LONDON — I can still see the old train station in that northern Italian village. Can still feel sun on the back of my neck and the weight of a huge canvas pack on my shoulders.
I was just out of college, traveling across Europe, as kids did back then. I had little money — too little to spare for phone calls or a newspaper — and the next train wasn’t for hours. I took a place against the white stone wall of the station, dropped on my rear end and exhaled.
“This,” I said to myself, gazing at the hot empty streets, “must be what they mean by ‘the middle of nowhere.’ “
Of course, it wasn’t nowhere. Everywhere is somewhere. And as I sat there, letting time crawl by, I felt my breathing slow and my eyes droop, until the whole thing was a bit dreamy.
I had no place to go, nowhere to be, no appointments, no obligations and, more important, no options. It was, when I look back on it, not only somewhere, it was a wonderful place, as calm and quiet as I have ever been.
I thought about that the other day when I read an article about today’s young footloose backpackers, and how their treks across Europe and Asia now include regular stops — at least two or three a day — to log on to the Internet and get e-mail and read news.
“I’ve been checking at Yahoo.com almost every day of my trip,” said a young man from North Dakota who was traveling through Bangkok. He’d been monitoring a stock he owned, “and it’s definitely time for me to sell my shares.”
Sell his shares?
That’s getting away from it all?
The story went on to point out how Internet shops and access sites are springing up all over the world’s tourist spots. Travelers use the Web not only for information and e-mail but for cyber phone calls and chats with relatives. One woman talked about how going on-line enabled her to keep appointments and schedules with other travelers.
“In a way, it’s sad,” one young man admitted, “because I should let myself get absorbed in the surroundings. But writing messages on the Internet is a good way to keep a journal.”
I don’t know. To me, avoiding such things was always the point of footloose travel.
There is a great deal to learn from getting lost, from being out of touch, from writing postcards as you sit on the bank of a river or on the ledge of a castle, not in some dry, sterile cubicle.
To me, the fun of being in places like Greece, Turkey, Finland or Thailand was how easily you could disappear from the shackles of the everyday. The phone didn’t ring. The door heard no knocks. If you truly felt the need to learn something from home — the latest political development, or a baseball score
— you had to search for an English newspaper that was no doubt three days behind.
You know what you learned from that? That life goes on without instant information. That things can — believe it or not — wait.
Instead, today, we journey to new worlds while taking our old worlds with us. We rent cell phones. We book rooms with faxes. We want CNN and MTV on the hotel televisions. We want a modem to plug in a computer so as not to miss a thing.
But if you don’t miss a thing, what’s the point of being away?
Find a way to get lost
I remember, in my post-college travels, wandering through European cities, leafing through guidebooks for cheap youth hostels. My friends and I would march miles to get there, only to find the information was out of date and the place was closed. You know what? It was fun. We laughed and we found someplace else to sleep.
It was part of something that I lament now that it’s gone, something that has all but disappeared for Americans: being disconnected.
You can’t walk through an airport anymore without TV monitors blaring CNN. What about those of us who don’t want the latest news every 20 minutes?
At a Caribbean hotel not long ago, I ordered breakfast and was delivered a faxed version of the New York Times: the latest info, even the weather. What if I don’t care to know all that?
People at Microsoft and CNN will say you need to be in touch. I don’t know. I say you need open space, new air, and landscapes that force you to get lost. The planet, after all, has been here a lot longer than Microsoft.
If I could do anything for young travelers today, I’d plop them by that Italian train station on a hot, lazy summer day. I’d tell them to breathe, in and out, in and out.
And I’d steal their batteries.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM