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The Perils Of Staying Connected While Abroad

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day.

The journey of a thousand miles now begins with setting up a travel blog -- it's practically obligatory these days. My mother has one. So does my godmother. They're so ubiquitous that some of the titles comment on this very fact: Just Another Travel Blog, Another Damn Travel Blog. It's the new version of the living room slide show, except now you don't have to wait until you get back home to bore your friends.

While in Vienna to research my book, I went into the center of town the next morning and found an Internet café.

"Do you have wireless Internet?" I asked the man behind the front desk.

"No, I'm sorry," he replied. "You have your own laptop?"

"Yes."

He leaned forward for a moment, thinking, then sprang from his seat, speaking in warm, exclamatory bursts: "Come! Easy solution! We will take a cord from another computer! And put it into your laptop! Like wireless but with a wire!"

Problem solved.

I opened my email with the shaky hands of an addict. William, a man I'd met at the Mozart statue just hours before, had already sent me a message.

The guy at the desk asked me my name. I told him as I logged on to Facebook.

"A pleasure to meet you," he said. "I am----." But I wasn't listening -- I was already pulled into my friends' online banter: comments on the latest news, who went to a party last night, who
ate what for lunch. If the Internet café guy were American, he would be named Billy; I'm sure of it. So let's just call him that.

Let's be clear about this: Email is great. No denying that. It helps you keep in touch. Ditto blogs. Ditto social networks. Ditto cell phones. I doubt that I would have stayed in touch with William had we met a generation ago, our disparate ages and interests creating a chasm that neither of us would have particularly cared to cross if not for the easy bridge-building of email. Blogs bridge even more distant gaps, allowing friends of friends and even total strangers
into your travels and travails.

That's all fine and good. What's jarring, as Billy might have noted just now, is when that outside community takes precedence over one's immediate surroundings, when we chat with friends back home and say that we're bored and not meeting any interesting, eccentric locals -- while ignoring the guy sitting a few feet away from us, trying to strike up a conversation.

"If you have an opportunity, you can visit my brother's souvenir shop," Billy said.

"Maybe later," I said. To my Facebook friends, I typed, "Doug is in Vienna, being stalked by Mozart."

Of the people who would read that, I knew many even less well than I knew Billy. But they were friends, damn it -- it said so right on the screen: "Friends." Friends whom I could sort into lists or tag in photos. Friends who could "like" my travel witticisms, giving a digital thumbs-up for all of our other friends to see, eliciting more digital approval. Billy, being in real life, lacked all of these features.

"The shop is close to here," Billy said. "The best prices in Vienna! Sharon Stone went there."

"Uh-huh." I opened Twitter and reported my Mozart stalkers there, too.

"It is not a pressure," Billy said. "It is just an offer, if you are looking."

"Okay." I saw that my sister was online, so I opened up Google Chat and told her about the Mozarts.

There is no off button on modern life, not really, not for many of us. A wide body of recent research, articles and books have tried to untangle the cognitive and cultural implications of our wired-in era, including Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which persuasively argues that the Internet scatters our attention and makes our thinking more superficial. More data points do not equal more knowledge. Multitasking is a great way to get many things done poorly.

For travel purposes, disconnection helps you appreciate the strangeness of a foreign land or the ineffable wonder of a Montmartre sunset, which has a tendency not to hang on for just a sec while you finish your important email. It's not just the remote or awe-inspiring places that deserve our full attention, though -- it's also the beaten path, where finding those small moments of joy and lingering bits of beauty can take as much effort as tracking an elusive animal. You already have all kinds of overload and messages thrown at you here -- why add to the discord with your own digital dissonance?

My mother, who visited Europe in the era of Frommer's first guidebooks, surely had distractions when she wrote her letters home, but they weren't on the paper. They were in her surroundings: traffic, birds, people, smells. They were of the place. They weren't drawing her out of her surroundings; they were pulling her back in. That's the key detail, the difference between writing a letter and writing an email or a blog post. We're disconnected from everything
but the screen.

"You like Vienna?" Billy asked.

"It's nice," I said.

"Where are you from? America?"

"Yes, Minneapolis. In the middle."

I went back to Twitter to see if anyone had replied to my brilliant bon mot.

Reprinted from Europe of 5 Wrong Turns a Day by Doug Mack by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Mack.