by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I guess getting away from it all just ain’t what it used to be.

I have just returned from five weeks in Europe, and here is the thing I remember most: It was not a French schoolboy skipping down a cobblestone street; it was not a lovely serenade on a canal boat in Venice.

It was CNN.

That’s right. Cable News Network. Wherever I went. Every hotel room. Every airport. Every bar. Every store window. CNN. It is wrapped through Europe like one long extension cord, blasting its images of anchorpeople and charts and news footage that reads “Cairo” or “Alabama” or “Charles Bierbauer reporting.”

I may not have been able to find a bathroom, but I could easily find how Wall Street closed. Morning, noon and night, I would intersect this CNN voice urging me to “stay in touch with your world.”

Hey. I work for a newspaper. And even I don’t want to be that in touch. Not when I’m on vacation. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Italy was one of the places I went. I had been there many times. The first, as a college kid, I got stuck with no money, nothing but a Eurail pass. So I took the midnight train from the port city of Brindisi. I shared a cramped cabin with six Italians, a grandmother, two brothers, their wives and a kid. They spoke no English, I spoke no Italian. But the ride was long and I was desperately hungry, so we passed around a dictionary, pointed to words, laughed, and wound up sharing a salami and bread. Afterward, they went to sleep by taking their shoes off and plopping their legs in between the people across from them.

So there I was, between two sets of smelly feet, on a hot train, trying to nod off. That train rocked. It shook. It sucked the breath out of you with its cramped quarters. But when I think back to it now, at least it was different. It was an adventure. It was fun. There was so umbilical cord to home.

Nobody turned to me and said “Americano? . . . Si? . . . Wolf Blitzer?” Need to know, need to know now

I have this nightmare: I am crawling across the desert, my throat parched and dry. Looking over a sand dune, I see a tent. I stumble toward it, pull aside the flap — and find a bedouin sitting in front of a TV set.

“Water . . . ” I rasp.

“Just a sec,” he says. “I want to catch the sports.”

And now, I discover, it’s true!

Really. In the Kuwaiti desert, a bedouin sheepherder named Abdullah Ali Ahmed Rashed was recently found in his tent, with a coal fire, a pot of tea, and a Sony Trinitron, tuned to CNN, thanks to a generator that was left behind by U.S. troops.

“Six o’clock, CNN, seven o’clock, CNN, eight o’clock, CNN,” Rashed told a reporter who visited him there. “No time for sheep.”

Great. The world’s first sand potato.

Rashed, who sleeps on old burlap pillows, admitted he was now neglecting the duties of his ancestors, who were content to wander the desert without the latest stock prices. But, he said, he’ll be ready next time Iraq threatens to attack. He’ll know about it first.

Great. Then what does he do?

Shoot them with the remote control?

Which is kind of my point here. Do we really need to know all the news every minute of every day? Aren’t there some situations where it might be better to concentrate on the real life around you, the smells, the sun, your own heartbeat? I know certain people who tell me, “Hey, when I’m on vacation, I like to keep up with what’s going on back home.”

To which I say: Why take a vacation?

Why not just spend two weeks in the CNN tower in Atlanta? I hear they have a great commissary. Just try to get away from it all

Whatever happened to getting away from it all? To exploring the outback of Australia, or strolling the streets of Shanghai, or looking for the snow leopard high in the Himalayas?

Call me strange, but I always enjoyed going places where I didn’t speak the language, where I had to use my imagination, where the people seemed strange and wonderful and saw me as this mysterious traveler from the New World.

Now I tell an old Swiss gentleman that I am American and he says
“American? You goot da right one, baby . . . uh-huh!”

I travel a lot, but I get the sense I am not traveling as far as I used to. It feels like the world is looped with a big shoelace now, that keeps getting tugged, tighter and tighter.

And more than anything, TV is responsible. It is connecting a living room in LA to a tent in the Kuwaiti desert. I know Marshall McLuhan talked about this, TV creating the “global village.” And maybe some people think it’s good.

Here’s my question. If the world is one big global village, where do we go for vacation?

Personally, I’m looking for a train.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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