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.
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?