I admit it: I am powerless over WiFi.
My life, along with that of scores of University of Florida undergraduates with whom I'm traveling on our college's summer study-abroad program, now is unexpectedly unmanageable.
I write this technological confessional aboard a ferry midway between France and England, and the WiFi reception is upsettingly spotty at best. Okay, it is frustrating, if not infuriating.
But at least there is some WiFi. There was none at the students' previous outpost in Caen last night - a shock for all of us.
We treat omnipresent Internet access like a car taken for granted, until the battery unceremoniously and unexpectedly doesn't turn over one morning. We can even purchase it inflight after hitting 10,000 feet. Unfortunately, there is no AAA on this ferry to call on our smartphones - they aren't so smart without the Internet - to jumpstart our WiFi.
Born at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation - had my parents conceived me just three months later, I happily would have been a proud part of Gen X and, in turn, been far more comfortable with my unabashed angst and love for all things Nirvana and the widow Cobain - I suddenly find myself wholly relating with the band of otherwise merry Millennials with whom I travel.
Regardless of our birthdates, we bond today as part of Generation C - Generation Connected - that is abruptly unconnected.
We learned that in certain parts of France that WiFi is pronounced "wee-fee," as if it were the name of a poodle proudly strolling down the shady sidewalk of some Parisian rue. Indeed, we now rue the days we find ourselves sans WiFi.
Why worry? What's the problem?
For me, it's a desire to check email and do a bit of online research for a piece I clearly envision and badly want to write, but now cannot. So I write this first-person observation post instead. At least it carries the type of dateline that someone who teaches in a journalism department envisions - "Somewhere on the English Channel."
For many students, it's the need to write a paper for a class they're taking in France and England that irks them about this out-of-the-blue hiatus from WiFi. For others, it is the longing to blog, to use social media or simply to email a parent or paramour.
Back in the 1970s, I made collect calls from a rotary hotel phone to contact my parents when travelling solo. The students with me now are rightfully clueless, of course, as to what exactly a collect call is.
If I do catch a student who manages to actually access WiFi on this boat and is sucking down bandwidth by streaming video of Solange Knowles fighting in an elevator, I promise to permanently dump all support of net neutrality.
How bad is the WiFi addiction? For some students, it meant abandoning a potentially fine French meal on their last night in the country for dining at Subway - for four hours, no less - because it provided free access to WiFi. Alas, had I known the Subway in Caen was a WiFi hotspot, I too would have forgone a final croque monsieur to join them.
Of course, we didn't always expect WiFi on demand. Once you even had to pay for it at Starbucks. That seems like forever ago.
Perhaps our collective WiFi-less irritation simply is due to our inability to live in the here and now. We take pictures to capture the scenery here rather than soaking it in ourselves. We text and Tweet rather than reflect. We want the world to know - in real time - the cool things we are doing because we are now, after visiting France, tres cool.
But our cold-turkey lack of WiFi today ultimately is put into perspective. Yesterday, we visited Normandy, Omaha Beach and Point de Hoc. We saw the graves of more than 9,000 Americans, each marked with an immaculate white cross or Star of David. We visited the grave of a University of Florida graduate killed as a very young man during the D-Day offensive; he is one of more than a half-dozen Gators buried at the Normandy American Cemetery. Our tour guide even managed to find a photograph of him. We understood the gravity of what had happened there 70 years ago next month. I suspect we won't soon forget it either. We are spoiled, very spoiled.
As we approach port in England, one student stuns me. She proclaims feeling strangely happy without WiFi and "super disconnected." She's "accepting of it now." As she says, "you can't look at it negatively. If you do, it's just going to bother you." I laud her.
But for most of us - for this interminable sea-faring moment of Internet absence, for this forced study about deprivation from a communication technology - our addiction is exposed. Please let there be dependable WiFi at our London accommodations.
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