Around 7:30 last Monday morning, in the midst my daily wake-up ritual of reading in bed, my Nook let out a little “Ping!” That’s when I knew I was back in the 21st century.
For nearly two weeks, I’ve been in residence at the Akademia Sztuk Pięknych, or Academy of Fine Arts, in Wroclaw, Poland. It’s the third time I’ve lived here while teaching a three-week intensive at the University of Lower Silesia. Living at the art school is always a bit funky. There are no kitchen facilities, not even a refrigerator, requiring strategic meal planning. I apparently share a bathroom with a phantom who appears only to take late-night showers. The halls are populated by ghostly life-size sculptures, most of them nudes. While my garret (La vie boheme, w Polsce, Oct. 8, 2010) is comfortable, it’s a bit like “high-end camping,” as my China colleague Pamela Britnell once described foreign teachers’ housing in Xiangtan (Ever so humble, March 3, 2010). Actually, it’s much higher-end.
One reason I requested my same garret this year was the fact that the wifi – or VEE-fee, as it’s pronounced in Europe — works in my room, even though it’s supposed to work only in selected public areas. I suspect the thing outside my dormer window that looks a bit like an old-time TV antenna may be the wireless router. (If it’s a TV antenna, it’s not doing much good.) My laptop remembered the password and connected immediately upon my return. Imagine my surprise, then, when I returned from class last Friday night to find I couldn’t connect – not on my laptop, not on my web-equipped Nook, not on the old iPod Touch that my friend Heidi recently gave me, code-named Alvin in honor of our late mutual friend whose picture she used as its wallpaper. He always wanted to visit his ancestral Poland.
An evening without the Internet is hardly a hardship, considering that I lived without it for 40 years. I settled in to watch “The Tudors,” long since downloaded on iTunes and held in reserve for just such an occasion. True, it was a little frustrating that I couldn’t do one last e-mail check or rush to IMDB.com to check whether Simon Ward, Henry VIII’s Bishop Gardiner, was the Simon who played James Bellamy in “Upstairs, Downstairs.” (In fact that was Simon Williams.) But overall it felt like a quiet evening at home in my country childhood, when all there was to do was watch TV until you were ready for bed.
The next morning, I was still disconnected – no WQXR.org to bring me gently back to life. “Nie veefee,” I told Piotr at the front desk on my way out the door. Piotr, whom I know to be a very nice man despite the fact that he speaks no English and I understand little Polish, launched into a long explanation and gestured to indicate “around the corner.” My guess was that the school had turned off the wifi for the weekend, when few people would be there, but he was suggesting that I could connect at a nearby café or, for a fee, at the Radisson Hotel that shares our courtyard. I smiled, nodded and went on my way, still confident that I could live disconnected.
Then why did I pull Alvin out of my bag almost the moment I arrived at school? No matter. Nobody knew the wifi password, and the half-point type on the screen was too small to read anyway. After class I checked e-mail at the library and, in a blow to my ego, found that nobody urgently required my attention. Next I went to the movies and checked Alvin to see if there might be a connection at the cinema cafe; again, nie veefee. I went to dinner at Le Bistrot Parisien, connected there and, again, found nothing of importance. The restaurant where I had lunch on Sunday had no wifi, so afterwards I went to Coffee Planet on the Rynek for a pot of tea I didn’t really need, just to check the connection there. Once again, no urgent messages.
This is an addiction, and we all have it — even I, who don’t even carry a cellphone except when pressed or traveling. Maybe I’ll start when everyone else learns some manners – say, on the day I no longer have to walk down the street with someone six inches behind me screaming into my ear, wrapped up in a “private” conversation but oblivious to being in public, or when the first notes of a Tanglewood season come from the orchestra, not a ringtone. Text messaging is far less intrusive, unless you happen to be sitting behind a lit screen in a dark theater. Little wonder I chose the most anachronistic ringtone my international phone offered: ”Greensleeves.”
Again I ask: What is so important that we cannot stand to be out of touch for even a moment? Yet I reach for Alvin at every opportunity. It’s become a reflex, much like the way my father used to reach to his shirt pocket for his cigarettes long after he had finally kicked his own addiction, which would nevertheless kill him a few years later. These devices have become a habit, a pacifier, a shield. Yes, they connect us to the world, but they also they cut us off. Technology has made it too easy, even when we’re on the other side of the world, to read our own newspapers, watch our own TV, play our own music and communicate with our own friends instead of engaging with our surroundings — being present.
This Friday, the wifi had again been turned off by the time I returned from class. Never mind; I was holding a Saturday class at the office and could use the computer there. (I scored: “Venus in Fur” on TDF!) Mere hours after leaving the office, I went by Coffee Planet. This time I didn’t even go inside but sat on a bench just outside to see if the signal traveled that far. It did. What urgent business awaited me? Just a continuing dialogue about naming a friend’s new cat.
I plan to spend Sunday as unplugged as possible . I’ll go swimming, maybe visit the art museum next door, have dinner with colleagues whom I now, after four years, regard as friends. Maybe I’ll spend some quiet time writing, maybe finish this very piece even though I can’t post it until Monday. In short, I will try to live like a civilized human being, the way people did in the days before a couple couldn’t even enjoy a leisurely Saturday breakfast together without simultaneously checking their separate e-mails. But surely, somewhere along the way, I’ll reach for Alvin, just in case someone, somewhere, is trying to reach me with a message more important than seeing the charm of the city around me in the golden light of a northern European autumn, and being part of it. When Monday morning brings that “Ping!” I’ll be ready.
Update: I couldn’t connect from the bench outside Coffee Planet on Sunday, but Ula graciously let me check e-mail at her flat. Mea culpa.