I was 19 years old when I landed in Tunis to attend the Bourguiba Institute. It was going to be a two months stay, a short one according to me, nonetheless my parents were adamant that I should phone them weekly. In 1976 Tunisia, this meant going to the post office earlier in the morning than I liked, booking an international call, and then sitting in a queue waiting to be called by the operator. A friendly man, constantly perspiring and wiping his brow, he would dial my parents’ number and then direct me nodding and smiling to a cabin which felt like a steam bath.
You had to keep the door open if you wanted air, but if you wanted some privacy you had to close the door, phone slipping from your sweaty hands like an eel, and conduct your conversation holding your breath. While sitting in the post office waiting for long hours, I made friends, learnt French (nobody in their right mind would listen to my tentative classical Arabic) and I felt very much part of the local way of life. When I could not call I wrote letters, on the lovely air mail writing paper, light, blue and crinkly : does anyone remember it? Probably now it would be classified as an antique, but I never travelled anywhere without an air mail paper block (and relative envelopes) in my luggage.
Things seemed easier a few years later when, in Egypt, I could afford a flat with my own telephone, however the situation was more complex than it appeared: there were more telephones than telephone lines! So one day you would find that your phone was dead and you called the technician to have it fixed. He came and surreptitiously demanded to be “compensated” because mending your phone meant that he had to “borrow” the line from another home, so we went on in a merry go round of calls…dead phone… technician… compensation… calls… dead phone etc etc
The great leap forward came with mobile phones. The first looked like small hand bags, heavy and cumbersome, but such powerful status symbols. And what about emails? Suddenly the world was at your fingertips.
Having become an apprehensive parent myself, at times bombarding my son with calls, mails, skype and facetime sessions of an intrusive frequency, I have come to the conclusion that I was very lucky as a young person, I could get lost, literally and metaphorically, and nobody minded, I could have moments, hours and days that were completely mine, and to communicate was a matter of choice, not of duty or availability. I could always blame the faulty telephone lines if I wanted to go incommunicado.
I am out of sync, probably, but still cannot understand why to shout endless banalities into your mobile is more acceptable than to start a conversation with someone sitting opposite you in a train or why you have to check the weather on your gadgets rather than look out of the window.
I take nothing away from all the wonderful technology that allows one to keep up with friends, to call for help, to find and exchange information, to work from home, but I still treasure a hand written letter and when, last year, I had to buy a new phone, I went on eBay to find another Razr… such a beautiful object! and no more for sale in shops.
If we think of advanced technology as magical, then perhaps it’s worth remembering Terry Pratchett. The great Wizards in his work understand that the key to doing magic, the most important thing about it, is knowing when not to use it.