“How is that phone even working?” The fourteen-year-old son of our friend in Paris asked, staring across the bistro table at my iPhone with the kind of casual disdain that French teenagers have perfected.
He was right, of course (as all those French teenagers usually are). My iPhone’s battery had overheated and expanded, pushing up against the screen, which had detached around the edges along the top. It being a work phone, I could have turned it in for a replacement, but knowing I would be leaving the university in six weeks, I didn’t want to go through the hassle, despite risking the loss of all service and connection while on vacation in Europe.
After all, I was reminded of my first visit to France in 1999. Back then, if I’d had a cell phone, it would have only been just that, a phone—no Internet, no GPS, texting, email, no camera or music—just a phone. But I didn’t even have that. Instead, I had a cassette player with the Italian language tapes that I had practiced for six months before the trip, some guidebooks, a big foldout map of France, and my Nikon F3 camera.
When we arrived in France, we had just finished three weeks traveling around Italy where I had been in charge of all communication and had already snapped dozens of rolls of film. Stepping off the overnight train from Venice to Nice, it was now Bob’s turn to do all the talking. I was relieved of my duties as translator and guide, and could now lose myself in the only tool I had at my disposal, the camera lens, to comprehend this new place I was exploring.
But only a day into the three weeks we were about to navigate through France, the battery on my F3 died. Completely died. And finding a replacement in the southern French countryside would prove impossible. There was plenty of goose liver pâté and rillette, but no camera equipment.
For the rest of that trip I was surprisingly disoriented. I couldn’t remember any of the high school French that I might have snatched out of the air at another time. Maps, which I’m normally good with, were hard to negotiate, and the simplest things, like toilets and door keys, were completely alien. I mean like extraterrestrial alien.
I have memories of the trip: the ferme-auberge where we stayed near Carcassonne, cassoulet in Castelnaudary, Burgundy, Toulouse, Cap d’Agde, eating bread and jams from a farmers market along the road in the Loire Valley, the taxi driver in Paris who pretended not to understand where we wanted to go, a kiss on the Tour Eiffel. But I have only half as many memories from France as from the three weeks prior in Italy. And no photographs.
A friend whose family moved from Mexico to Southern California when he was six years old says he has very few memories from his first year in the United States while he was learning to speak English. For him, having the vocabulary and making memories were intimately intertwined and had been completely disrupted. And I dare say, the same has been true for me when traveling, especially on that first European vacation when the tools I’d used for the first half of the trip all failed me suddenly.
So yesterday, two days before my last day in my current job and one week before I leave New York City after 26 years and move to Providence RI to start my next job, my iPhone lost the battle and died completely. And by strange coincidence, so did the iPad 2 I’ve been nursing along for several years without replacement. Furthermore, at close of business on Tuesday, I will be turning in my work laptop, and then all mobile connection will cease. I won’t have a cell phone and laptop until I start work next Monday in Rhode Island.
I’m being challenged to face my final week in New York tool-free, and it’s frightening. I have no way to record my final days or stay connected with friends I’d like to see before I leave. I will need to fall back on conventional ways of communicating and being present to the moment, and experience them unfiltered, unmapped, and uninterpreted until I’m plugged in once again.
So, until then, call Bob if you want to get together before I go.