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Displaying items by tag: inept travel stories

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Reluctant Techno-Voyageuse


I’ve always hated technology, at least I used to. During my adult life, my adaptation to technological changes goes something like this: I hate it. I hate most of it. I hate it except for these particular instances. I think it has its good and bad points. I like it some of the time. I like it.  I really like it. You should like it. You must get one of these.

But the journey through these various stages is always a painful one. And as smart as I am about a number of things, I have no insight that allows me to apply my experiences with prior technologies to current ones. That is, as each new technology bobs to the surface, I hate it, and am convinced that I will hate it forever.

So I am surprised to be referring to myself as a techno-voyageuse, albeit an initially reluctant one, but in retrospect I think its apropos.

Here I was, on the verge of a year-long sabbatical which included something I have wanted for decades: a month, mostly on my own, in an apartment on the Left Bank of Paris. A time without work, without husband, without social contacts. A long-delayed odyssey to allow myself to contemplate the meaning of middle-age and survival of two bouts of breast cancer. To reconnect to the strength of flying solo, to reestablish myself as a citizen of the world.

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But one needs a roof over one’s head. How to find an apartment–an entirely suitable apartment–in Paris? Technology number one: the Internet. Okay, this is a gimme. I use the Internet for professional and personal reasons all of the time. No problem. After a long learning curve about apartment rentals, not necessarily the technology, I pretty quickly secured a place to stay, with all of the accoutrements I deemed necessary to comfort and hence, to contemplation.

I began to think about being in Paris and communicating with my husband and friends at home.  I don’t have a laptop on principle – unlike others, I don’t want to carry work with me wherever I go. My cell phone was a vintage model I’d had for ten years; it made phone calls, domestically, and didn’t do anything else. I detested the so-called “smart phones” and their ilk, and looked with something akin to pity at those whose devices seemed never to leave their hands. Besides, I was convinced I could never learn to work one properly. (Part of hate is insecurity.)

Little by little, I began to see that I needed a new phone with international calling capabilities. I investigated various options, including renting one when I got to Europe. But since my ten-year old phone needed to be replaced anyway, I allowed myself an initial visit to a “phone store” and quickly left in dread after everyone working there seemed to be about 12 years old. More consideration needed, or maybe just a day when I had greater courage and patience.

One day I leapt. Husband in tow, I walked into a Blackberry store. The same 12-years olds, but this time I thought–who better to teach me to use one of these things? Most of my middle-aged friends were as baffled as I. So, I chose a phone, learned the rudiments of making calls, and subscribed to a plan that would allow me to receive e-mails and do some simple web-surfing. It was small, compact, wouldn’t add much to the luggage I was trying to minimize, and would keep me in touch. It had a camera, too, although I was sure I wouldn’t be using it.

At the same time, my generous and tech-savvy brother-in-law asked my husband to inquire if I would like a Kindle for Christmas. I said no. I am a book lover; I will not read a book from a screen. He gave me one anyway. I was polite, maybe even faked a little enthusiasm. “You will love it,” he assured me, “It’ll be great for your trip.” The Kindle sat in its box until one day, as a challenge to myself, I opened it and decided I could at least get it up and running, if only so I could hate it knowledgeably, and hate it I did.

But of course, circumstances change. I arrived in France and immediately received a message from the Blackberry folks saying “Welcome.” Then I took a walk to one of my favorite places: the Jardin du Luxembourg. I reclined into a chair, pulled out my Blackberry, and placed a call to my husband. When he answered, I said, I am sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg looking at the central fountain. And in a tech-sort of way, he was with me to enjoy the scene.

IMG00014 20100902 1026Wait! Don’t I have a camera on this phone? I can send a photo! Or I think I can. I fiddled around, and soon was looking through a lens, snapping a picture, and sending it. So now my husband was looking at what I was looking at, saying, “It looks sunny there.” And it was.




IMG00045 20100918 0943The Blackberry traveled with me every day on my sojourns throughout the city. From time to time, I would come across things–the window of patisserie Gerard Mulot, the garden of the Musee Rodin, the restaurant where my husband had proposed–that I photographed and sent to my French class, my walking group, and my husband, respectively. Occasionally, I would sit in cafes and e-mail friends, reflecting or maybe just reporting, sometimes in French and mostly in English.  I am happy to say that the Blackberry did not attach itself permanently to my hand; rather, it allowed me a little companionship and conversation when I wanted or needed it.

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The Kindle also went from virtual, distrusted stranger to friend. Books are heavy to transport, and expensive to buy in France. My Kindle manual informed me I could download approximately 1500 books onto my one-pound device. Shortly before the trip began, I started to download bedtime and café reading. Then I discovered that there is a small selection of books in French available for the Kindle; since I wanted to improve my language skills on this trip, I downloaded a few, including Pride and Prejudice. Then I found that I could also download French-English and English-French dictionaries, and I could set the French-English dictionary as my default.  What this meant is that I could read in French, and with a point and click, could obtain translations for unfamiliar words. It was like traveling with a light weight bilingual library and my own translator.

On previous trips to Paris, I would make my way each day to the newspaper kiosk for the International Herald Tribune. Unless one made it a point to acquire the newspaper early in the day, often the papers were sold out by afternoon, and somewhere along the line the price has climbed to 3 euros a day. Voila! The New York Times via Kindle. For a little over $20 a month, the Times appeared magically on my screen every day, weekends included, and one could get it–and read it–in the late afternoons when one was exhausted from the day’s activities and trying to recuperate for dinner. Now, the newspaper kiosk did not disappear from my experience, but rather, allowed me the opportunity to buy Le Monde or Le Figaro from time to time to read about the French strikers in their native language.

The final technological leap came after the trip. I had some good photos on my phone, which I occasionally forced friends to look at on my tiny screen. Finally, I spent an afternoon online learning how to transfer them to my home computer. Then, miraculously, I learned that one can send the photos electronically to a service that will print the photos–just like drugstores used to–and send them to you via snail mail! Will wonders never cease? The photos arrived within days, awaiting the formation of a low-tech scrapbook, which along with printed transcripts of some of the e-mails I sent and received will provide memories the old-fashioned way.

I thought my leap to techno-genius was complete. Then my niece sent me a message via Facebook, another technology that I employ, albeit begrudgingly. I’d love to see any Paris IMG00077 20100928 0525photos, she said. To which I hastily responded, I can e-mail them to you. I then foresaw myself clicking incessantly, photo by photo, adding each attachment to my e-mail to her, when I saw some reference to photos on my Facebook page. How brilliant, I thought, as though I was the one whose idea this was: what if I could have a central place to post the photos so that everyone (okay, my Facebook friends, which are a disparate and incomplete lot) could see them? After a few false starts, I managed to upload the photos to Facebook, and within minutes, received responses from friends who liked the photos, and were shocked and awed that I had pulled the whole thing off, technologically speaking.

I have to say, I am a convert. The dreaded technology vastly improved my experience, and I am now at the ‘you-should-get-one-of-these’ stage. Not all went perfectly. In particular, the people of Paris engaged me in sufficiently challenging conversations in French throughout each day that with the exception of the aforementioned Le Monde, reading in French was beyond my brain’s capacity. I never got to Pride and Prejudice, but as it is on my Kindle, I still might.


© Susan B. Apel

Susan B.Apel is a professor at Vermont Law School. She dreads the next technological challenge.



Published in inept

When moving to Central America for nine months, you need to make certain sacrifices. It begins when you pack – forced to squint into that humid future while sucking on a Jamba Juice is a difficult task. Then, once you arrive, you are forced into even tougher decisions. You know, the ones that may or may not haunt you for your entire trip, and even affect your life afterward. Knowing this to be the case, I did some soul searching our first week in Costa Rica and finally decided what had to be done. I approached my wife hesitantly, unsure about how to drop such a bomb on her.

Published in inept

“Where are you going this time?”  Family and friends asked.

“Well, I can’t exactly pronounce it,” I confessed.  “But I can spell it:  H-L-A-B-I-S-A.”

“Where?” they chorused.

“It’s a rural area in north-western Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.”

Blank looks followed by further questioning: “But where in South Africa?  I mean which country?  Zimbabwe?  Zambia?”

Published in inept
Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Someday I'll Learn

Some things don’t require planning: life’s surprises, in fact, often trump schedules. Or at least that is the philosophy that has pervaded my existence thus far. I inherited impulsiveness from my family: we arranged vacations two days before we took them, and bought our Christmas trees on December 24th.

Published in inept
Friday, 08 June 2007

Battenbang, Cambodia

The bus was delayed because there was a man trying to squeeze a bag of live cobras into the luggage compartment. The commotion went on for about twenty minutes until my throbbing head could take no more and I decided to get off and stay another night. I sat down in the café of the Chinese guesthouse and ordered a beer. Mr Ra was at the bar. “I told you you’d never leave” he smirked from his position across the room.

Published in inept
Thursday, 31 August 2006

Descending the Andes? Don't Look!

Six months ago my girlfriend and I went to South America. Her convincing me to go was quite a feat considering my fear of flying was no match for a trip that involved eleven plane rides. But after successive journeys from Boston, New York, Miami, and Buenos Aires, my screaming mechanism malfunctioned and for the first time in my life I was speechless. For her, this made for quite a relaxing trip to our first destination: Mendoza, Argentina.  A small city close to the Chilean border, Mendoza’s outskirts consist mainly of wine country, boasting some of the best Malbec grapes in the region.


Published in inept
Saturday, 01 July 2006

Denial Tastes Good

Just before a big trip happens I always get very nervous, as though my family and friends, house, cats, and job cannot survive without me.   Pre-flight, I’m like a man slowly marching to his execution ---  and he doesn’t get to say goodbye.   Dramatic and silly but nonetheless true, when it’s time to go, all I want to do is stay.  Until I actually leave. And then reality slaps me into remembering I don’t have to deal with my mother if I’m far away.

Published in inept
Monday, 01 May 2006

On The Road To?

The problem was, I had written down the address, but I didn’t have it on me.  I thought I did. I was sure I knew where I was going.  That’s the strange thing about all of this.  One can feel so confidently on target, yet one is lost.  Maybe it’s hard for you to believe that on my first trip to Europe I lost my destination.




Published in inept

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