Thomas Tacconi |

    Brilliant, well-said. Progress…right? Like all advances / progress there are pros and cons and…always lurking is the possibility of abuse. Personal responsibility for personal choices is more and more important. Parenting today has yet another difficult and complex task: encouraging the awareness of the pros and cons of the many tools of modern technology.

    Beautifully expressed in your winning style, Rebecca.

    Reply
  5. Celia Prosecchino |

    My husband was a sea captain in the early 1990s and away for 5 months at a time, I sometimes think how different things would have been if there was internet. I often didn’t know where he was as he couldn’t contact me for weeks, but then there was the romance of talking over the radio when possible and of course I have love letters.

    Reply
  6. Chiocciola |

    So well written! I have wondered how having Internet connection changes the interaction between innkeepers and guests, since they now can look stuff up online instead of asking… I have just started traveling with a laptop this last year, and try to restrict it to just necessary travel logistics research and the occasional work email. In our week long rental in Bologna it was great, especially as we had a ton of rain and needed to make modification to earlier plans. But yeah, it is sad that we take less time to disconnect…

    Reply
  7. travelingsuep |

    Well said. It is difficult in these times (I’m not 100 just sound like it) not to obsess about our email/blackberry blah blah blah and I confess to visiting internet cafes when on holiday BUT

    One of my fondest memories is going into HSBC in Hong Kong to change traveller’s cheques and being to told to hang-on. I thought there was a problem with my cheque but the counter staff came back with a letter from my mother set via the bank instead of poste restante. What a thrill to get some mail and hear from home and so unexpected.

    Reply
  8. Josef |

    Here I am sitting in Melbourne on a rainy afternoon, reading Rebbecca’s blog. I got hooked, and now, whether you like it or not, I am typing.
    Peeping into souls of nice looking young ladies (I am a 67 year old fart) from all over the world – isn’t it great? It wouldn’t be possible without internet!
    This is my first ever contribution to a blog. I am afraid my language and literary skills aren’t up to it. (I am a retired engineer).

    Internet is great.

    I can’t imagine my retirement without the internet. I was born in Czechoslovakia, live in Australia, but above those two, I am a citizen of the world. I could spent all day sitting at the computer and browsing through newspapers, forums etc. Sometimes I spend hours responding to newspaper articles only to scrap it. Too many responses – nobody is going to read it anyway.
    We are fortunate to have enough money to travel overseas every year, mostly to Europe of course. We were in Venice last May, and who knows, I may be in Perugia in a month or so.
    We travel independently. We could not do it without internet. I spend months researching our next trip, book hotels for every night, cars, ferries as much as possible. I collect plans and maps, notes etc, and just before we go I transfer everything onto my laptop. It makes travel easier and we are more relaxed.
    On the trip I like to be in touch with our two daughters, scan the news, weather, shift money around etc.

    Now about the disconnect – actually you better ask my wife. But I never was good at talking, anyway. Engineers don’t do that. She has her books, the bible, and she joined a walking club with other ‘senior’ ladies who like to talk. But occasionally we watch TV together or a DVD. We are good friends and I think she is happy.

    There is another disconnect – from the surroundings. There is so much info from everywhere that I don’t care about Melbourne or Australia too much anymore. And although the beach is only about 40 minutes away, we go there only a couple of times a year. And the laundry door needs repainting. Next year, maybe.

    Good, Rebbecca, that you now understand why people like internet. Please, if you have to charge for it (and we don’t expect something for nothing), do it in a way that doesn’t put your customers on the wrong foot.

    It has been a pleasure to visit your part of the world.

    Josef

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Josef, thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to write! I am honored to be on the receiving end of your first blog comment, and a thoughtful and thought-provoking one, as well. It sounds as if you are enjoying your retirement and seeing the world, and good on you…if you do make it to Perugia, let me know! Best, Rebecca

      Reply
  9. Shell |

    I have been living in Italy for 10 years, and only last year was able to have internet installed at home (Le Marche, if you think in Umbria things move slowly…)I absolutely love it and use it constantly, for the ridiculous (playing WoW, not afraid to admit it) to the sublime (Youtube=Glenn Gould and Butthole Surfers etc.) But on vacation, I reject it. Sometimes meeting your neighbours in the agriturismo is not as great is one may think, sometimes it is better. But I would rather disconnect and meet them all, or stroll, or even complain about something with my husband (this place is TOO “lovely”) in real time and in real life. The trip/vacation/travel/rest should be intimate and real. We can put our pictures on Facebook when we get back.
    Having said that, many travellers don’t have that option, MUST be in touch with the office, or the ailing relative. So, Rebecca, you did good thing. The Wi.fi can be there and we should all just use it with discretion.
    Have a good one!
    Shell

    Reply
    • rebecca |

      Shell, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. You were able to put in two paragraphs what took me an entire blog post to say!

      Reply

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